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What is workplace bullying and what can you do to put a stop to it

What is workplace bullying and what can you do to put a stop to it

Artwork by: Timur Aloev

  • What is workplace bullying?
  • 12 Workplace bullying examples
  • What is not considered bullying?
  • How does bullying affect the workplace?
  • Ways to deal with workplace bullying
  • What if you see another employee being bullied?
  • What can an employer do?
  • Key takeaways 

Workplace bullying is a serious issue and affects millions of people every day. Bullying is not something you should have to tolerate at work or anywhere else. We’ll give you some advice on how to deal with bullying in the workplace.

Bullying is a significant concern in the workplace. Unfortunately, bullying is very prevalent in today’s society, all over the world. This isn’t something we should just turn a blind eye to or accept the way it is. Every person has the right to work in a safe and healthy workplace. But, what exactly is bullying, and what can we do about it? Well, that’s what this article is going to help you with.

We’ll cover the points below:

  • What is workplace bullying?

  • Examples of bullying in the workplace

  • Things that may not be bullying

  • Impacts on the workplace from bullying

  • What can we do about bullying?

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined as the repeated negative treatment of someone by one or more people in a working environment, where the behavior is considered unreasonable and inappropriate for the workplace. Any behavior that offends, degrades, intimidates, or humiliates the person can be considered bullying. This may be one on one, or in the presence of colleagues, clients, or customers.

Bullying can be physical, verbal, or psychological and results in the target being isolated or 'mentally' injured at work. It is often used to assert power or dominance through aggressive behavior. It can be very subtle and difficult to discern, but severely affects the overall workplace climate, and should be addressed immediately whenever it occurs.

Statistical Insight

How much bullying is going on? According to the Workplace Bullying Institute:

  • 30 percent of adult US workers are bullied at work

  • Over 76 million people are bullied

  • 61.3 percent of bullying is same-gender bullying

  • 43 percent of remote workers are bullied

Bullying can happen in any workplace and the bully can be anyone (a boss, supervisor, subordinate, co-worker, or customer). They often purposely operate within (or on the edge of) the company rules and policies. And, more often than not, acts of bullying are not against the law. The results of bullying can be devastating not only to the victim, but the overall emotional climate of the workplace.

12 Workplace bullying examples

Bullying is considered aggressive behavior, but it isn’t always obvious. It is also important to keep in mind that bullying is not typically just a single incident. It is usually a pattern of behavior that is persistent.

Actions that can constitute bullying are almost limitless, so we can’t give an exhaustive list. However, we’ll provide a list that you can use as a measuring stick to help you decide if a specific situation you’re dealing with or have seen could be considered bullying.

Negative acts (bullying) directed toward employees in the workplace may include:

  1. Blame without facts to back it up

  2. Constant and unfair criticism or punishments

  3. Constantly changing guidelines or making impossible demands

  4. Demeaning someone’s work

  5. Undermining someone’s work or setting them up for failure

  6. Isolating someone from opportunities, information, and interactions

  7. Making insults or derogatory comments directly or behind someone’s back

  8. Not giving credit or taking credit for someone else’s work

  9. Reducing responsibilities without cause

  10. Screaming and foul language

  11. Sending offensive messages or emails

  12. Spreading rumors, gossip, or innuendo

If you’re not sure if something is considered bullying, then just think about what a "reasonable person" would consider unacceptable.

What is not considered bullying?

Bullying is not always easy to spot, as it isn’t always obvious and can be subtle. There are also some things that may seem harsh, but aren’t necessarily bullying.

Tough management can often be confused with bullying. Constructive criticism is another area that may seem like it verges on bullying, but it’s intended to help the employee and is not bullying.

Some other behaviors may appear to be bullying but aren’t. For example, any action taken by an employer to correct an employee’s performance, as long as it is reasonable and constructive. This can include providing stern directions and disciplinary actions. Job inspections, schedule changes, and additional workloads are also reasonable, as long as they are fairly implemented. Another common example of a conflict that is often mistaken for bullying is strong differences of opinion. Any of the above things can be disturbing, but are not necessarily examples of bullying.

How does bullying affect the workplace?

Bullying can have a number of negative consequences on the work environment of an organization. Loss of productivity is one consequence, as not only the victim’s performance will suffer, but everyone in the workplace will be affected because bullying creates a hostile working environment. Bullying can also affect the health of the victim and those that witnessed the bullying. A recent study found that bullying not only causes psychological issues, but can also lead to cardiac problems and diabetes. Besides general losses in productivity, bullying can also lead to increased turnover, medical claims, sick leave, and even lawsuits.

No organization wants to foster or ignore bullying in their workplace because it can lead to all the bad things that we talked about. Bullying can be insidious because it is not always easy to detect or eliminate. A business must be very diligent and determined about creating a positive working environment, which includes rooting out and stopping bullying.

In the United States, there are currently no federal or state laws prohibiting bullying in the workplace. A number of states do have regulations related to bullying and workers who are members of a protected class (women, racial minorities, LGBTQIA) may be covered under anti-discrimination or sexual harassment laws. Always consult with a lawyer any time you are considering legal options.

Ways to deal with workplace bullying

As a victim of bullying, it can be extremely difficult to deal with, and even harder to know what to do about it. Keep in mind that bullying isn’t just what the perpetrator does to you, but it is also about their intent. A single incident, if not too severe, may be chalked up to them having a ‘bad day,’ but repeated incidents can form a pattern of behavior. Never ignore or tolerate bullying.

The first thing to do is not retaliate or get into an argument with the bully. This will almost always backfire and make you appear to be in the wrong. Take a step back. Think about the situation and always remember that being bullied is not your fault. It’s about them (their need for control and power), not you.

Here are five things to do if you believe you are being bullied:

  1. Document everything. What, where, when, who, how, witnesses, and any other details.

  2. Organize proof. Keep any evidence like papers, reports, notes, emails, files, etc. Anything that can help prove your case.

  3. Report it. If you have an HR representative to speak with, then do so. Otherwise, find someone else in HR to talk to. If you don’t have an HR department, then speak with your supervisor, if you trust them (they aren’t the bully).

  4. Follow the chain of command. If your supervisor is the bully, then go up the ladder to the next level or someone you trust in management.

  5. Have a conversation. You can talk to the bully, if you’re comfortable doing so. Always bring a trusted witness with you. Be calm and polite and ask them to stop. Don’t get into an argument or debate with them. If they get defensive or worse, then end the conversation.

Other actions that you can take include things like checking company policies to see if there is anything regarding bullying or the specific actions your bully is using against you. The most important thing you can do is get support. Seek help from co-workers, family, friends, or even a therapist to help you through the stress and emotional impacts of bullying. If your company has a support program for employees, or if you are a member of a union, then contact the appropriate person, and they may be able to give you some additional guidance and help in dealing with the bullying.

If the issue becomes serious, then you may want to talk to a lawyer. They’ll be able to give you guidance on legal recourse, if there is any. Bullying is a big deal. Don’t take it lightly. The psychological trauma can be significant and will impact you for the rest of your life. The best thing to do is address it immediately and appropriately.

What if you see another employee being bullied?

If you’re the witness of a bullying incident or incidents, don’t just ignore it. Addressing bullying should be everyone’s job. It makes the workplace a much better place when employees are concerned about coworkers’ well-being.

If you encounter bullying in the workplace, the main thing you should do is support the victim. Step in, if you’re comfortable, and ask the bully to stop whatever they are doing. Otherwise, you can at least act as a witness for the victim. Another thing you can do is offer to go to HR with the victim, or on their behalf.

After an incident, talk to your co-worker about it and let them vent. Report the incident, using the appropriate process for your organization. This may be to your boss, HR, or through a reporting system. And always provide continued support for your colleague.

What can an employer do?

Management has a responsibility to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. This includes addressing bullying and harassment. Your company policies should have clear guidelines concerning bullying in the workplace. This includes defining what bullying is, how to report incidents, and what the consequences are if someone is a bully.

Bullying is a major obstacle for many workplaces. Even if a company claims to have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying, the incidents can be hard to identify or prove, making it extremely difficult for organizations to correct. 

It’s up to each individual, team, group, department, and organization to make a combined effort to prevent workplace bullying. The benefits to a company’s culture, working environment, and the health of its employees are immeasurable. Hopefully, we’ve given you some valuable information to help you spot and address bullying in a safe and constructive way.

Key takeaways 

  1. Bullying is a serious issue that affects many businesses and people.

  2. Bullying is highly detrimental to the mental health of individuals as well as the success of the business.

  3. It often isn’t illegal, but every good organization should take steps to eliminate bullying.

  4. Many employer/management tasks can appear to be bullying, but are in the employee’s and the company’s best interest.

  5. When in doubt, answer the question - “what would a reasonable person do in this situation?”

  6. Speak up and report bullying.

  7. Bullying shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere.

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