Workplace Bullying—True Stories, Statistics, and Tips

Learn Practical Responses to Workplace Bullying

Group of colleagues whispering behind a coworker's back.

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Workplace bullying is a widespread problem that's been gaining momentum. In fact, studies show that nearly half of all U.S. workers are affected by workplace bullying. 

The Statistics—Who Are the Victims?

CNBC conducted a poll in December 2017 and found that about 20% of those surveyed had experienced harassment in the workplace. Among those who had, 27% were women while only 10% were men.

Approximately 19% were adults. Among those adults, just 16% were between the ages of 18 and 34 while older Americans ages 50 to 64 represented 25%. This study was focused on sexual harassment. 

National Public Radio reported on another study by Stop Street Harassment just two months earlier in October 2017. It put the number of women who had experienced some form of sexual harassment on the job at a disturbing 81%. Approximately 43% of men also reported experiencing such bullying.

The Boston Globe nonetheless reported in December 2017 that overall, workplace bullying remains in the shadows—not that it doesn't exist but rather that it is still not receiving the attention it deserves. 

Also in 2017, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that:

• 19% of Americans are bullied...and another 19% witness it
• 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace
• 60.4 million Americans are affected by it
• 70% of perpetrators are men; 60% of targets are women
• Hispanics are the most frequently bullied race
• 61% of bullies are bosses, the majority (63%) operate alone
• 40% of bullied targets are believed to suffer adverse health effects
• 29% of targets remain silent about their experiences
• 71% of employer reactions are harmful to targets
• 60% of coworker reactions are harmful to targets
• To stop it, 65% of targets lose their original jobs
• 77% of Americans support enacting a new law
• 46% report worsening of work relationships, post-Trump election

The following stories illustrate the devastating effect of bullying and show how various bully-victims have addressed workplace harassment

Bonnie Russell: Triumphing Over a Workplace Bully

"After my supervisor at a privately owned legal advertising firm put his hands on me in anger and shoved me out of his office, I called the police. In front of the entire sales crew, I began the conversation with, 'I'd like to report an assault,' then I supplied the details. The staff reacted quickly.

"Although the CEO was one building over, he arrived in two minutes. After talking to the bully, who admitted his actions, he asked me to step outside to talk. 'What are you doing to my company?' he said angrily to me. 'This is not about your company,' I said, matching his tone.

"Recognizing that I had the element of time and surprise on my side, it was my turn to be surprised when the CEO cut to the chase by asking me what it would take for me to cancel the call to the cops. I told him to fire the bully, and he did immediately."

Angela Anderson: Fired by a Bully

“I worked for the Law School Admission Council, the company that administers the LSAT. My boss never liked me, and why she hired me is still unclear. She bullied me extensively, yelling at me in front of my co-workers, threatening my job privately in her office, and discouraging alliances with co-workers.

"She treated people similarly in other departments, yelling at them in meetings. I tried to appease her until she threatened my job, at which point I constructed a letter to human resources. I gave her the courtesy of notifying her that I was going to HR, and she fired me before I had the chance to submit a complaint.

"Because of this, I have no legal recourse against her or the company and cannot claim retaliation.”

Natalie K. Camper, Ph.D., Founder and President, The Bully-Proof Company

For Natalie Camper, bullying inspired a new business.

"The harassment occurred when I was 18 years old and very proud of my new job. There were several instances when I was approached by two different men. One was my boss who tried to corner me and touch me as I slid out from under his hands and went back to my seat.

"This happened several times, and I said and did nothing. I didn't know what to say or do. I stayed with the job all summer and just dealt with it as friends told me to do.

"Then there was the man whose business was a floor below. One day he came up to me at my desk and said, 'I just discovered a lump on my wife’s breast. How about I examine yours?' Once again, I said or did nothing. What was there to do?

"This was before anti-discrimination guidelines were published. When asked what sexual harassment was called before we had a name for it, Gloria Steinem said, 'You called it life.' There were no laws to protect victims from workplace bullying.

"When I was bullied at 18, I just lived with it and kept my head down. To my good fortune, a wonderful man who was rungs above me in terms of age and experience would magically appear and intervene on my behalf. He had some sort of instinct for when the big boss was cornering me and he would distract him.

"After 20 years as a consultant/trainer on sexual harassment and discrimination, I founded The Bully-Proof Company due to the terrible statistics and the stark reality that adult bullying victims have to deal with at work. 37% of U.S. employees say they have been bullied or have witnessed a bullying incident at work. That adds up to about 73 million people."

What to Do If It Happens to You 

Many authorities on the subject of workplace bullying suggest taking most of the actions these women did. Remember, it's not you, it's the other guy. Stand up for yourself if possible. Your first step might be a frank discussion with the bully. Tell them that you don't appreciate their behavior. Ask them politely but firmly to stop.

Of course, this isn't always possible when the bully is your boss or your supervisor. In this case, you might try to enlist the help of someone else reasonably high up in the hierarchy. If the bully is your co-worker, consider blowing the whistle and reporting the incidents to your supervisor or boss if confronting them directly doesn't stop. Name the bully. Go ahead and point a finger. 

Document each event. Note times, dates, and other details. If possible, get statements from witnesses in case your version of events is disputed...and it might be. 

If you have any vacation or sick time available to you, consider taking a step back for a few days to collect your thoughts away from work. Give yourself a little time to figure out what you're most comfortable doing about the situation. You might even want to talk the situation over with a therapist or counselor. 

Taking some time off can also give you a chance to explore other options. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to make things right is to move on—if not to a new job, then at least to a new department where you're removed from the individual who's been bullying you.  

And, of course, call 911 immediately if you're in danger.