What Is Bullying in the Workplace?

Bullies Come in Many Iterations and None Are Okay

A bully is difficult to deal with.
••• Vladimir Vladimirov / Getty Images

Bullying at work is intentionally causing pain to or harming another employee. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), workplace bullying is “repeated, harmful mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees; abusive conduct that takes the form of...verbal abuse, (physical and nonverbal) behaviors that are threatening, intimidating, and humiliating, work interference or sabotage, or in some combination."

Bullying By the Boss or Manager in Charge

To make bullying even more significant, a WBI 2017 study found that 61% of bullies are bosses. 

This fact is scary news because of the amount of authority and control a typical boss has over an employee. He or she controls the job description, assignments, deadlines, performance evaluation, raises, promotions, work environment, coworkers, and more.

The boss is someone that an employee has to deal with daily, so there is no respite when the boss is the bully. In some cases, there is not much that you can do if the boss is a bully—especially if they target multiple employees or generally manage with a bullying style.

What Do You See When You're Looking at Bullying?

Bullying takes many forms. If you feel as if you are being bullied, there is a good possibility that your instincts are correct. But, specifically, here's what to look for to know that you are the target of a bully.

  • verbal abuse from yelling to swearing to name-calling to belittling,
  • physical abuse from standing too close in a threatening manner to throwing objects and punching; threatening to physically harm you,
  • emotional abuse from undermining a coworker’s work and credibility to keeping track of and reporting mistakes, constantly chipping away at your self-esteem and competence via belittling comments and criticism,
  • character abuse from gossiping and lying about a coworker to purposefully damaging their reputation, talking with other employees about your competence, accomplishments (or lack thereof), and other personal business that you were forced to share for time off and other reasons, and
  • for lack of a better word, professional abuse with actions such as repeatedly finding fault with a coworker’s work publically, talking over a colleague at meetings, loudly disagreeing with a colleague to the point of intimidating the person from expressing their views, or ignoring a coworker’s input about their job, schedule, and so forth.

Effects of Bullying

Bullying is characterized by a lack of respect for a coworker. It is sometimes obvious, but its more subtle forms often cause the most damage. The target of a bully is miserable at work and begins to dread showing up at the office.

Bullying is responsible for increased absenteeism, a lack of workplace motivation and employee satisfaction, increased turnover, and a lack of trust and team-building among workers.

Additionally, bullying can cause serious damage to an employee's self-esteem and their ability to contribute at work. It can also be responsible for employee depression, physical illness, and severe trauma.

Consider, too, the possibility that bullying is illegal if it creates a hostile work environment due to discrimination or attacks based on any protected classification. These include such factors as age, race, gender, religion, country of origin, physical disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy.

How to Avoid Becoming the Target of a Bully

You can, however, decrease your chances of becoming a bully's target. You can deal with a bully and change the bully’s behavior if you are willing to practice personal courage. But, you must do something. The bully will not go away; if you make yourself an easy target, you will only encourage the bully. Here’s how to deal with your office bully.

Set Limits on What You Will Tolerate From a Bully

Most importantly, once you have set the limit in your mind, exercise your right to tell the bully to stop the behavior. You might want to rehearse these steps with a friend so that you are more comfortable responding when the bully attacks.

  • Describe the behavior you see the bully exhibiting–don’t editorialize or offer opinions, just describe what you see. (You regularly enter my cubicle, lean over my shoulder, and read my personal correspondence on my computer screen.)
  • Tell the bully exactly how this behavior is impacting your work. (Because much of my work is confidential, these actions make me feel as if I need to hide what I am working on from you, or change to a different screen which is a waste of my time.)
  • Tell the bully what behavior you will not put up with in the future. (In the future, you are not to enter my cubicle unless I invite you to come in. This is my private workspace and your actions are unwelcome.)
  • Stick with your statement and if the bully violates your space, move on to the next step: confrontation.

Confront the Bully With His or Her Behavior

Confronting a bully is scary and hard. But, as Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon suggest in "I Hate People," bullies are “only effective when they’re on solid ground. Ground that you can take away.” They suggest that “Next time he swears or heaves a phone book, call it out. Point out that he’s swearing or yelling, and leave the room. Or end the call.”

“Remember: You’re the adult dealing with a tantrum. No wise parent gives in to a child’s fit because it just leads to more fits.

”You’re wrapping Bulldozer’s fury with tough love. By making statements about his conduct, you’re putting him on notice. Keep up your game and by the second or third attempt, Bulldozer will tire of spinning his treads in the sand.”

This confrontational approach works in meetings, too. If the bully is talking over you with complaints and criticisms, ask them a direct question about what they recommend instead. If that doesn’t work ask the bully to leave the meeting until you finish your discussion. If they refuse, end the meeting and reschedule the meeting without the bully.

You need to call out the bully on your terms.

Document the Bully’s Actions

Any time you are feeling bullied or experiencing bullying behavior, document the date, time, and details of the incident. Note if another employee witnessed the incident. If you eventually seek help from Human Resources, documentation, especially documentation of the bully's impact on business results and success, gives HR information to work with on your behalf. The bully is not just hurting your feelings; the bully is sabotaging business success.

If the bullying occurs in email or correspondence, maintain a hard copy of the trail of emails and file them in a folder on your computer.

Your Coworkers Are Targets of the Bully, Too

Note whether the bully pulls the same behavior with your coworkers. Ask your coworkers to document the bully’s behavior and any scenes they witness when the bully targets any coworker. If five of you experience the bullying and five of you write documentation, then you build a case to which HR and your management can respond on solid ground. They need evidence and witnesses, even if everyone knows, that "the bully is a bully."

Also, if you decide to press charges in the future, you need witnesses and documentation. But, note these factors if you consider legal action against the bully or your employer.

"There is no law in any U.S. state specifically against workplace bullying.

"Filing a lawsuit leads to predictable retaliation, tremendous financial expense, and the risk of worsening the emotional damage caused by bullying.

"The justice you seek to reverse the unfairness experienced in your bullying workplace can rarely be achieved in a courtroom." 

Tell Management and HR About the Bully

You’ve tried to implement these recommendations, but they aren’t working to stop the bully. It's time to get help. Go to HR or your manager with your evidence, especially the evidence that demonstrates the impact of the bully on the business, and file a formal complaint. Most employee handbooks describe the HR investigation process that your complaint sets in motion.

You hope for the best resolution but be prepared to explore other options so you have less contact with the bully. You may even need to find a new job. You may never know what HR did about the bully; you can assess the impact by how he now treats you.

The Bottom Line

Bullying is never okay in the workplace. Prompt action on your part will limit the damages of bullying on you and your coworkers.

Article Sources

  1. Workplace Bullying Institute. "The WBI Definition of Workplace Bullying Is." Accessed June 16, 2020.

  2. Workplace Bullying Institute. "2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey." Accessed May 10, 2020.

  3. Workplace Bullying Institute. "Finding a Lawyer." Accessed May 10, 2020.