What Is Bullying?

Definition & Examples of Bullying

Employee looks downward during a discussion.
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Bullying at work is intentionally causing pain to or harming another employee. It's usually a pattern of repeat behavior that targets one or more people.

Learn more about what constitutes bullying and its effects in the workplace.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is the ongoing or repeated mistreatment of an employee and is characterized by a lack of respect. Bullying might include:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Threatening behaviors
  • Humiliation
  • Sabotage
  • Work interference

Bullying might be perpetrated by one person, or they might recruit other employees to gang up on the target as well (this is termed "mobbing"). The victim of bullying might be one person, or it can be a group of people.

How Does Bullying Work?

Bullying can take many forms.

For example, a coworker who yells, swears, or calls names is bullying through verbal abuse. Physical abuse might include anything from a violation of personal space (from standing too close in a threatening manner) to throwing things, punching, or otherwise assaulting someone. A bully who uses emotional abuse might undermine a coworker’s work and credibility by keeping track of and reporting mistakes, constantly chipping away at someone's self-esteem, and attacking their competence via belittling comments and criticism.

Gossiping and lying about a coworker to purposefully damage their reputation is bullying, as is sharing private information and spreading rumors. And if someone is preventing you from carrying out your duties or otherwise interferes with your ability to do your job, that's bullying, too.

A 2017 study by The Workplace Bullying Institute found that 61% of bullies are bosses. Considering the amount of authority and control a typical boss has over an employee, it's a sobering figure. After all, bosses control an employee's job description, assignments, deadlines, performance evaluations, raises, promotions, work environment, coworkers, and more. Someone is such a position of power risks ruining careers through bullying.

The Effects of Bullying

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. Bullying in these circumstances may open a company up to a discrimination lawsuit.

How to Handle Office Bullying

You can deal with a bully and change the bully’s behavior if you are willing to practice personal courage and work toward conflict resolution.

Set Limits on What You Will Tolerate

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. For example, you could say, "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, confront them.

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 it without the bully.

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 your company's human resources (HR) department, documentation—especially documentation of the bully's impact on business results—gives HR information to work with on your behalf. The bully is not just hurting your feelings; the bully is sabotaging business success. Most employee handbooks describe the HR investigation process that your complaint sets in motion.

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 as well.

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 to proceed properly.

Also, if you decide to press charges in the future, you need witnesses and documentation. But, note there is no law specifically prohibiting workplace bullying, and a lawsuit may lead to retaliation (at great financial expense, too).

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 the bully now treats you.

Key Takeaways

  • Bullying is the repeated mistreatment or abuse of someone.
  • Bullying isn't illegal, except where it constitutes unlawful harassment based on protected characteristics such as race, sex, or religion.
  • However, bullying in the workplace does adversely affect a person's health, well-being, and career potential, and can also negatively affect a business's success.
  • If you're the target of a bully, document everything. If the bully doesn't stop when you ask them to, bring your documentation to your company's human resources department.

Article Sources

  1. Workplace Bullying Institute. "The WBI Definition of Workplace Bullying Is." Accessed July 30, 2020.

  2. Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. "Stop Workplace Bullying," Page 1. Accessed July 30, 2020.

  3. Workplace Bullying Institute. "2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey," Click Download. Accessed July 30, 2020.

  4. Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. "Stop Workplace Bullying," Page 2. Accessed July 30, 2020.

  5. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Harassment." Accessed July 30, 2020.