Dealing With Bullying

Identify and Deal With Bullying at Work

Dealing With Bullying - Identify and Deal With Bullying at Work

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Learn how to identify and deal with bullies at work.

When we think about bullies, we often think about kids who make life miserable for their classmates. They might steal lunch money, copy homework or even threaten physical harm. Sometimes, they seem to engage in malicious behavior just for the fun of it.

Unfortunately, some of these people continue this sort of behavior when they grow up. Bullying is alarmingly common in some workplaces, whether it involves shouting at people in meetings, making snide comments behind people's backs, or sabotaging others' work.

In this article, we'll look at what workplace bullying is, how you can recognize it, and how you can protect yourself from it.

What Is Bullying?

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators, that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse.
  • Offensive conduct or behaviors (including nonverbal), which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating.
  • Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done."

Most Western cultures use the term "workplace bullying" to define repeated and enduring intimidation at work. French-speaking countries refer to "harcèlement moral," or "moral harassment." And, in Germany and Scandinavia, workplace bullying is known as "mobbing."

Bullying behaviors can take many forms. Some of these are obvious, but you may struggle to identify others, even when you are the target.

Bullies may do the following:

  • Yell and use profanity.
  • Humiliate people publicly.
  • Insult people and call them names.
  • Criticize constantly and excessively.
  • Start malicious rumors.
  • Engage in social deprivation – ignoring or excluding the person.
  • Take away responsibilities.
  • Place blame when it is unwarranted.
  • Sabotage work purposefully.
  • Withhold required information.
  • Micromanage.
  • Set impossible deadlines or performance expectations.
  • Obstruct promotion efforts.
  • Threaten termination.
  • Encourage others to make unwarranted complaints.

Social media has made it easier for some workplace bullies to intimidate their targets. This can present bullies with quick, and sometimes anonymous, ways to abuse their colleagues and subordinates.

Although U.S. law does not prohibit workplace bullying, many states have anti-bullying bills that, if approved, will make it easier for victims to take action.

In the U.K., under the 2010 Equality Act, harassment is considered unlawful, but bullying is not.

In Canada, each province has its own anti-bullying legislation. For example, Quebec's Psychological Harassment at Work Act states that "every employee has a right to a work environment free from psychological harassment." Further, "employers must take reasonable action to prevent psychological harassment, and, whenever they become aware of such behavior, to put a stop to it."


This article is intended as a general guide only. The laws and terms defining bullying and harassment vary widely around the world. Get advice, therefore, from an appropriate professional or advice agency before you take any action.

Bullying Statistics

Workplace bullying is common around the world. For example:

  • In 2010, 35 percent of U.S. workers experienced bullying firsthand.
  • In the U.K., 6 out of 10 workers reported being bullied, or witnessing bullying, in the past six months.
  • In Germany, labor experts estimate that between 1 and 1.5 million workers are subjected to bullying every day.
  • 58 percent of bullying targets are women.
  • 62 percent of bullies are men.

Although bullies may come across as confident, assertive, and capable, they are more likely to be insecure and feel threatened by their targets. They are often ambitious and highly motivated, and one study found that many bullies possess high levels of social competence. This enables them to abuse co-workers, and still receive positive evaluations from their own managers.

People who are bullied are typically competent and skilled, and they're likely to be helpful and caring. As such, bullying is particularly common among health-care professionals and educators.

Victims can sometimes feel that they invite bullying behavior. They might internalize the attacks, and eventually believe that they deserve poor treatment. Only 11 percent of victims report bullying to HR, and the average target endures the behavior for 22 months.

During this time, the target's mental and physical health are likely to be affected:

  • The risk of stress-related illnesses, such as hypertension, heart disease, and stroke increases.
  • Neurological problems may result.
  • The occurrence of ulcers and skin conditions might increase.
  • Depression and anxiety are common.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder may occur.

One 2010 study found that exposure to workplace bullying leads to anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction, absenteeism, and increased job turnover. Around 70 percent of people targeted by bullies will lose their job – either being forced to leave, having their contract terminated, or being constructively discharged.

Some organizations may fail to support people who complain of bullying. These complaints are inconvenient, unsettling, and uncomfortable for the organization; and where people complain about seemingly successful and effective managers, organizations may instinctively want to protect these people. What's more, co-workers might gang up against the target of bullying to take attention away from themselves.

What Can You Do If You're Being Bullied?

If you're the target of bullying, you can use several strategies to address the issue. In their 2009 book, "The Bully at Work," Drs Gary and Ruth Namie outline a simple, effective, three-step process you can use to stop bullying at work.

Step One: Name the Behavior

First, you need to admit to yourself that you're being bullied. You also need to recognize that the bully is the source of the problem, and that it's not your fault.


Before you move on to the next step, talk to your boss or HR manager about the problem – sure, some people may just want the problem to go away, but others will deal with the issue promptly and respectfully, and this may be enough to resolve the situation.

Step Two: Seek Respite

If you're the victim of bullying behavior, take some time off work to recover from its physical and emotional effects.

If you have a medical certificate from your doctor, you may be able to take time out as paid or unpaid sick leave, depending on your country, state, or region. Alternatively, you may decide to take some vacation time to rest and recover.

During this time, you can do a number of things to prepare yourself for your return to work:

  • Make an appointment to get a medical checkup. Bullying can have a number of negative health effects, so it's important to take care of your physical and psychological well-being. You can also talk to family and friends about your situation, and practice meditation, deep breathing, and imagery to lower your stress levels.
  • Get plenty of sleep and exercise. When you're in good physical condition, you're better equipped to deal with stress and pressure. Exercise can also boost your self-confidence and improve your sense of self-worth.
  • People who are bullied often experience a loss of self-esteem. You can boost your confidence by setting – and achieving – small, personal goals that are unrelated to your work or career. For example, you could train for a short race, or start a new hobby.
  • Document the situation. Describe what, where, when, and how events occurred. Record what the bully said, and how you felt. This will provide evidence for your complaint, but it will also help you see that you that you aren't at fault, and that you shouldn't feel ashamed. Even if you don't plan to make your experience public, keeping a journal can give you a positive, therapeutic way to cope with the situation.
  • Look for others who may also be experiencing bullying, including your predecessor in the job. Did she leave because she was bullied? A group complaint will be harder to dismiss.
  • Prepare a business case against the bully. Senior managers and your HR department will find financial data difficult to argue with, so analyze current and historical data to determine the cost of employing a bully. This might include the costs of:
    • Staff turnover.
    • Absenteeism.
    • Health-care claims.
    • Worker's compensation.
    • Disability claims.
    • Lawsuits.
  • Investigate your options. Talk with legal representatives or other relevant professionals to plan your next steps. If the bullying involves an element of illegal harassment or discrimination (on gender, age, racial, sexual orientation, or religious grounds), you may be able to use this information to make a case against the bully.
  • Look for another job. If your employer handles the situation well, the situation may be resolved. However, if it's seriously affecting your health, you might consider moving on.

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Step Three: Expose the Bully

Although it's hard, you should expose the bully and the tactics that they use. By following these steps, you will have the evidence you need to make your case. Remember, you also have the option of changing jobs if your employer doesn't offer you a safe, healthy environment to return to.

Here are some ways to handle this situation:

  • Take your complaint to the highest level you can, and present your business case.
  • Ask to be transferred until the company handles the situation. You might be able to change careers within your organization.
  • Approach your team members and allies for support. Ask your colleagues to stand up for you (but don't be surprised if they're too scared), and make sure you do the same for them in return.
  • Learn how to deal with difficult people. Be assertive, but not aggressive, when you confront your bully. Use a strategy like role-playing to prepare for the confrontation.
  • Meet any aggression from the bully with calm resolution and courage. Set boundaries, and let them know what behavior is and isn't acceptable. When you're firm and determined, especially as part of a group, the cowardly side of the bully often appears.

These steps are from 'The Bully at Work: What You Can do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job' by Gary Namie Ph.D. and Ruth Namie Ph.D. © 2000. Reproduced with permission of Sourcebooks, Inc.

Making Sure You Don't Bully

It's often easy to identify the bullying behaviors of others, but it can be harder to spot these in ourselves. This means that, sometimes, it's possible to bully others without realizing it.

If you're concerned that someone may think you're bullying them, watch them closely when you interact with them. Look at their body language and facial expressions. Do they look scared, nervous, or tense? Do they act differently when they speak to other people?

To avoid bullying behavior, consider the following:

  • Don't make unreasonable requests (like asking them to pick up dry cleaning) that fall outside a person's job description.
  • Be aware of subordinates who won't look you in the eye. When people avoid eye contact, it could be because they're scared or stressed around you.
  • Don't dismiss the suffering, stress, or pain of team members.
  • Avoid blaming others unfairly for mistakes or problems, and don't devalue their opinions or contributions.
  • Keep colleagues involved in meetings or discussions that are relevant to their role or project, so that they don't feel ignored or isolated.

If you find yourself doing these things, stop immediately. Apologize to people who you've harmed, and take steps to change your behavior. Work to increase your self-awareness, and develop your emotional intelligence, so that you're always aware of how your behavior, words, and actions affect those around you.

Key Points

Bullying is a harmful behavior that undermines workplace productivity and satisfaction, and it has a negative effect on the target's mental and physical health.

To manage and eliminate bullying, you need to increase awareness of the problem, and alert yourself and others to the ways in which bullying can manifest itself in the workplace.

Don't think that bullying won't happen to you, or that it couldn't occur in your workplace. It can happen anywhere, and the best solution is to confront the bully and address the problem directly.