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How to Manage Bullying in the Workplace

May 19, 2015

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Bullying. It’s not limited to the playground anymore. It’s not even limited to school-aged children. Bullying in the workplace has unfortunately become a significant problem, and one that needs to be addressed and resolved. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, nearly 54 million workers, or 35 percent of U.S. employees, are the target of a workplace bully at some point in their career. And out of those 54 million workers, most suffer silently, without reporting bullies in the workplace because of embarrassment or fear of repercussions. That means this already astounding number could potentially be higher.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.” This also includes being falsely accused of making mistakes, being subjected to the silent treatment by coworkers, being the subject of unsolicited gossip or assaults toward your reputation, having professional performance belittled or diminished in front of peers and having someone steal credit for your work.

Sabotaging work or reputation or even physical intimidation may also constitute workplace bullying. And in many corporate bullying cases, this type of behavior can cause an employee’s work performance to be degraded or undermined to the point where employees are no longer producing their best work.

Legally, however, unless an employee is being bullied because of their race, sex, a disability, age, religion or some type of “class membership,” there are no workplace bullying laws to protect them. Employees who face bullying at work typically have to show evidence of how a bully has physically or mentally harmed them—with intent to cause pain—thus putting the burden on the bullied employee rather than the bully. This is one reason why bullying often goes unreported and untreated.


Why is workplace bullying steadily increasing?

According to Psychology Today, the increase of bullying in the workplace has become a silent epidemic over time. In the course of the last 12 years, nearly 31 states introduced Happy Workplace bills to help eliminate bullying at work, but none of those workplace bullying laws have been put into place.

And this problem isn’t anywhere close to subsiding. Nearly half of the 3,800 workers polled in a 2012 CareerBuilder study admitted to being bullied by their superiors, while 45% said their bullies were coworkers and 31% revealed that they were bullied by customers.

One explanation of these numbers is the lack of formal anti-bullying policies in the workplace. Companies typically like to manage their work environment without outside influence, but this mindset isn’t always the best way to address how to handle bullies at work.

In fact, a research paper published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that bullies tend to be very good at office politics and can usually navigate management by buttering up the boss and using workplace gossip to cause harm toward others.

Gary Namie, a social psychologist who founded the Workplace Bullying Institute with his wife, Ruth, says that 65 million workers are affected by bullying, either as targets or witnesses. “The stories out there are heartbreaking about people who suffer because this is not yet illegal,” he said in a Boston Globe interview. “They’re treated as if their complaints are illegitimate. Sexual harassment is illegal, but bullying is not.”

How does bullying in the workplace affect productivity and company culture?  

In that same Boston Globe article addressing the issue, Carol Anne Geary details her horrific experiences with workplace bullying.  A veteran librarian, Geary was bullied on the job to such an extent that she was hospitalized with high blood pressure and other health issues.

Geary took a short leave of absence, per her doctor’s orders, and during that time, she received an influx of calls asking her to work from home. In the meantime, the library fought her workers’ compensation claim, and then fired her when she was too sick to return to work. “Workman’s comp — they understand if you hurt your leg on the job. But it’s almost impossible to prove that you’re sick because of bullying,” she notes in the article.

Workplace bullying also leads to a much higher turnover rate. A 2008 Gallup Poll found that about 17 percent of those who voluntarily leave a job do so because of the treatment by management and their work environment. There is a very thin line between encouraging and bullying—and it’s imperative to any company’s culture to know the difference.

Can you spot a workplace bully?

The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that men are the perpetrators in 69 percent of bullying cases, while women are responsible for 31 percent. Men are the targets of workplace bullies 40 percent of the time, and women 60 percent. These numbers make it harder to pinpoint the characteristics of a bully, but at the same time, illustrate just how widespread this issue is.

What makes identifying bullies in the workplace even more difficult is that those being bullied—and even those who are doing the bullying—don’t always recognize actions that constitute bullying.  According to a study in the Management Communication Quarterly Journal, because victims of bullying may be afraid of not being believed, many victims of bullying suffer in silence—never seeking help from others, and never identifying bullying behavior. 

One study found that an astounding nine out of 10 people have witnessed excessive office bullying for more than a year, and more than half reported that the bullying lasted for more than five years.

Bullies typically have longer job tenure than their targets, which he attributes to this culture of silence. And according to his survey, 67 percent of people deal with bullies by avoiding them, while only 31 percent cope by confronting or reporting them.

Is there bullying at your workplace?

Some signs to look for include:

  • A manager takes his or her job way too seriously

While it’s one thing to lead with gusto and set high standards, it’s completely different to belittle and degrade employees because of a power trip. Make sure you can identify the difference.


  • You notice a pattern

Bullying isn’t a one-and-done type of behavior. It’s often repetitive. Employees may have a bad day from time to time, and that’s understandable. But when they are constantly snapping and upsetting the overall workplace dynamic—or focusing their “bad days” on a specific employee, there may be a bullying issue at hand.


  • The gossip mill is turning

Unless you’re a librarian, whispers in the workplace don’t tend to be a sign of good things to come. Whispering means someone is saying something they don’t want you to hear. Sure, it might be nothing, but if consistent, it could also be enough to drive you crazy—and rightfully so. It could also be deemed inappropriate, depending on the context.


  • An employee is being conspired against
    Power in numbers. If you see employees ganging up against someone, this is likely bullying. It leads to feelings of isolation and an unbalanced workplace. It may also cause the target of the bullies to suffer in silence if he or she thinks everyone is against him or her.


  • You’re being watched
    Micromanaging is one thing. But having someone look over a worker’s shoulder at all times, presumably waiting for him or her to make a mistake, is another. If someone is constantly scared or paranoid when doing their everyday duties, they’re probably not working in the healthiest of environments.

How should you handle workplace bullying if you see it happening?

It’s important that you and your employees know how to deal with bullies at work. The proper training can teach employees how to recognize, report and defuse situations that involve tense coworkers, employees or third-parties before these situations deteriorate into something more problematic.

Additionally, having supportive managers can help ease tension at work. Knowing that there are people that you can go to will help to break the silence of workplace bullying. And typically, having support at work leads to higher productivity and job happiness. Targets of workplace bullying are more likely to report the bullies when they know there’s a support system in place.

Also consider changing the culture of the workplace to instill a feeling of trust among all employees. If bullying behavior is reported, take it seriously. Listen and ask questions. Show that you care about the situation and offer ways to remedy the problem.

If you personally witnesses bullying, reach out to those involved—make it known that you care, and that this behavior is unacceptable. Sometimes, all it takes to end the cycle is for one person to step up and say “this must stop.”

Regardless of the industry or size of your organization, bullying is a clear detriment to your environment. It’s up to you to stop it from spreading. Start now!

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