Workplace bullying can be a serious problem. Here’s how to deal with it.

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Most folks have had that one boss or co-worker who rubs you the wrong way. And it’s understandable that there will be some people in the workplace you might not get along with. But when does that disagreement cross the line?

When does it stop being merely a clash of personalities and become an issue cause for intervention?

Defining the terms

This article will address three types of workplace issues:

  1. Abuse in the workplace. Action that is:
  2. Workplace bullying. Repeated abusive conduct that creates workplace tension or fear, which decreases morale and mental well-being in one or more people. It can be:
    • relegated to one individual or a group
    • based on pure dislike, workplace competition, or characteristics listed below
  3. Workplace harassment. A hostile work environment created by discrimination (offensive or repeated) in the form of uninvited conduct based on a characteristic that’s legally protected like:
    • race, national origin, or citizenship status
    • gender (identity), sexual orientation, or pregnancy (including breastfeeding)
    • religion or creed
    • age
    • disability or medical condition
    • veteran or military status
    • criminal history

A single encounter or incident can range from irksome or manipulative, to abusive. The severity would qualify actions as bullying. If it’s a pattern and targeted toward any of the above legally protected characteristics it can be considered harassment.

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Workplace bullying occurs when someone isn’t able to defend themselves against any imposing behavior including:

It is a fairly common problem. One review of 102 studies found that the rate of bullying in the workplace was as high as 14.6%.

Both those who are subordinate and those who are in a leadership position can engage in workplace bullying.

While workplace conflict can be intense, disagreements related to job duties are usually not considered bullying. And while a single instance of being targeted can feel overwhelming, workplace bullying is defined as repeated behavior.

Workplace bullying and harassment are serious acts.

Studies of those who have been harassed or bullied at work have found increased rates of:

  • physical illnesses
    • cardiovascular problems
    • neck and back pain
    • diabetes
  • mental health conditions

If you’re considering acting on suicidal thoughts, please seek professional support immediately.

Calling or texting a crisis helpline will connect you with a trained counselor 24/7, any day of the year, completely free of charge:

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Anyone can be a target of workplace bullying, but the available research suggests those who belong to marginalized groups are more likely to be targeted.

Age does not appear to be a factor in workplace bullying, though it is for workplace harassment.

There are three main characteristics of abusive conduct at work, aka workplace bullying:

  1. the employee becomes a target of negative behavior and comments
  2. it occurs over a long period of time
  3. the target feels they cannot escape or stop the bullying

It’s the combination of those characteristics that make workplace bullying so devastating, and what makes it so different from other office politics.

It’s not about intent

One item is not included in the definition: The intent of the perpetrator.

This is for several reasons.

  • It’s difficult to prove the intent of someone engaging in these acts.
  • The actions that constitute workplace bullying are harmful regardless of the intent of the actions themselves.
  • The perpetrator themself may not know or understand exactly why they’re behaving in this manner.

Theories on workplace bullying

There are two different theories about why bullying in the workplace occurs.

  1. Work culture. The work environment is generally responsible. Varying stress at work produces bullying behavior, such as:
    • role conflict
    • burnout
    • job insecurity
    • excessive workplace demands
  2. Personal issues with the bully. Various personality traits can make them more likely to take on an adversarial role.

Both hypotheses have been researched, and neither has been determined to be the more likely one. It’s also possible that some combination of both factors is involved in workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying can take on a variety of forms. These include:

  • Verbal. The person is targeted by:
    • ridicule
    • negative rumors
    • disparaging remarks
  • Intimidation. This is also called mobbing. The person might be:
    • spied on by other employees
    • threatened related to their job
    • deliberately excluded from workplace gatherings
  • Interference at work.
    • ideas might be stolen
    • work sabotaged
    • may be inaccurately blamed for wrongdoing
  • Sexual. Sexual bullying is often confused with sexual harassment. It’s when the person is subjected to persistent sexual conduct or communications intended to:
    • coerce
    • defame
    • humiliate
    • intimidate

The workplace itself may contribute to bullying in the workplace.

If someone reports the bullying and is further punished by being called a liar or other forms of retaliation, that’s compounded abuse. In some cases, the workplace may actually encourage bullying and let it persist to drive out unwanted employees.

If you’re currently experiencing workplace bullying, you may not have any idea how to stop it. And while there is no magic formula to end bullying in the workplace, there are some steps you can take toward curbing it.

Tips to stop workplace bullying

You might try:

  • Documenting anything that involves your bullying. Write down anything that happens to you and when
  • Keeping any physical evidence, like notes or emails from your bully
  • If you feel able to do so, stating your boundaries to the bully with a trusted friend or co-worker nearby
  • Finding out what your workplace policies on bullying are. If there are none, you can find your state or federal policies that might apply
  • Reporting what you’ve gathered to human resources or your manager
  • Seeking legal action if your workplace does nothing to stop it
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There are two ways companies can prevent bullying in the workplace:

  1. creating a healthy workplace where bullying is not acceptable
  2. having a system that will deal with any bullying that does take place

The first usually can be put in place by human resources divisions at the workplace. There are numerous factors that can be considered, but several broad areas may be covered:

  • Workplace structure. A workplace that places the most emphasis on obedience and the hierarchy of employees is one that may ignore bullying. Encouraging employees to call out unacceptable behavior in their superiors can make bullying less likely to start or continue.
  • Education. Both managers and workers should be educated on what workplace bullying is and how to address it.
  • Conflict resolution. If workers have ways to address conflicts without taking problems out on another worker, they’re less likely to bully the person when there is a conflict between them.

While all these strategies can work to keep most workplace bullying from taking root, it’s also important to have policies in place to deal with any bullying that occurs anyway. These include:

  • Taking all allegations of workplace bullying seriously and investigating them as thoroughly as possible.
  • Mental health support for employees. If an otherwise productive employee suddenly stops performing well at work, it should be looked into. It may be a result of bullying.
  • Making sure the offender is held responsible for their actions. You can find your state’s recommendations for the consequences of bullying and harassment in the workplace.
  • If an offender refuses to change their behavior or to engage in any mental health interventions, they can be terminated from employment.

Where do I find my rights in my state?

For California, protections from harassment and discrimination can be found in the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), for example.

Many other states have laws under some variance of [state] + “human rights” if you search online, e.g., New York State Human Rights Law or Illinois Human Rights Act.

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Bullying in the workplace is a pattern of behavior and conduct where one or more workers are singled out by:

  • ridicule
  • social isolation
  • harassment

Bullying occurs over an extended period of time, and the employee involved may feel like they cannot escape it. It’s possible for anyone to be a bully and anyone to be bullied, but certain underprivileged groups seem to experience a disproportionate amount of abuse.

The negative effects of bullying can be both physical and mental.

Workplaces can prevent bullying by both creating a work environment where bullying is known to be unacceptable and dealing quickly and definitively addressing any bullying that may persist.

The Workplace Bullying Institute is a comprehensive source of information and resources.