Bullying in the Workplace: How to Deal With Bullies and Psychological Harassment at Work

Katie McBeth
Bullying in the Workplace
Reading Time: 5 minutes

If someone asked you to picture bullying, you’d probably conjure up the image of children on a playground, with one kid challenging another to a brawl, or forcing another classmate to do their math homework. Popular culture has certainly relegated bullying to the playground and the classroom.Although bullying still is a big problem for children in school, you can also find it in adult settings. Most commonly, bullying happens at work: whether among colleagues or sometimes even from your own boss. You might not always be the victim of bullying, but you might witness it happening and accidentally be caught up in the drama. Bullying, however, is different from workplace harassment, and being the victim of bullying does not provide you the same protections from the government via the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Because these protections are not in place, some people may feel lost or hopeless when it comes to dealing with bullying. However, you are not out of options. There are ways to properly confront bullies, and plenty of reasons why you should do it. Let’s look at the definition of bullying, why it’s so harmful to individuals and a company, and what you can do about it — even when your boss is the bully.

Bullies at Work: Understanding Psychological Harassment

Bullying in the office is surprisingly common. According to one survey from 2017 by the Workplace Bullying Institute, about one out of every five Americans that were interviewed had either been the target of bullying or had witnessed it. When reviewing who was being bullied, about 60 percent of targets were female, while about 70 percent of those bullying were male. Additionally, the survey found that 61 percent of bullies were in a superior position, often the direct boss of the target.

What is Bullying?

However, it’s important to understand that bullying is not just a single action. The definition of bullying (according to Wikipedia) is characterized as:

  • Repetitive (occurs regularly, and multiple times)
  • Enduring over a duration of time
  • Escalating in aggression
  • Often highlights a power disparity (as in the bullier holds a position of power over the victim)
  • And has attributed intent

Unlike stereotypical “schoolyard” incidents, bullying in the office is more often verbal and psychological than it is physical. It can also extend outside of the office — such as on social media — which can make it tricky for a company to monitor and enforce. The behavior can be subtle in nature, but the effects are often quite distinct from traditional office stress. Although every situation will be different, many cases of office bullying can be boiled down to a simple explanation: the bullier felt threatened by the victim in some way and lashed out. It could be that the victim is more skilled, brings in a new perspective, or is more liked by their peers than the bully is. Often times the target is a veteran of the workplace. Whatever the case, the fault is not on the victim, and the behavior of the bullier must be addressed. Bullies are often skilled manipulators who will use bullying tactics to seek control over a person or a situation that otherwise makes them feel powerless. They will also use their tactics to place blame on others and appear stronger by putting others down. Control and power are the underlying motivations behind bullying, and if the behavior goes unaddressed, it can have severely damaging consequences.

How Bullying Hurts Everyone

Although the target will be severely affected by the behavior, they won’t be the only person feeling the effects of bullying. Bullies can create a ripple effect throughout the company, making those who witness the behavior uncomfortable, and making entire teams slow down in their production due to the hostile work environment a bully can create. It is the responsibility of leaders within the company to address bad behavior. If it goes unacknowledged, it can create several serious issues:

  1. Bullying can cause severe stress in the target, while in turn diminishing their confidence in their work. Additionally, this stress can hurt productivity, which will overall effect teams and the company.
  2. Tolerating bullying is terrible for morale (both on an individual level and for teams of people) and will lead to a toxic work environment. All the pressure of bullying will be placed on the victim if it goes unaddressed, and others will be forced to pick sides or remain passive (which allows it to continue). The victim will also be forced to cope without a lifeline to offer support.
  3. Over time this will either lead to severely diminished performance, or the victim simply leaving. This will cost your company money, as you’ll be forced to replace an experienced worker with a new hire. It will also hurt your company culture, as those who knew the victim will question if the company would support them or not if they end up in a similar situation.
  4. There’s also a possibility that the cycle will repeat itself, and the bully will find a new victim to pick on. Their actions could end up chasing away multiple valuable employees.
  5. Of course, bullying can also escalate into harassment in the form of discrimination, a hostile work environment, or even a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. For the sake of protecting the company, bullying should always be stopped and addressed.

Those who use bullying tactics may be working within the rules, but that doesn’t mean leaders should ignore their behavior. It is the leaders duty to protect their workers, strictly enforce non-bullying guidelines, and create a safe and welcoming environment or culture for everyone.

How to Deal with a Bully at Work

If you are the target of a bully, the first thing you should do is notify your HR leader and direct manager (unless your manager is acting as the bully, then skip ahead to the next section). Together, with the guidance or presence of an HR representative, you can confront the bully and ask them to cease their behavior. Additionally, it’s best to do this so your company can keep an accurate record of when the behavior was first brought to their attention, and how it was handled by staff and the target (you). From there, the company can decide how to act: whether they should coach the bully into turning their behavior into a more constructive asset that focuses on their work (and stop targeting individuals), or if they should follow through with firing the individual for their behavior. Regardless, the company must keep the needs of the company culture in mind, and should act in accordance with their values. If you find that the company is not willing to protect or keep your safety in mind, then it might be within your best interest to quit the company. Just be sure to do it professionally so that there aren’t any issues down the road (and you can get a nice reference).

How to Deal with a Bully Boss

It can be a lot trickier to confront bullies when they are your direct manager or have some sort of leadership advantage over you. However, these cases of bullying (where the target is someone below the rank of the bullier) are also some of the most common. To start, the behavior should be brought to the attention of your HR manager or representative, when you feel comfortable. It could also help to keep a record of when certain scenarios happened, how the behavior has escalated, or how this behavior has affected your work. Once you’ve brought it to your HR leader’s attention, you can ask them for guidance on what you should do next. They could request to set up a meeting between you and the bully, or they could handle it themselves so as to protect you from further emotional trauma. No matter what they decide to do, make it clear that you are unable to work to your best potential under the supervision of a bully. Your company might be able to offer you alternatives (such as switching managers or departments) in order to keep you there and improve your environment. And, again, as mentioned above, if the company is unwilling to protect you or work with you to keep you safe, then it might be worthwhile to leave the company. If you can quit in a professional manner and manage to find another company that better aligns with your values, then you’ll be happier and healthier for the decision. Work can be stressful, and you’re not always going to agree with everyone you work with, but bullying and intimidation should never be tolerated. If you feel safe, bring awareness to the issue so you can help create a safer environment for everyone.

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