Not All Bullies Are Obvious: 7 Signs You Work With a Subtle One

If your colleague displays these 7 behaviors, you may be dealing with a workplace bully.

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Taylor Tobin1.84k
June 13, 2024 at 3:2PM UTC

When we think about bullies, it’s common to visualize potty-mouthed grade-schoolers shoving classmates in lockers and holding frenemies’ heads in toilets. Of course, in reality, the concept of bullying is far more nuanced than that, and related behaviors present challenges long after we bid our childhoods farewell. 

For example, bullies regularly pop up in the workplace, dominating collaborative projects, undermining their colleagues, and turning a once-pleasant office into a toxic environment. In the interest of exposing this issue, Inc. recently consulted with the Workplace Office Institute to gather the most frequent techniques used by workplace bullies to exert their influence, and these seven strategies topped their list.

1. Pinning false accusations on “threatening” coworkers.

If a workplace bully feels her influence waning due to the presence of other motivated, communicative, and high-performing individuals, she may retaliate against this perceived “threat” to her dominance by going to her supervisor and making untrue accusations against that colleague. In fact, the Workplace Bullying Institute told Inc. that a full 71% of surveyed employees weathered a false claim against them made by an office bully. 

2. Using body language and facial expressions to wear down colleagues.

A bully doesn’t always exert her dubious “authority” with snippy comments or physical aggression. Sometimes, a wayward glare, pursed lips, or a strategically-timed eyeroll can prove just as alienating to the bully’s officemates. 68% of the WOI’s surveyed population agreed with this estimation, telling researchers that the bullies they’ve encountered at work have displayed hostility using their expressions and body language.

3. Actively trying to diminish the input and contributions of others.

An employee who uses dismissive language to respond to her colleagues’ ideas and opinions certainly qualifies as a bully, as the implicit goal of such behavior involves making the victim feel small and unimportant. Responding with phrases like “Oh, that’s silly” when a colleague shares her perspective is a prime example of bully behavior, according to 64% of WOI survey respondents.

4. Deciding to give dissenting coworkers the “silent treatment”.

A step beyond the non-verbal hostility mentioned previously, the decision to give a colleague the full “silent treatment” popular among sullen children the world over is a particularly juvenile act, but it’s one that’s still used by work bullies, according to 64% of WOI’s subjects. 

5. Weaponizing mood swings.

Sudden mood variations don’t inherently indicate bullying tendencies, of course. But if a coworker uses unexpected bursts of anger to intimidate and silence those around her, 61% of survey participants interpret that as an intentional act of antagonism. 

6. Playing fast and loose with company rules and policies.

Just like schoolyard bullies, the workplace equivalents often have a tendency to flout established rules. But in a slightly more insidious twist, 61% of WOI respondents claimed that they’ve seen workplace bullies completely fabricate rules in an effort to control the behavior of others. 

7. Imposing overly-high standards on work performed by colleagues.

Have you ever presented a project proposal or a document draft to a team of colleagues that you know meets expected criteria, only to have one coworker tell you that your work doesn’t pass muster? That colleague could very well be a workplace bully, based on the opinions of 58% of surveyed workers.

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