For many of us, Mean Girls was all too real. But it didn’t end in high school. Bullying is all-too-common in our daily lives — and the workplace. It can be rude and hurtful. And it can impact your life far beyond the workplace environment, impacting your personal life and relationships.
According to a 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) survey, 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace, and 60.4 million Americans report being affected by it. Meanwhile, 38% of Americans are bullied or witness bullying.
Clearly, this is a pervasive problem. If you’re the victim of workplace bullying or know someone who is, it’s time to take action.
Workplace bullying is the repeated, harmful, unwanted and unwarranted mistreatment of an individual or multiple people that occurs in a work setting (NB: that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s limited to the office; it can happen online or occur in another professional context, such as a conference). It reaches this level when it is a pattern of behavior that negatively affects the victims of the bullying, making them feel disrespected, humiliated, upset, uncomfortable, intimidated, ridiculed, ashamed or undervalued.
• Spreading untrue and malicious rumors about a coworker or group of coworkers.
• Administering unwarranted, excessively harsh criticism about someone’s work or performance.
• Exclusionary behavior, such as a group purposely leaving a single person out of work events.
• Telling jokes that are meant to humiliate someone or put them down.
• Withholding important information that’s necessary for someone to do their job, such as meeting dates and times or important business procedures.
• Intimidating a coworker by making threats, physical or otherwise.
• Frequently changing someone’s responsibilities without notice, making it impossible for them to do their job correctly and completely.
Humiliation can come in the form of mean-spirited jokes that put you down and aren’t funny, disparaging remarks about you and other behaviors that make you feel less-than. Ultimately, you could come out feeling belittled and embarrassed.
Like it sounds, this bullying targets your work performance. Perhaps your manager blames you for work issues that aren’t your fault or is overly critical about work most people would deem satisfactory. Or maybe a colleague (or manager) frequently steals credit for your work. A supervisor might demand the impossible and lash out at you when you can’t deliver.
Screaming, yelling, swearing and even raised voices are all types of overly aggressive communication — and bullying. This can often overlap with humiliation; for example, a bully might call you a name, or rather, scream that name at you. This workplace bully is also no stranger to berating you in public, drawing the attention of onlookers, with no regard to the scene they’re causing.
This aggressive tone is not limited to verbal communication. A workplace bully can also employ it in writing, such as in an email or on Slack. (You can still “yell” digitally, even without turning the caps lock on.)
Who among us hasn’t felt excluded at one point or another? If we’re lucky, this was largely confined to pre-adulthood (high school and middle school are rocky times). But unfortunately, this type of bullying — ignoring people, pretending they don’t exist or actively shunning people — can continue into adulthood. As in the above example, this might take the form of excluding colleagues from meetings or work events or purposefully “forgetting” to inform the coworker about them.
Intimidation can take many forms — it’s not just limited to physical and psychological threats, although these certainly fall into this category of bullying. Perhaps a colleague constantly looks over your shoulder, metaphorically or literally, to see what you’re doing. Or maybe a supervisor overloads you with busy work, asking you to do it in an unrealistic amount of time, just to make you anxious. There are many ways to intimidate someone in and out of work.
It’s impossible to say exactly why and how bullying occurs in the workplace. There could be myriad reasons.
For example, an employee or manager might feel threatened by a high-performing colleague and feel the need to “put them in their place.” Their own feelings of insecurity can lead to them bullying a coworker who they feel poses a threat to them. They are often invaluable players in the business, so their actions go unpunished because they are so essential to the organization.
Often, the issue arises from a toxic work culture. Sometimes, this behavior is so ingrained in the company atmosphere that employees feel like they have to play along or risk becoming victims themselves. Perhaps there’s a significant amount of competition due to frequent layoffs or the promise of bonuses for some, but not all, employees.
Or, maybe there’s a clear, unshakable hierarchy, and managers are encouraged (or not reprimanded) for belittling and treating their employees as inferior to them. The reverse could be true, too; employees could feel like they have no control, which might lead them to blatantly disrespect or disregard their managers.
It’s important to know that even in the case of a toxic work environment, it’s possible to effect change. But it must be organization-wide. (We’ll discuss this in more detail below.)
Remember, too, that bullying isn’t limited to face-to-face environments. Yes, it can happen in the workplace, but it can also occur over digital communication platforms like email, Slack and Zoom, as well as on the phone. It might also happen at work or networking events, including social ones.
Bullying can take a severe toll on individuals’ mental and physical health. It can also negatively impact the workplace. If bullying is a frequent occurrence at your organization, you might see:
People who are victims of workplace bullying are likely to experience psychological symptoms, including anxiety, stress, low self-esteem and depression. They also might have physical symptoms, including gastrointestinal problems, increased or decreased appetite, insomnia, migraines or headaches.
This leads to frequent absenteeism, when workers take time off. Absenteeism interferes with the work environment, disrupting the flow and costly companies money. Even if victims of bullying don’t experience these symptoms, they will often dread going into the office and may call out sick routinely.
Presenteeism is like absenteeism in that the employee is not fully “there.” The difference is that they still physically show up to work, avoiding using sick days or PTO, although they are not being productive or fully performing their job responsibilities.
When someone is preoccupied with how others are treating them and worrying about when the next attack will come, it’s pretty much impossible to be fully present. This, too, can be costly to companies, because their workers are not producing to the extent possible.
It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation: does bullying create a toxic work culture or does a toxic work culture arise from bullying? Either way, if bullying is taking place, there’s an issue with the workplace.
When employees dread going into work and face a toxic environment, morale is low, teams don’t function as well as they should, coworker relationships are negatively affected and employees don’t trust or believe in their employer.
Nobody wants to stay in a company that has a toxic work environment that protects bullies. So it stands to reason that these types of employers see a lot of turnover.
High turnover has many adverse implications. For one, companies will need to spend time training new hires and will see a loss of productivity while they’re getting these employees up to speed. The hiring process is also expensive, and when employees are constantly leaving, it amounts to a lot of wasted money.
Many industries are tight-knit, and through word of mouth, others will find out if your organization provides a poor work environment. This will give you a poor reputation and prevent players in the industry from wanting to work there. Plus, employees can always post anonymous reviews on sites like Fairygodboss and Glassdoor, which will also affect your reputation.
There’s no formal law against bullying, but if it escalates to the point of harassment, the organization could also face lawsuits.
Try to nip it in the bud early. If you start feeling like what began as a minor tiff or annoyance seems to be escalating into something more serious and nasty, then take it up with the perpetrator. Use “I” statements, focusing on the behavior’s effect on you. For example, if someone is making fun of you, you might say, “I feel hurt when you say [such and such].” It makes it much harder for them to become defensive or repeat the behavior if you try to appeal to their humanity and how you feel.
Of course, if your bully is threatening physical or another type of harm, you can certainly skip this step or bring along a witness. Protecting and keeping yourself safe is the priority.
You should be keeping track of all incidents, no matter how small-seeming, because you’ll need this as evidence in case it gets to the point where you feel it’s necessary to report the bullying. Keep track of all details, including what was involved, what was said or done, the date and time, the location and other relevant information. Do this in writing and store it in a secure place. This will allow you to give actual, concrete examples should you need them.
Remember to document positive feedback and praise, too, not only so you have an antidote to the negativity but also so you can demonstrate what others think of your performance in contrast.
If your organization has rules or an anti-bullying policy in place, read them carefully. They may give you resources and information about what to do and how to report the behavior. Research any related policies, too, such as references to a safe and productive workplace.
Read up on anti-discrimination and harassment laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), to see if the bullying crosses the line into this territory. If it does, you could be entitled to pursuing legal action.
If you’re comfortable doing so (and they aren’t the one bullying you), then talk to your immediate manager or supervisor about what’s going on. Otherwise, go to HR. If there is an anti-bullying policy in place, then follow the procedures for reporting it. Use everything you’ve documented as evidence of the bullying. Make it clear that you’ve read the employee handbook, and point out how this behavior violates it or otherwise impacts the work environment and your own productivity.
In addition to speaking with management and/or HR, get support from other coworkers. Some of them may have witnessed the bullying or experienced it themselves. If either has occurred, then you can work with them, either by asking them to provide evidence of the bullying or speaking about their experiences, too. Even if they haven’t been privy to or experienced the bullying, or if they’re reluctant to speak out, they can offer you support in a work environment that probably feels hostile right about now.
Your loved ones can provide support, too, even if they don’t have firsthand knowledge of the bullying.
A mental health provider can help you navigate the situation and your own emotions, too. Therapy is a very useful way for working through difficult experiences, including a toxic work situation. Not only does this offer more support, but a therapist can provide guidance on how to cope with the bullying and how it’s affecting you.
By no means are we suggesting that this is easy to ignore. But if you’re struggling with bullying in your work life, try to find things to focus on outside of work that offers a break and give you something to look forward to once you’re away from this toxic environment. Look for welcoming communities that support you and can provide a much-needed respite from what you’re experiencing in your job.
It could be a book club, a weekly Zoom call with your long-distance friend, a daily meditation (this is also excellent for your mental health) or whatever you enjoy doing that lifts you up, rather than that tears you down.
What do you want to happen in this situation? How can it be resolved? In order for things to change — really change — you need to be able to picture a concrete resolution. It’s possible you won’t relax unless one of you quits or is fired. (If that’s the case, proceed to #10.) But there may be an easier way to fix what’s wrong. Take the time to really reflect on how you or someone else can turn the situation around.
Sometimes, enough is enough. There are times when you have to be honest with yourself and accept that this isn’t the right environment for you and it’s time to look for a new job. Chances are, you’re not feeling very happy in your work life anyway if you’re being bullied, so finding a different situation and starting over is what you need to do to feel satisfied in your career and take care of yourself.
In some situations, you may be able to take legal action against your employer. Consult with an employment attorney to discuss your situation and find out whether you have a case. As discussed, there are no laws against workplace bullying in the U.S., so legal action isn’t always possible.
Sometimes, bullying is the kind of thing you can easily identify when you see it happen. Other times, it’s more subtle. Learn how to spot the red flag, whether or not they’re obvious. Help others recognize the signs of bullying, too, taking into account the above examples, types and conditions, going beyond the clear cases to see the less apparent ones.
If you see someone being bullied or if a colleague comes to you and tells you they’re experiencing this, give them your support. How can you do that? The best way is to ask the victim. Perhaps they want you to stay with them as much as possible to prevent them from being targeted, or maybe they just need a sympathetic ear. Do your best to support them in the way you can.
Be the person who tries to fix a toxic workplace, not the one who adds to it. When you see bullying happen, speak up. This will not only show that you’re not supporting the specific action that one person is perpetrating against another but also that you believe in and want to contribute to a positive work environment. It may also encourage others to speak up when they witness unacceptable behavior.
Don’t stop at just intervening yourself. Encourage others to do the same. Ask others if they’ve noticed the behavior and suggest that you should all speak out together or confront the bully. Remember that there’s strength in numbers.
Exemplify the behavior you want to see in others. We all get frustrated from time to time, but before you raise your voice or lose your temper, check yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to be sunshiney all the time, but it does mean you should be respectful and professional. Moreover, if others start gossiping or making fun of others, don’t engage.
Your account of what happened could effect action and change. It’s a good idea to discuss it with the target of the bullying before you report it to ensure that they’re comfortable with it (although there are some situations where incidents need to be reported either way).
If you’re in a position to set policy within your company, create one that addresses workplace bullying and makes it clear that the organization will not tolerate it under any circumstance. The policy should include a definition of bullying, examples and actions to take if you’re the victim of bullying or have seen it take place. You should also address bullying in harassment training workshops and courses.
If you’re not in that position, you can still advocate for courteous behavior and professionalism in the workplace. For example, you could work with colleagues to develop a proposal for holding seminars about and policy against bullying and bring it to HR and upper management.
Once you’ve encountered workplace bullies, the last thing you want is to have a repeat situation at a new job. That’s why it’s important to find out everything you can about a prospective workplace and its culture.
Some of this can be gleaned during the interview process. If you’re interviewing with the hiring manager, keep in mind that not all red flags are outwardly visible (although if your gut is telling you that they don’t seem friendly or approachable, that’s the obvious red flag #1). Still, you can take note of the environment and ask key questions to find out more.
Do people seem generally happy and enthusiastic? Or are they cold to you and others? Is it ultra-silent, or do people seem to be engaging with one another and laughing? What’s their body language like?
In the interview itself, does the hiring manager seem to be responding to what you’re saying? Or are they distant and aloof?
Ask about the environment, too. For example, you probably want to know:
• How they’d describe the work culture
• Why the previous employee left
• Their leadership style
The interviewer might not be totally forthcoming about negative aspects of the company, but you can usually tell from their body language or any unwillingness to elaborate.
It’s important to get a solid idea of what the company is like before you commit to working there because being the victim of workplace bullying can affect your health and happiness — and you deserve to feel good about where you work and what you do.