Workplace bullying is harmful, targeted behavior that happens at work. It might be spiteful, offensive, mocking, or intimidating. It forms a pattern, and it tends to be directed at one person or a few people.
A few examples of bullying include:
- targeted practical jokes
- being purposely misled about work duties, like incorrect deadlines or unclear directions
- continued denial of requests for time off without an appropriate or valid reason
- threats, humiliation, and other verbal abuse
- excessive performance monitoring
- overly harsh or unjust criticism
Criticism or monitoring isn’t always bullying. For example, objective and constructive criticism and disciplinary action directly related to workplace behavior or job performance aren’t considered bullying.
But criticism meant to intimidate, humiliate, or single someone out without reason would be considered bullying.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, more than 60 million working people in the United States are affected by bullying.
Existing federal and state laws only protect workers against bullying when it involves physical harm or when the target belongs to a protected group, such as people living with disabilities or people of color.
Since bullying is often verbal or psychological in nature, it may not always be visible to others.
Read on to learn more about ways to identify workplace bullies, how workplace bullying can affect you, and safe actions you can take against bullying.
Bullying can be subtle. One helpful way to identify bullying is to consider how others might view what’s happening. This can depend, at least partially, on the circumstances. But if most people would see a specific behavior as unreasonable, it’s generally bullying.
Types of bullying
Bullying behaviors might be:
- Verbal. This could include mockery, humiliation, jokes, gossip, or other spoken abuse.
- Intimidating. This might include threats, social exclusion in the workplace, spying, or other invasions of privacy.
- Related to work performance. Examples include wrongful blame, work sabotage or interference, or stealing or taking credit for ideas.
- Retaliatory. In some cases, talking about the bullying can lead to accusations of lying, further exclusion, refused promotions, or other retaliation.
- Institutional. Institutional bullying happens when a workplace accepts, allows, and even encourages bullying to take place. This bullying might include unrealistic production goals, forced overtime, or singling out those who can’t keep up.
Bullying behavior is repeated over time. This sets it apart from harassment, which is often limited to a single instance. Persistent harassment can become bullying, but since harassment refers to actions toward a protected group of people, it’s illegal, unlike bullying.
Early warning signs of bullying can vary:
- Co-workers might become quiet or leave the room when you walk in, or they might simply ignore you.
- You might be left out of office culture, such as chitchat, parties, or team lunches.
- Your supervisor or manager might check on you often or ask you to meet multiple times a week without a clear reason.
- You may be asked to do new tasks or tasks outside your typical duties without training or help, even when you request it.
- It may seem like your work is frequently monitored, to the point where you begin to doubt yourself and have difficulty with your regular tasks.
- You might be asked to do difficult or seemingly pointless tasks and be ridiculed or criticized when you can’t get them done.
- You may notice a pattern of your documents, files, other work-related items, or personal belongings going missing.
These incidents may seem random at first. If they continue, you may worry something you did caused them and fear you’ll be fired or demoted. Thinking about work, even on your time off, may cause anxiety and dread.
Anyone can bully others. According to 2017 research from the Workplace Bullying Institute:
- About 70 percent of bullies are male, and about 30 percent are female.
- Both male and female bullies are more likely to target women.
- Sixty-one percent of bullying comes from bosses or supervisors. Thirty-three percent comes from co-workers. The remaining 6 percent occurs when people at lower employment levels bully their supervisors or others above them.
- Protected groups are bullied more frequently. Only 19 percent of people bullied were white.
Bullying from managers might involve abuse of power, including negative performance reviews that aren’t justified, shouting or threats of firing or demotion, or denying time off or transfer to another department.
People working at the same level often bully through gossip, work sabotage, or criticism. Bullying can occur between people who work closely together, but it also happens across departments.
People who work in different departments may be more likely to bully through email or by spreading rumors.
Lower level employees can bully those working above them. For example, someone might:
- show continued disrespect to their manager
- refuse to complete tasks
- spread rumors about the manager
- do things to make their manager seem incompetent
According to 2014 research from the Workplace Bullying Institute, people believed that targets of bullying were more likely to be kind, compassionate, cooperative, and agreeable.
Bullying may occur more frequently in work environments that:
- are stressful or change frequently
- have heavy workloads
- have unclear policies about employee behavior
- have poor employee communication and relationships
- have more employees who are bored or worried about job security
Bullying can have significant, serious effects on physical and mental health.
While leaving a job or changing departments could end the bullying, this isn’t always possible. Even when you can remove yourself from the bullying environment, the impact of bullying can last long after bullying has stopped.
Physical health effects of bullying
If you’re being bullied, you may:
- feel sick or anxious before work or when thinking about work
- have physical symptoms, such as digestive issues or high blood pressure
- have a higher risk for type 2 diabetes
- have trouble waking up or getting quality sleep
- have somatic symptoms, such as headaches and decreased appetite
Mental health effects of bullying
Psychological effects of bullying may include:
- thinking and worrying about work constantly, even during time off
- dreading work and wanting to stay home
- needing time off to recover from stress
- losing interest in things you usually like to do
- increased risk for depression and anxiety
- suicidal thoughts
- low self-esteem
- self-doubt, or wondering if you’ve imagined the bullying
Workplaces with high rates of bullying can also experience negative consequences, such as:
- financial loss resulting from legal costs or bullying investigations
- decreased productivity and morale
- increased employee absences
- high turnover rates
- poor team dynamics
- reduced trust, effort, and loyalty from employees
People who bully may eventually face consequences, such as formal reprimands, transfer, or job loss. But many types of bullying aren’t illegal.
When bullying isn’t addressed, it becomes easier for people to continue bullying, especially when the bullying is subtle. Bullies who take credit for work or intentionally make others look bad may end up receiving praise or being promoted.
When experiencing bullying, it’s common to feel powerless and unable to do anything to stop it. If you try to stand up to the bully, you may be threatened or told no one will believe you. If it’s your manager bullying you, you may wonder who to tell.
First, take a moment to remind yourself that bullying is never your fault, regardless of what triggered it. Even if someone bullies you by making it seem like you can’t do your job, bullying is more about power and control, not your work ability.
Begin to take action against bullying with these steps:
- Document the bullying. Keep track of all bullying actions in writing. Note the date, the time, where the bullying took place, and other people who were in the room.
- Save physical evidence. Keep any threatening notes, comments, or emails you receive, even if they’re unsigned. If there are documents that can help prove bullying, such as denied PTO requests, overly harsh commentary on assigned work, and so on, keep these in a safe place.
- Report the bullying. Your workplace may have a designated person you can talk to if you don’t feel safe talking to your direct supervisor. Human resources is a good place to start. It’s also possible to talk about the bullying with someone higher up if your supervisor is unhelpful or is the person doing the bullying.
- Confront the bully. If you know who’s bullying you, bring along a trusted witness, such as a co-worker or supervisor, and ask them to stop — if you feel comfortable doing so. Be calm, direct, and polite.
- Review work policies. Your employee handbook may outline steps of action or policies against bullying. Also consider reviewing state or even federal policies about the type of bullying you’re experiencing.
- Seek legal guidance. Consider talking to a lawyer, depending on the circumstances of the bullying. Legal action may not always be possible, but a lawyer can offer specific advice.
- Reach out to others. Co-workers may be able to offer support. Talking to your loved ones about the bullying can also help. You can also talk to a therapist. They can provide professional support and help you explore ways to cope with the effects of bullying while you take other action.
If you’re a member of a union, your union representative may be able to offer some guidance and support on how to deal with bullying.
You can also look into your employer’s employee assistance program, if they have one. EAPs help you access resources to address a variety of issues that can affect your mental health and overall well-being.
There currently aren’t any laws against workplace bullying in the United States.
The Healthy Workplace Bill, first introduced in 2001, aims to help prevent and reduce workplace bullying and its negative effects by offering protections to people who experience bullying. It can also help employers create antibullying policies and procedures.
As of 2019, 30 states have adopted some form of this bill. Learn more about the Healthy Workplace Bill here.
How to help when you witness bullying
If you witness bullying, speak up! People often say nothing out of fear they’ll become targets, but ignoring bullying contributes to a toxic work environment.
Workplace policies against bullying can help people feel safer about speaking up when they see bullying happen.
If you witness bullying, you can help by:
- Offering support. Support could involve acting as a witness if the person targeted wants to ask the bully to stop. You can also help by going to HR with your co-worker.
- Listening. If your co-worker doesn’t feel safe going to HR, they may feel better having someone to talk to about the situation.
- Reporting the incident. Your account of what happened could help your management team realize there’s a problem.
- Staying close to your co-worker, when possible. Having a supportive co-worker nearby could help reduce instances of bullying.
Bullying is a serious issue in many workplaces. While many companies have a zero-tolerance policy, bullying can sometimes be hard to recognize or prove, making it difficult for managers to take action. Other companies may not have any policies about bullying.
Taking steps to prevent workplace bullying can benefit organizations and the health of their employees. If you’ve been bullied, know you can safely take steps to combat the bullying without confronting the perpetrator. Remember to take care of your health first.