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What Is Workplace Bullying and How Can You Stop It?

Author: Dave Rietsema - Matchr CEO

Workplace bullying is the repeated mistreatment of a worker by one or more people. This misconduct is detrimental to the health of employees and workplace culture, but unfortunately, it’s a common and widespread issue. Monster reported in 2019 that 90% of the American workforce had been bullied by a coworker or manager at work.

This is why it’s so important for employers to understand what workplace bullying looks like and to take the steps to prevent it from happening — which we know is easier said than done. To assist you in stopping workplace bullying in its tracks, we have provided this employer’s guide on how to stop bullying at work and avoid a hostile work environment.

Defining Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying often overlooked because it’s different from racial discrimination, sexual harassment, or violence; at it’s core, bullying is about power. An employee who feels powerless or threatened will counteract those feelings by exerting force over another person through bullying. They typically repeat their actions over time.

Bullying at work consists of verbal or physical abuse, threats, humiliation, and/or criticism intended to intimidate, single out, or humiliate a person, with or without cause. It can come from a coworker or manager, and it often prevents work from getting done.

Some examples of bullying in the workplace include:

  • Targeted jokes or pranks
  • Spreading gossip about an employee
  • Changing work rules to confuse employees
  • Setting unattainable standards to cause failure
  • Threatening abuse or harm
  • Unfairly assigning difficult duties to only one employee
  • Cursing or yelling at an employee
  • Unjust or excessively harsh criticism
  • Making offensive jokes about an employee
  • Thwarting an employee’s attempts to train or perform
  • Stealing or damaging an employee’s belongings
  • Denial of time off requests without a valid reason
  • Inhibiting an individual’s work
  • Intentionally isolating an employee

Considering all the diverse ways that bullying can manifest itself, you may find it difficult to pinpoint bullying, let alone decide how to deal with bullies at work. Consider these different forms of bullying below, which may just help you identify and understand how to stop a bully at work when you see one.

Institutional Bullying

Institutional bullying is the direct result of toxic workplace policies that cause bullying to become ingrained in company culture. It isn’t the conventional type of verbal or physical abuse that the word “bullying” probably brings to mind; it can be forcing employees to compete against each other to achieve organizational goals, making them work longer hours, imposing unrealistic goals and expectations on workers, and putting additional pressure on those who can’t adapt to impossible standards.

Verbal Bullying

Verbal abuse causes the targeted individual to dread coming to work each day and negatively impacts their work performance. It can take the form of mean-spirited jokes, humiliation, insults, gossip, or mockery of another employee. The victim of verbal bullying feels shame and guilt around their abuser and may not enjoy the things they once used to.

Retaliatory Bullying

Retaliation bullying often comes as a result of the bully trying to punish the victim for doing or saying something they didn’t like. In response, the workplace bully may exclude the person from conversations or activities, demote them or reduce their pay (if they have a management position), and find any other way they can to make the person suffer and regret their actions. In the case of retaliation bullying by a manager, the victim may feel unable to address their concerns for fear of losing their job.

Performance-Related Bullying

Performance-related bullying can happen whether or not a person is performing well. If they’re not doing good work, the bullying may involve harsh criticisms beyond what is necessary or helpful. When there are no valid performance concerns, the bullying might be the stealing of the other person’s ideas, sabotage, inappropriate blame, and other forms of performance interference.

Intimidation Bullying

Intimidation bullying is inappropriate physical or emotional behavior intended to make one person fear the other. It can happen face to face, through other individuals, and even online. Examples of this form of bullying include spying, exclusion, threats, or privacy invasions.

How to Detect Bullying at Work

It can be hard to detect bullying because it appears and is perceived differently based on who is doing the bullying and what their agenda is. But in most cases, the general warning signs include one or more of the following:

  • Employees ignoring or leaving the room when in the presence of a specific individual
  • Exclusion of an employee from team activities or discussions
  • A manager refusing to help an employee with new tasks outside their daily duties
  • Micromanagement or monitoring of a specific employee without a clear or valid reason
  • A manager asking one employee to do pointless or difficult asks
  • A manager criticizing or mocking an employee’s inability to perform
  • The repeated theft of an employee’s work or personal belongings

Common Types of Bullies in the Workplace

You will be better able to identify bullying in your workplace if you’re familiar with common types of workplace bullies and the strategies they use to discreetly abuse others. Here are four types that you’re likely to see in all types of work environments:

The Gossip

You may not consider yourself to be a bully, but have you ever spread a rumor or spoken ill of a coworker behind their back at work? Gossip is a form of bullying that many people engage in without realizing it. Whether it’s based on a person’s performance, personality, physical appearance, or something else, this kind of negative talk is hurtful and damaging to the person in question.

The Manipulator

The manipulator usually has a hidden agenda and is looking to get others to do what they want them to do through manipulation. These manipulative tactics may or may not come off as good intentions and can include superficial charm, insincere praise, passive aggressiveness, intimidation, and many others.

The Humiliator

Humiliation is a common tactic used by bullies at work used to achieve one or more of their goals: to make the bully feel better about himself or herself, to motivate the victim to perform better, or to make a public example out of the victim in order to elicit a certain behavior from others. Whether the workplace bully publicly disgraces an employee’s work or makes fun of their ideas, humiliation is one of the worst forms of bullying for workplace morale.

The Aggressive Communicator

Aggressive communication is another form of bullying in which a person communicates in an angry manner without regard, empathy, or respect for the other person. These kinds of communicators resort to bullying in order to get their way. In this scenario, the bully puts their needs first and doesn’t care about anyone else, and they get frustrated quickly when others don’t agree with them.

How to Stop Workplace Bullying

At this point in time, there are no laws in place preventing workplace bullying, but employers realize that workplace bullying is harmful and can taint a company name. Here are several actions you can take that could help prevent bullying at work and save you a lot of trouble.

Create Anti-Bullying Policies

Putting policies in place and following up with disciplinary action can stop workplace bullying and prevent future employees from being victimized. To be effective, policies should use very specific wording that addresses the different forms of bullying and specifies consequences. Bullying policies should be updated periodically as needed.

A strong anti-bullying policy would include the company’s definition of bullying, examples of bullying behaviors, and the consequences for participating in said behaviors. For example, “At [company name], we define workplace bullying as the repeated and harmful mistreatment of one’s workplace peers. This abuse verbal bullying, aggressive communication, humiliation, and physical violence. We will not hesitate to terminate anyone who engages in this destructive behavior.”

Encourage Reports of Bullying in the Workplace

One of the main issues encountered when enacting bullying policies is that employees are reluctant to report bullying for fear of being labeled as a whistleblower. For bullying policies to be effective, it’s important to cultivate a culture in which employees feel safe reporting incidents of bullying. Reports should be kept anonymous, and action should be taken to immediately change the dynamic so that bullying is not allowed to continue unchecked.

Include Bullying Policies in Training

To create a company culture where bullying is discouraged, it may be helpful to include a discussion of bullying policies as part of training along with discussions about discrimination and sexual harassment. Discussing bullying and the repercussions for it right away in training can help employees to understand what is considered bullying and inform employees about their options if they feel they are being bullied at work.

Offer Support for Victims

Workplace bullying can take an emotional toll. Providing support for employees that have been bullied can help victims to recover faster, which may help employees feel more comfortable and content at work. By creating a company culture in which employees feel valued and safe, people are free to focus on work needs and are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.

What to Do If You See Someone Being Bullied at Work

There’s no question that workplace bullying damages workplace morale, ruins company reputation, costs people their jobs, contributes to feelings of stress, and even leads to lawsuits. So if you’ve noticed someone being repeatedly bullied at work or you yourself have become the victim of bullying, don’t hesitate to report it to your HR department — especially if you’re unsure about how to deal with a bully at work. Provide them with as much detail and evidence as you can about incidents, and don’t be afraid to quit if the company fails to take action.

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