icon How to Spot and Prevent Bullying in The Workplace Skip to content
How to Spot and Prevent Bullying in The Workplace - HRDQ

How to Spot and Prevent Bullying in The Workplace

When you think of the term bullying, you likely think of schoolyard antics; children pushing and shoving, taunting, insulting one another; while this behavior is damaging, it's also typical in schools worldwide.

However, you might not realize that bullying doesn't simply stop when individuals graduate from high school. It changes, it evolves, but it still exists throughout adult culture just as much as in childhood life.

There has been a growing awareness of bullying in adult culture over the last decade. More and more individuals and companies are learning about the problems it poses, and are looking for ways to solve the problem at its source.

Why Bullying is Bad

"It's just teasing; get over it." 

"We're all adults here, just ignore it and move on." 

"Be the bigger person." 

"They're hard to work with, but they're good at their job, so we tolerate it."

How often have you heard statements like these? How often have you or someone you know faced down these sorts of issues? How often are you left questioning whether or not there's a Big Deal happening or if you're blowing something out of proportion?

Bullying a Coworker

Situations like these are what workplace bullying can look like. Worse, it can lead to many detrimental outcomes throughout the workplace, from an individual to an entire workplace culture.

  • Productivity, and thus efficiency and profitability, decrease as people dislike or actively avoid coming to work or working with specific individuals.
  • Employees targeted by bullies tend to take more days off, either taking sick days or simply not showing up.
  • Turnover is dramatically increased when bullies turn their workplace into a toxic environment for the people or roles they don't like.
  • Loyalty decreases, especially if higher-up employees show any form of favoritism for bullies.
  • Indirect costs increase as HR hours are spent investigating bullying and its incidents.

There are also tangible, potentially even legal outcomes that can be hugely detrimental to the company.

  • Bullied employees, particularly if they need to attend therapy or face physical repercussions, can bring worker's comp suits against the company.
  • The Occupational Health and Safety Act of 2004 stipulates that employers must create a safe workplace without health risks for their employees; including both physical and mental health. Bullying can lead to OSHA fines against the company.
  • Minorities and diverse employees are disproportionately targeted by bullying; bullying is often (though not always) linked to bigotry. Thus, workplace bullying can lead to discrimination suits as well.

In short, bullying drives up costs, reduces productivity, increases turnover, and opens up the company to legal actions. And for what? Usually, no more than inflating the bully's ego, making them feel powerful, and protecting that one individual over the rest of your staff.

What Does Bullying Look Like?

Bullying in the adult workplace is rarely as straightforward or apparent as shoving coworkers or kicking over sandcastles. It's usually a lot more subtle and a lot more insidious. Some examples from HR Daily Advisor:

  • "Making threats or behaving in an intimidating way;
  • Making fun of, teasing, or speaking to others in a derogatory way;
  • Insulting or otherwise verbally attacking someone;
  • Starting any physical altercation;
  • Stopping someone from moving about freely or otherwise encroaching on their personal space;
  • Retaliating inappropriately toward someone;
  • Being disrespectful;
  • Constantly and intentionally interrupting someone;
  • Intentionally sabotaging someone else's work or ability to complete work successfully;
  • Withholding communications;
  • Intentionally excluding information from someone or invitations to meetings that are important for their work;
  • Spreading misinformation or hurtful information about others;
  • Continuously giving unwarranted criticism of others;
  • Yelling inappropriately; and
  • Ignoring coworkers or others in the workplace."
  • Workplace Bullying Example

    From overt intimidation to casual disrespect to subtle negative actions within the workplace, bullying inhibits proper business function. Often, workplace bullies take their actions under the cover of plausible deniability, making it harder to punish overtly.

    There are also eight identified archetypes of bullies in the workplace. These range from the oppressive, screaming bully to the reputation-destroying gossiper to the gatekeeper. Some behaviors, like aggressive self-promotion, taking credit for the work of others, and constantly criticizing others are all signs of bullying.

    Strategies to Address Workplace Bullying

    Once you've learned the hallmarks of bullying in the workplace, you need to find ways to solve the problem. Generally, a solution to workplace bullying requires several things.

    • Promotion of open communication to report bullying without retaliation.
    • Training and guidance to reduce and eliminate bullying behaviors.
    • Harsh recourse and penalties for bullies, including termination if behaviors don't change.
    • The establishment of a clear code of conduct that makes it certain that bullying is not tolerated.
    • Ongoing communication and work to improve a workplace culture wrecked by bullying.

    Addressing Workplace Bullying

    Essentially, it all comes down to establishing a framework of rules, laying out routes to solve the problem, and taking appropriate action against those who fail to change their ways while striving to make the targets of bullying feel safer in their roles.

    Step 1: Recognize that bullying is an issue in your workplace.

    Unfortunately, one of the most significant factors in continued workplace bullying is complacency from upper management. All too often, owners, c-levels, directors, and managers all take a stance of "work it out amongst yourselves; I'm too busy for this." They downplay issues and, thus, are complicit in their perpetuation. This is true regardless of whether the issue is related to diversity and bigotry, bullying, or conflicts that a better manager could resolve.

    Recognizing Bullying Issue

    Recognizing that the issue is an issue is the first step to solving it. Without buy-in from upper management, the company cannot improve.

    Step 2: Establish clear, unequivocal rules regarding bullying, with zero tolerance.

    Develop and issue a policy for the entire workplace that identifies bullying as a problem and establishes rules for handling it. This policy should:

    • Identify types of behaviors that constitute bullying, including both physical and non-physical actions, as well as both overt and covert bullying.
    • Offer a framework that employees can use to report bullying they witness or that happens to them.
    • Offer a framework for handling issues, with anywhere from a zero-tolerance policy to a three-strikes policy.

    Establishing Bullying Rules

    The key is to make this policy as comprehensive as possible without being a labyrinth of legalese. It should be clear enough that bullies cannot find and exploit loopholes in it. It is also recommended to look for and avoid opportunities where bullies can weaponize the policy against their targets, which ties into empowering HR to investigate problems.

    Step 3: Open lines of communication for reporting bullying, potentially even anonymously.

    Anonymous reporting can be important for bullying in instances where retaliation may be possible. If a bully is in a position of power and receives a public report of bullying, all it does is make the target even more of a target.

    Open Communication Lines

    However, anonymous reporting can also get weaponized by bullies, who might make up or spin problems against their targets. You see this repeatedly through story platforms like Reddit and Ask A Manager. 

    There's no single Right Answer to this problem. Unfortunately, it simply needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis. The best solution is to make sure that the group investigating instances of bullying is as unbiased as possible and that they are empowered to thoroughly investigate an issue and make decisions, even against higher-level management. Anyone who is "immune" to punishment for being a bully can perpetuate a toxic culture and make the problem unsolvable.

    Step 4: Conduct thorough investigations into allegations of bullying.

    You must take investigations seriously. Bullying has such a suppressive effect on your entire workplace culture that you can't afford to not take allegations with the weight they require. How your HR handles allegations of bullying depends a lot on the seriousness of the allegations, who is being investigated, and what bullying is said to be occurring. Unfortunately, there's no one process we can point to for solving this issue; you need to develop investigations that suit your business. Just make sure they're effective and cannot be subverted by the bullies.

    Investigating Bullying Allegations

    For reference, the result of "it's your word against theirs, so we can't take action" or "we can't determine who is at fault, so you both get punished" are both outcomes that benefit bullies more than the bullied. It's always possible to dig deeper into the context and behaviors of those involved to determine the truth and avoid these kinds of suppressive outcomes.

    Step 5: Offer bullies training to help adjust or change the negative behaviors.

    Modern culture often tends to be a zero-tolerance situation. Often, individuals seem to have zero chances to change their behavior, which leads to "cancel culture" accusations. The reality is that:

    • People who commit these behaviors typically know they're wrong and have had many opportunities to change.
    • People who are "canceled" for their actions are often not significantly harmed by this cancellation.

    Offering Training to Bullies

    In a workplace, you can choose to offer training to help bullies change their ways. In some cases, these individuals have not had a chance to learn that they're wrong and how to fix it. Using training materials like the Conflict Strategies Inventory or the Learning to Listen training program can help teach bullies better ways to handle conflict and situations in their workplace.

    Step 6: Monitor ongoing conflicts and individuals for signs of relapse.

    Monitoring Ongoing Conflicts

    Once someone has been disciplined and assigned training for bullying in the workplace, they are "on thin ice" while they continue to work. You have to watch that employee's behavior and encourage others to do so just in case they relapse. Bullies can potentially change their ways, but if they fall back into old habits, they can still be too much of a liability for the business to handle. In that case, more significant action must be taken.

    Step 7: Take action to remove repeat offenders from the workplace for the greater good.

    Unfortunately, training is not always enough for bullies. Some do not take training, some will pay it lip service while continuing in their behaviors, and some will use it, not as a way to avoid bullying behaviors, but as a way to better hide them. 

    In these cases, it's critical to have more substantial penalties in place. The open palm may win more loyalty than the closed fist, but sometimes the fist is the best choice. In these cases, it's generally better to terminate the employee for their behaviors.

    Taking Greater Action

    This is why the first step of establishing a company policy is essential. Once the bully has been fired, they may retaliate against the company. By having the policy in place, and documented violations on file, you can leverage it as proof their termination was justified. 

    Growing Beyond Workplace Bullying

    Unfortunately, people with the tendency to resort to bullying behaviors are in no short supply. Even once your company establishes anti-bullying policies, trains such behaviors out of most employees, and terminates those who cannot adjust, you must keep an active eye on your roster. New employees can be bad influences, and some older employees may take the power gap as an opportunity to become the very thing they were the target of initially. Bullying requires constant vigilance to overcome.

    Workplace Bullying

    The benefits of doing so are immense. Companies that can solve the bullying problem – and keep it that way – tend to work much more effectively, foster more loyal employees, and react much more effectively to their industry's pressures and competition. When internal strife is not holding them back, they are free to grow and succeed.

    Regardless of how it gets addressed, bullying must be isolated and excised from the workplace through any means possible.

    Has your company had to handle bullying in the workplace before? If so, what kind of bullying occurred, and how did you go about tackling it? Would you say it got handled correctly? Be sure to let us know all your stories and thoughts in the comments section below! Additionally, if you have any questions or concerns about handling bullying in the workplace, you can leave those in the comments section as well, and we'll reply within a day or two! We make it a point to respond to every comment we receive and would love to hear from you.  

    Related Products of Interest

    Previous article 15 Online Whiteboard Tools for Training Online (Free and Paid)

    Leave a comment

    Comments must be approved before appearing

    * Required fields

    About our author

    Bradford R. Glaser

    Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.