The workplace bullying institute defines workplace bullying as the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. While some of the specific actions a person may take against another person that would constitute bullying is similar, or even identical, to the actions seen in Workplace Harassment, there are several distinct difference:

  • Bullying can be perpetrated by anyone against anyone. Harassment only pertains to Protected Classes, such as race, religion, sex or gender, nationality, etc. Protected Classes is not a consideration in cases of bullying
  • Bully is characterized by repetition. A single “incident” may be mean and hurtful, and probably violates a business’s own professional conduct rules, but it does not constitute bullying. A single incident of, as example, sexual harassment, however, is grounds for legal action
  • In cases where bullying has resulted in legal action, the grounds for legal regress focuses more on the harm caused to the target, both psychological and physical, rather than the illegality of the act. Harassment cases focus very specifically the violation of Harassment Laws
  • Most importantly, unlike Harassment, there are no specific state or federal laws that explicitly protect a worker from bullying

Bullying can be viewed differently from Harassment in that the intent of the action is to harm in some personal or professional sense, regardless of the “protected” characteristics about the individual that would fall under harassment. Race, religion, gender, age and other state and federally protected class attributes may be a component in bullying but they don’t have to be. This means that bullying has the potential to be a larger and more pervasive problem than harassment.

Federal and State Harassment laws have made awareness of harassment a focus of many organizations’ employee training. Most employees today are at least aware that policies and laws against, for example, sexual harassment, are in place. Bullying however, is still largely under-addressed in many organizations. And even in organizations that have rules against bullying, many employees still don’t understand what bullying is.

Workplace bullying can come in many different forms from various people within an organization or company and typically falls into three categories: Personal attacks, professional attacks and actions designed to apply control or manipulate an outcome. When the term “bullying” is used, people often think of physical harm or abuse. But bullying can be any intentional, repeated action that is specifically intended to make another employee feel badly and affect their happiness on the job. Some examples of each include:

Attacks intended to cause personal suffering

  • Spreading rumors, hurtful gossip or innuendo
  • Yelling, name-calling, mocking, insulting or ridiculing
  • Unwanted physical contact or physical gestures that intimidate or threaten
  • Invalid or baseless criticism
  • Accusatory or threatening statements
  • Faultfinding or unwarranted blaming
  • Displaying offensive photos or objects
  • Temper tantrums, mood swings, shouting
  • Humiliation, public reprimands or obscene language
  • Ganging up against a co-worker
  • Aggressive posturing, ignoring

Attacks intended to affect job performance or career

  • Denying access to resources, assignments, projects or opportunities
  • Stealing or taking credit for another’s work
  • Interfering with or undermining someone’s work performance
  • Ignoring phone calls or messages
  • Little or no feedback on performance
  • Withholding information essential to perform one’s job
  • Toxic e-mails

Actions intended to control or manipulate

  • Failing to invite someone to an essential meeting
  • Threatening job loss
  • Excessive monitoring or micro-management
  • Assigning tasks that cannot be completed by deadline; setting unrealistic goals
  • Interference or sabotage
  • Ignoring a coworker with the intent to harm or control
  • Treating a worker differently than peers and co-workers
  • Ostracism, isolation, dissociation or exclusion from others
  • Refusal to take responsibility
  • Excessive, impossible, conflicting work expectations or demands
  • Inequitable and harsh treatment
  • Other objectionable behavior designed to torment, isolate, pester or abuse

Looking though these characteristics it is easy to see many of these behaviors in employees in almost any work environment. It is important to remember that bullying is an action specifically intended to hurt an individual or a group, not simply an act of poor communication and interpersonal skills on the part of an employee or supervisor. Further, these actions are reserved for the target individual or group and not applied to others.

Workplace Impact

The longer an individual is exposed to bullying the more severe the effects will be on the person or persons. Studies have shown increased anxiety, stress and panic attacks as result of repeated occurrences. Workplace bullying can also instill fear in the employee making it immensely difficult for them get up and go in to work.

It is also noteworthy to consider the vicarious experience of bullying by the witnesses (co-workers). When bullying occurs in the presence of other employees it can lead to feelings of guilt, helplessness or fear that they will become the next victim. Bullying not only affects the employees but also the company in which it occurs for various reasons to include;

  1. Decreased productivity
  2. Higher healthcare benefit costs
  3. Increased absenteeism and turnover
  4. Increased stress which can affect service, quality and errors
  5. Low morale among employees

What can you do?

It is not uncommon that a person being bullied chooses not to report it out of fear of retaliation from the employee or the company they work for. Still, workers have rights and it’s possible to exercise them when necessary while also remaining professional. Further, ignoring the problem will not usually change things so remaining silent won’t help.

If you believe you are a being bullied there are professional steps you can take:

Look critically, and honestly, at the situation:

Take the time to evaluation what’s really happening. Are you the target of a bully, or are others also getting the same treatment? Is it repeatedly happening or is it just a bad day? Maybe the individual is just an unhappy, angry person who treats most people the same way. While none of these behaviors should be acceptable in the workplace, there is a difference between bullying and general, bad behavior. Bullying is persistently aggressive and/or unreasonable behavior against a specific group or individual.

Address the bully directly

If you know you’re being bullied, firmly, and professionally, tell the individual that their behavior is unacceptable and politely asking that person to stop. Try not to engage with the bully any further than that because a verbal match was not your intention. Further, arguing or yelling can exacerbate the situation and make you look just as guilty.

If you do not feel comfortable doing this then speak with your supervisor and ask for their assistance.  Your supervisor should be able to guide you through the steps you need take. Mediation is one way supervisors can help to resolve the issue.

Keep a record

It’s always a good practice to document events as soon as they happen. Write down the details of any bullying to include what they said, what you said, along with the time and date. This will assure that should the time come to take things to another level, you are not relying on memory and you can remain factual and dispassionate. Both will help to strengthen your position.

Use your Chain of Command

Most organizations have either formal or informal procedures in place for addressing conflict and it usually begins by speaking to your supervisor. Other procedures may be documented in your organization’s employee handbook.

If the person bullying you is your supervisor then moving up to the next supervisory level or the human resources office will usually be next.  Always keep any physical proof and documentation that you may have and present it to the proper personnel. Describe what is happening in detail and explain how the situation is impacting your ability to do your work. It’s important to stress that you want to find a productive, comfortable way of addressing the situation.

Check your emotions

Bullying can be perceived as a serious threat even when it’s not physical. It is normal therefore to react emotionally; getting angry, defensive, and even crying are all normal reactions to a perceived threat. As hard as it may be, remaining calm and unemotional can go alone way toward maintaining the upper hand when addressing the bully or seeking assistance.

Seek Assistance

Many people are afraid to address issues of bullying because they fear it could impact or jeopardize their position or their employment. But bullying left unchecked can harm more than your career, it can affect your mental, physical, and emotional health. It is never in the best interest of an organization for employees to be bullied and most supervisors, and certainly business executives and owners, will not tolerate it. Besides the negative impact on worker productively and morale, in worst cases, there can be legal ramifications to unchecked bullying in the workplace. So don’t keep attacks to yourself.

If you are unsure or uncomfortable addressing a bullying issue alone, Capital EAP can provide coaching, support and guidance on the professional steps you should take to resolve the problem.