What Is Workplace Bullying?
Unfortunately, bullying is not restricted to the school playground. A recent survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute showed over 60 million workers have suffered from workplace bullying.
You may be being bullied if you:
- Find yourself trying to avoid working with a certain colleague
- Find a group or individual’s behavior at work makes you feel uncomfortable
- Suffer from name-calling or other verbal abuse
- Are the focus of gossip and lying
- Are dealing with an overbearing colleague who thinks it is funny to play pranks and jokes
- Have a coworker that is constantly and consistently undermining your work or reporting your mistakes to a superior
Workplace bullying is based on a lack of respect, which can lead to ongoing mistreatment. This can include:
- Verbal abuse
- Physical abuse
- Threatening behavior
- Sexual advances and harassment
- Work interference
If you find the behavior of a colleague, peer or even a manager to be inappropriate and uncomfortable, with a negative effect on your performance, mental and physical health, then it might be bullying.
Is Workplace Bullying Illegal?
Workplace bullying in and of itself is not technically illegal. However, if the behavior causes a hostile work environment based on attacks on certain protected characteristics, then it could be illegal in terms of discrimination.
These protected characteristics are enshrined as illegal factors to discriminate on in various laws and acts:
- Gender identity
- Sexual orientation
- Physical or mental disability
- Country of origin/US citizenship
If the bullying relates to one of these, the workplace and business can then become open to a discrimination lawsuit.
What Are the Effects of Workplace Bullying?
Workplace bullying has a deep impact on the victim, other staff members and the workplace itself.
To fully understand the depth of the issue, it is important to understand just what the effects of workplace bullying can be across the business.
For the Victim
Mental health problems like anxiety, depression and sleeplessness, which can lead to physical illnesses, are one small part of the effect that workplace bullying can have on a victim.
Even in the early stages of a bullying problem, a victim can feel alone, sad and lacking in self-confidence.
The dread of coming to work and facing the problematic colleague or manager leads to requiring time off, which may or may not be paid.
In some cases, the victim might leave to avoid the problem or get terminated for absenteeism or productivity issues.
The Wider Workplace
A bullied staff member is often not the only one struggling – they can be part of a wider issue.
Even if they are not being directly bullied, colleagues might feel helpless and torn between helping their colleague and working hard to not lose their jobs or also become affected.
Problems between employees can have a serious negative impact on team morale and make the workplace culture unhappy and even toxic.
The Business Bottom Line
A bullied employee will be struggling with mental and physical health problems and is likely to need extended absences.
Bad feelings and employees unwilling or unable to work to their fullest have a negative impact on productivity, eating into profit margins.
Further, a bad workplace culture with a bullying problem impacts staff turnover and makes it difficult to recruit and keep great employees.
How to Recognize a Bully
Bullying has many forms:
- It can be verbal: yelling, swearing and name-calling
- It can be more obvious physical assault
- It might look like a manager abusing their position of power to pass someone over for a deserved promotion or to require subordinates to go against their contracts
- In some cases, it might relate to gossip, sharing private information or even lying about a victim and their situation to make them look bad or be mistreated
Constant belittling comments and criticism, reporting on every single mistake, and even sabotaging projects or otherwise interfering in work to make the victim look incompetent is bullying behavior.
Bullying is not limited to face-to-face interactions; it can take place over email and text messages or other written media.
In online and remote working, bullying can also be constantly talking over someone in online conferences, meetings and group calls, or perhaps simply ‘forgetting’ to invite them or tell them the correct time.
It is worth mentioning that if you are struggling with your performance, being managed by your supervisor (and the negative feelings that you might have for being criticized in that way) could feel like bullying.
But it may not be.
After the negative feelings have passed, perhaps when you have some alone time or can talk to those you trust, try to consider the objective points that had been raised in the conversation and whether or not they are true.
In general terms, bullying tends to be ongoing mistreatment characterized by a lack of respect and is often felt and recognized by more than just the victim.
How to Deal With a Bully
The worst thing to do is allow the bullying to continue, whether you are the victim or a bystander.
The endpoint could be that the victim becomes really unwell and/or ends up leaving their job.
There are various steps that can be taken to deal with the problem – the ones that you choose will depend on your personality, the situation and the policies available at your workplace.
Take Care of Your Wellbeing
The first thing you need to do – and keep doing – is put yourself first.
Make sure that you are doing all you can to protect yourself from the negative behavior.
You need to acknowledge the way that you are feeling and set limits in your own mind about what you are willing to accept in terms of the bullying.
Setting this limit can bring your personal courage to the forefront and help you step up to call out and put a stop to the behavior when it comes up.
Also, maintain self-care routines, such as good sleep practices at home, eating healthy and diverse foods, and perhaps considering herbal supplements.
Stay Calm and Professional
This can be one of the hardest parts to do because of the behavior’s emotional effect on you. However, maintaining the high ground and keeping your cool will pay off in the end.
When you know you are dealing with yelling, name-calling or other unnecessary comments, think of polite but firm conversation-ending replies beforehand. Practice saying them until they feel comfortable.
Using these can help quickly deflect the behavior before it gets too far. This might include phrases like:
- “Let’s take a break and come back to this later”
- “That language is inappropriate, can we take some time to cool off?”
- “Don’t talk to me like that”
This may be enough to make the bully stop and think about how they are acting, but even if not, it can highlight the problem to other colleagues in the vicinity and explicitly shows you are not ok with the behavior.
Talk to the Bully
This can be a scary step to take, but, in some cases, a quiet word is enough to make the bullying stop.
In many cases, the perpetrator might not be aware of how their actions are being perceived.
Do not necessarily confront them in an aggressive way – it could be as simple as letting them know the negative effects of their behavior on you and others. If you want to, bring a friend or coworker who will back you up.
Having an informal and private discussion with a workplace bully and documenting the fact that you have asked them to stop is a good step to take even if you are sure that the behavior will continue. The documentation of this will be useful should the situation end up going to court for harassment.
Confront the Bully and Call Out Their Behavior in Real-Time
If you can, stop the bully in their tracks by deciding to call out their problematic behavior at the time.
You do not have to be unprofessional or make a scene, but be strong enough to make the point. Make it so other people notice and understand.
It will make more of an impact if you can answer the bully at the time.
An immediate response has a different effect to having a quiet word later on as it disrupts the usual pattern of conversation. It is therefore more noticeable and can make the bully aware of those around you who also see the behavior.
It does require serious self-respect and confidence, which can be low after a long time being bullied, so try this as soon as you can, should a private word not work.
Document the Bully’s Behavior
To take the problem higher, you need a record of what happened and when. Record the time, date and details of any incidents.
Keep both digital and hard copies of any written evidence. This could include printing emails illustrating the bully’s behavior. The more evidence of the problem you can provide, the better.
Also, speaking to colleagues can help you to feel supported but can also help you to document the occurrences.
Ask co-workers to document behavior if they witness it or are also being bullied. You may be surprised how many are willing or able to supply evidence once someone else asks.
Having more than one source of evidence can make a stronger argument when you do take the problem higher.
The formal step of making an official complaint to HR or higher management is easier if you have documented all the steps that you have already taken, such as privately speaking to the bully or publicly calling them out.
Make a Formal Complaint
If talking to the bully is not an option or does not work, report the behavior to HR or higher management, showing everything you have documented.
For each instance, provide any witnesses and hard copies of any conversations that are part of the problem.
To understand what the process in your workplace will be, you should be able to find details in your employee handbook or contract.
Each business will have a different process, and this might mean a meeting between you and the bully for mediation, the bully may be reprimanded or fired, or it might seem that nothing happens because the outcome is kept quiet for privacy needs.
What to Do if No Action Is Taken
If no action is taken, or you feel that your complaint was not taken seriously, it might be time to find a new job.
As difficult as this may be, your mental health and happiness are more important than any job. It is not running away, it is prioritizing yourself over the bully’s fun. Get out if you need to.
If the bullying is related to one of the protected characteristics mentioned above, you might have a case against the business for discrimination, or in some cases, a lawsuit against the bully themselves. But make sure you get proper legal advice.
Workplace bullying can have a devastating effect on the victim, but it also has wide-reaching consequences for other colleagues and the whole business.
Businesses can have problems with employee turnover, productivity and profits when workplace bullying is pervasive.
Bullying can make you feel unappreciated, anxious and depressed, even making your physical health deteriorate. It is not surprising that workplace bullying can be traced as a big cause of absenteeism, self-esteem issues and the loss of self-confidence.
Workplace bullying can be illegal if it is in regards to a protected characteristic. Businesses can find themselves facing litigation if they do not take steps to deal with concerns about bullying.
Dealing with a workplace bully needs a strong mindset and a deep understanding of self-care and personal responsibility.
Taking the right steps to make sure that the bullying stops, and nobody else becomes a victim, can seem like an overwhelming task, but take it step-by-step.
The evidence that you can gather will help if and when you must make a formal complaint.
Throughout it all, remember that your happiness at work and your wider mental health is much more important than any job, so make sure that you look after yourself.