Select Page

Bullying in the workplace: How to identify and address it

workplace bully

Bullying is often associated with childhood, but we rarely pay attention to its impacts on adults. Workplace bullying is a serious issue which can affect seriously affect morale and mental health. Here’s how to identify and address it. 

Defining workplace bullying

According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, bullying is defined as “the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or online.”

A key detail to keep in mind is that bullying and harassment while sharing a lot in common, there are small differences. Physical — especially sexual — assault and threats in the workplace are harassment, not bullying. Attacks on a person based on their race, religion, gender, disability, age, etc., are considered discriminatory harassment.

Another key detail to take note of is that in some instances, what one coworker considers ‘innocent fun’, another may find traumatic and/or unpleasant.

Some examples of workplace bullying include the following.

  • Instigating and/or spreading rumours about a colleague: This is when a person purposely passes on misleading, inaccurate and false information about another in the workplace.
  • Cyberbullying on social media: Instances of this could include creating unsolicited or unflattering edits of a coworker, calling them names or taunting them online, and even posting things from a coworker’s account without their permission as a joke.
  • Actively excluding individuals from workplace group activities: Unfairly excluding people from taking part in activities can be hurtful and can be considered bullying. An example would be going to a work event with your coworkers and not including a person because you don’t like them.
  • Sabotaging a colleague’s work: This is a more complicated type of bullying which involves interfering with a person’s work. Sometimes a colleague, supervisor or employer may set unrealistic deadlines expecting an individual to fail, or a coworker may blame another for mistakes they did not commit to set them up. In some instances, taking credit for work you did not do can also be considered bullying.

excluding a coworker

  • Damaging somebody’s belongings: Damaging another person’s belongings may be considered bullying and in more extreme cases, can even be considered a crime. Stealing, breaking, or even using somebody else’s items without their permission could be placed under this category.
  • Using profanity or verbally abusing somebody: While work friends may often use profanity with each other due to the nature of their relationship, there are limits to be exercised. Verbally abusing a colleague, though, is simply bullying with no excuses. Offensive jokes also fall under this category.
  • Intimidating another: Whether verbal or physical, intimidation is a serious issue which can even be considered ‘harassment’ and therefore lead to legal action. Instances that can be considered intimidation include spying on coworkers and threatening to expose private information.

While these are the more common types of workplace bullying, they can take on many different forms and can be hard to identify. This is because the office setting and working relationships combine to create a vastly different environment which facilitates highly nuanced and convoluted interactions. 

Take for instance inhumane workplace policies. These can be considered bullying, such as forcing employees to work overtime or publicly shaming them when a mistake is made. Another one to consider is the assigning of ‘weird’ tasks to particular individuals. Sometimes, supervisors might pick on members of the team and give them pointless tasks just to waste their time.

Impacts of workplace bullying

Bullying in the workplace can take a toll on the individual experiencing it, the team they’re a part of, and even the whole organisation. It can cause employees to want to leave the workplace entirely and employee morale could take a hit.

Bullying can have lifelong effects on people. The stress that comes with bullying can negatively impact a person’s physical, mental and emotional well-being, disrupting their interpersonal relationships, ability to communicate, trust in the company, and self-esteem. It could also lead to severe burnout, impacting their ability to deliver on their tasks.

Healthwise, bullying can contribute to numerous medical conditions, including high blood pressure, anxiety, appetite loss, chronic stress, insomnia, depression and more. 

Public shaming
A study was conducted to determine if employees exposed to workplace bullying and violence were at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The conclusion drawn stated that they found a higher risk of incident type 2 diabetes among employees exposed to bullying or violence in the workplace.

To make matters worse, the chronic stress associated with being constantly bullied could lead to heart disease in individuals. As the American Heart Association stated, “Ongoing stress not only takes an emotional and psychological toll, it can produce physical symptoms. Those may include headaches, an upset stomach, tense and aching muscles, insomnia and low energy. Heart disease is another potential stress-related problem. Stress may lead to high blood pressure, which can pose a risk for heart attack and stroke.” 

This is why bullying, even when considered harmless by those carrying it out, can be detrimental. It can easily claim a life.

Handling instances of bullying 

If you are a victim of bullying in the workplace, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that you must not blame yourself for getting bullied. Bullying is about control and creates a power imbalance between the victim and the perpetrator. 

Secondly, whether it’s yourself or a coworker who is getting bullied, you must take some space and review your options before addressing the bully and/or their actions officially. Here are some things that you can do.

1. Reach out to a therapist: It might sound drastic but therapy is a completely normal and acceptable avenue to pursue in circumstances like this. By talking to a therapist, you can align the events and facts and understand the situation better.

Your therapist may even provide you with the tools you need to safeguard your mental health while you handle your workplace bully.

2. Don’t wait for the right moment: You may feel like waiting it out could help or that the present isn’t conducive to addressing this issue, but don’t wait for the moment to come. There is a chance that the bullying could get worse or that it could go unaddressed entirely.

If you feel like you’re a target of bullying, address the situation at the earliest possible time. In some cases, when the act is minor, you can speak up then and there. If it is a more serious case, consider pulling together evidence of the matter and taking it to your supervisor or to HR.

somebody you trust

3. Try talking to your bully: The best thing about being an adult is that you can have well-thought-out conversations with other adults. Try sitting them down and talking to them diplomatically. It may or may not work, but your chances are 50-50.

Make sure that you clearly and simply state what they did and how it made you feel. Explain to them why what they did was unacceptable. You can even flip the roles in your explanation to give them an understanding of how uncomfortable it would feel if they were in your shoes.

4. Evidence is key: If talking to your bully doesn’t work, you may need to escalate this issue. This is where evidence comes in handy. One easy way to gather evidence is to take note of the Who, When, What, Why and Where. Keeping these details written down after an incident of bullying has taken place will be useful when you’re escalating the matter.

5. Company policies: Before taking action, research your company’s policies on mistreatment and bullying. Companies usually meticulously detail what constitutes what in the official documentation for precisely this purpose.Look for the ‘keywords’ they use and mirror them when speaking to your supervisor, employer or HR. This will help cement your complaint and will likely be taken more seriously.

To further help your case, make sure to highlight how the bullying is affecting the company. Yes, the difficulty you’re facing should be enough but unfortunately, in some cases, it simply isn’t. If you’re able to show the company why this person’s actions are harmful not only to you but also to them, you’ll increase your chances of them taking action against your bully.

Final thoughts

It would be nice if bullies always got their just desserts but in reality, this is not guaranteed. According to a Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) survey, 77% of the victims of workplace bullying end up leaving their job or getting fired for bringing up the bullying incident.

In the worst-case scenario, you must look out for yourself and walk away. This is why looking for a new job is a last resort. 

If none of the above-mentioned steps helps you overcome your workplace bully, then it would be time to move on from your current job. This can be especially hard if you like what you do, but the long-term consequences of bullying can be extremely detrimental to your health. 

Seek professional support to work through your thoughts and emotions before making the decision on whether or not to leave your current place of employment. 




Kahless is a writer with a special interest in sociology. He spends much of his free time travelling, reading, writing, and stopping his cats from ripping apart everything he owns. It’s advised to bring along a strong cup of coffee (3 espresso shots minimum) when approaching him.

Keep reading