Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Bullying in the Workplace

A national epidemic, a crime, or a misdefined problem?

Articles on bullying at work abound these days. What has always been a schoolyard problem (especially for me, as a small and bookish child) has crossed over to the office, the factory, the job site, the restaurant, and the retail store. Wherever employees gather to work and communicate, we see the growing emergence of a set of behaviors that can create fear, anxiety, stress, and even injuries.

The usual perception of workplace bullying is the angry and belittling boss, often a male, who throws his physical and symbolic weight around to leverage his authority over scared employees. The bigger truth is that office bullies can be company owners and partners, senior executives, line managers, supervisors, or other frontline employees. One recent study, however anecdotal, suggests that female supervisors make some of the worst office bullies, mistaking assertiveness for aggression as they make outrageous demands or mistreat their staffs.

We want all bosses to be firm, fair, and consistent and when they aren’t, who can help? Certainly the Human Resources office, legal counsel, business owners or partners, Board of Directors, senior management, or even any supervisor can and should step in when bullying impacts the morale of one or more employees and the bottom line of the company.

But workplace bullying has a shadowy component to it. What some employees see as a tough boss, others see as a bully. And since bullying can be person-specific, some people are targets while others are not. Bullying can be verbal and/or physical. So if any employee, at any level, grabs, pushes, or threatens another employee, we may have crossed over into a criminal act.

This issue raises lots of questions, and what makes it even more complex is that many senior business people don’t even like to admit that it may be occurring in their facilities. “Some of our employees are just too sensitive,” they say, or, “We don’t need a ‘champion employee’ around here, seeing injustice and mistreatment everywhere he or she looks.” Or, “If people complain about a bully, then do we have a potential for a ‘hostile work environment’ claim?” There is a fair amount of denial, rationalization, and even tacit acceptance of this issue, which is troubling, as in, “Yeah, Dave’s the office bully, but he sure can sell our products and the customers love him” or “She’s a bully for sure, but we need her project management skills when it’s crunch time.”

So is workplace bullying an overly-exaggerated response to a boss or co-worker with lousy people skills? Is it a good definition for a boss or co-worker who lacks social intelligence and punishes others? Is it a crime when it becomes threatening or hands-on? Are we under-responding in business today?

For help, I interviewed Ms. Catherine Mattice, MA, co-author of a book on workplace bullying and a nationally-recognized expert, based in San Diego. (I’ve edited her responses for length.)

What is your definition of workplace bullying?

“Bullying is systematic abuse that creates an unhealthy and psychological power imbalance between the bully and his or her target, which can result in psychological damage for both the target and co-workers. The potential costs, both emotional and monetary, can really damage an organization’s bottom line. Bullying causes targets and co-workers to feel anxious, depressed, fearful, lose sleep, develop headaches and stomachaches, create self-doubt and anger, and even post-traumatic stress disorder according to a lot of recent research.”

How do you categorize bullying behaviors in the workplace?

“I see it as aggressive communication – outright and overt communication - such as insulting others, shouting, angry outbursts, getting in someone’s face or personal space, or sending particularly nasty e-mails.

“Or it’s acts aimed at humiliation – harsh teasing, spreading rumors or gossip, purposely ignoring the targets, using social isolation, taunting with social media, or blaming the targets for mistakes that aren’t their fault.

“Lastly, it can occur as a manipulation of work – removing tasks imperative to one’s job with no explanation, giving unmanageable workloads and deadlines, changing tasks arbitrarily, giving poor performance evaluations despite good performance, purposefully withholding information needed to be effective at work, or micro-managing. Manipulation is the hardest category of behaviors to identify, because they are often covert and passive-aggressive.”

Ms. Mattice notes, “While we’ve all experienced some of these behaviors at some point at work, they become bullying when they occur frequently. Bullying is not a one-time event; it’s on-going abuse that occurs several times a day or week, becomes more and more aggressive over time, and usually lasts around two years before there is any solution or relief.”

How does office bullying differ from behaviors we see in a "hostile work environment" claim?

“Harassment, discrimination and creating a hostile work environment are certainly bullying behaviors. But, harassment, discrimination, and hostile work environments are defined by law with regard to ‘protected classes’ only. If you are bullied because of your gender, race, religion, or other protected class categies, you are protected from bullying by federal and state laws. But if your bully is an ‘equal opportunity bully’ then you have no legal recourse. Equal opportunity bullying is legal.”

Some people say that they just work for a bad boss, not a bully. What is the difference?

“The difference is that a tough boss will attempt to coach poor performance while a bully will call others stupid when they aren’t performing; a tough boss perhaps never says thank-you for hard work, while a bully will take credit for others’ work; a tough boss will attempt to motivate employees to succeed through fear, while a bully will decrease motivation with punitive punishment. Bullying is about perception. You could have three people working together, one mistreats the other two, the second thinks his co-worker is a jerk but isn’t bothered by it, the third feels bullied and is completely torn apart by it. What this means is that everyone needs to be on the same page about what bullying is and isn’t within the company specifically. Developing an enforcing a policy and using company-wide mandatory training are important steps to protecting targeted employees from bullying and protecting alleged bullies from false claims.”

What language needs to be put into an anti-bullying company policy?

“I disagree that there should be a specific ‘workplace bullying prevention policy’; instead there should be a ‘healthy workplace’ company policy. It’s better if you tell employees what they should do, instead of focusing on what they should not do. It’s better to tell them what the end result should be (a healthy workplace), rather than what it should not be (a place where we don’t bully).

“A ‘healthy workplace policy’ should include a company commitment to ensuring the workplace is free of negativity and unprofessional behaviors and aimed at providing an atmosphere of respect, collaboration, safety and civility. The policy should list behaviors that are encouraged at work (e.g., use respectful and supportive language in all interactions, disagree with peers politely and professionally, give peers direct and constructive feedback rather than negative criticism, approach conflict with maturity and seek resolutions), as well as a list of bullying behaviors that will not be tolerated.

“The policy should also say that a healthy workplace is the responsibility of everyone from top management to the frontline employees, using a commitment to training programs that will support healthy workplace interpersonal skills (e.g., optimism, resilience, conflict management, leadership, communication, diversity, etc.), and a complaint procedure that emulates the procedure for harassment and discrimination complaints.

“It also doesn’t hurt to open up harassment and discrimination policies to include workplace bullying. Human Resources could add to those policies that harassing anyone, protected class or not, will not be tolerated. I also want to be clear that a policy won’t end bullying – ending bullying in an organization requires a focus on policy, leadership, and culture.”

Ms. Mattice’s book is called BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, published by Infinity Publishing and available at bookstores and online. You can reach Ms. Mattice at and learn more about workplace bullying at

Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is a San Diego-based speaker, author, and trainer. He is board certified in HR, security, and coaching. He focuses on high-risk employee issues, threat assessment, and school and workplace violence prevention. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 16 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects. He can be reached at or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht

More from Steve Albrecht DBA
More from Psychology Today