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How to Stop Workplace Bullying

Set boundaries and start reporting to stop bullying in the workplace.

Key points

  • Research finds an increase in bullying at work since the pandemic, with emotional, physical, career and financial implications for victims.
  • Workplace bullying can occur in the forms of relational, physical, verbal, and damage to property.
  • A new study shows that bystanders exist in 88 percent of workplace bullying incidents but fail to say anything.
Source: Prostock-studio/Adobestock

Childhood bullying is a common topic of discussion and concern. Unfortunately, bullying doesn’t stop after you leave school. A 2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey revealed some startling statistics: About 48.6 million Americans have been bullied at work, translating into 30 percent of all adults. During the pandemic, harassment rose higher to 43 percent. Bullying is considered harassment when it is based on an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual or gender orientation, age, disability, or national origin.

Studies show workplace bullying can take emotional, physical, career, and financial tolls as it causes anxiety and hinders job performance. Bullying in the workplace can be defined as:

  • Unwanted aggressive behavior that causes psychological or physical harm.
  • An observed or perceived power imbalance.
  • A repetition of behaviors or a high likelihood of repetition.

Common Characteristics of a Workplace Bully

Overall, men have more power in the workplace and, thus, are more likely to bully. However, women are more likely to bully other women because they often experience marginalization and discrimination and tend to become competitive with one another.

It is a common misconception that only bosses or supervisors can be bullies because they are in a position of power and control, but individuals with greater seniority, in higher positions of authority, in the dominant social cliques, or individuals with various levels of privilege may also be in positions of power and control and susceptible to bullying.

Bullies typically:

  • Lack empathy.
  • Have few friends.
  • Have a need for exploiting power and control.
  • Struggle with interpersonal differences.
  • Feel empowered by causing conflict or making others feel threatened, fearful, or hurt.
  • Suffer from low self-esteem.
  • May have been bullied themselves.
  • May be a trauma survivor.

Types of Workplace Bullying

  • Relational bullying: Gossiping, ignoring, excluding, or participating in cliques.
  • Physical bullying: Dirty looks, invading personal space, offensive gestures or facial expressions, physical assault.
  • Verbal bullying: Passive-aggressive comments, negative or critical comments about appearance or personality, demanding, bossy behavior, rumors, hostile language, name-calling.
  • Damage to property: Stealing or damaging items.

Examples of workplace bullying

  • A boss who puts you down, swears at you, calls you names, or physically intimidates you by standing behind you while you work at your desk.
  • A group of coworkers that makes snarky comments, makes faces at you, excludes you from social activities, and makes you feel unwelcome.
  • A colleague who backstabs you by spreading rumors and prevents you from accessing resources that you need to get your work done, including causing a paper jam in your printer the day your big report was due.

Healthy workplace environments can make you feel like you are part of a community. Meanwhile, unhealthy workplaces where bullying is tolerated can have the opposite effect and can be detrimental to your self-esteem and mental health–possibly triggering or exacerbating conditions such as depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, trauma, PTSD, and more.

Bullying in Virtual Workplaces

Bullying in virtual environments might look like demeaning behaviors, belittling, or talking over somebody during meetings or video calls. The same types of verbal bullying, such as passive aggression, critical comments, gaslighting, and personal attacks that can happen in person, can happen over video platforms.

Steps to Stop Bullying at Work

1. Remember that your safety comes first.

  • Keep safe–create physical distancing.
  • Keep your distance and keep your options open.
  • Keep your cool, breathe deeply, and avoid being reactive.
  • Avoid interrupting or provoking bullies to deescalate the situation.
  • Practice empathy in an effort to diffuse them.
  • Detach, don’t get hooked, and avoid defensiveness.
  • Be consciously responsive, not emotionally reactive.
  • Hang onto your confidence.
  • Remove yourself and seek assistance.

2. Say something to the bully and document it. Maintain eye contact. Stand tall with your shoulders back. Hold your ground. Speak honestly, assertively, and diplomatically. Use “I” statements to express your feelings and set healthy boundaries. Demonstrate respect for yourself and others with a tone that is professional and firm. Be direct and neither passive nor aggressive when setting boundaries with statements such as:

  • “I am not comfortable with the volume of this conversation. If we can’t both speak calmly, I will need to end this call.”
  • “It is not okay to call me that name.”
  • “I feel uncomfortable being blocked by you. I need you to please move.”

Document what you said by writing it down or emailing yourself so you have a time-stamped record in case the event happens again and you need to file a formal report. Keep it factual, objective, and true. “Today, Sue said, “you are a loser” and I replied, “It is not okay to speak to me that way. That is workplace bullying, and I will not tolerate it.”

3. Tell someone and file a report. Tell somebody else what happened. Tell your boss. If it’s your boss that’s the bully, tell your boss’s boss. If you feel comfortable going to HR do so. If you do not, tell a trusted mentor or even coworker who may have a trusted boss or supervisor higher up in the organization. Some organizations even allow anonymous reporting of bullying or harassment in the workplace, so look at your company’s employee policies and procedures.

4. Practice self-care.

  • Seek therapy or counseling to heal and recover from the harmful effects of workplace bullying. Remember, you may have some free and confidential sessions through your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
  • Work a confidence or assertiveness training program.
  • Cultivate equanimity and emotional intelligence by practicing mindfulness like meditation, deep breathing, and yoga. Studies reveal mental and physical health benefits include improving stress regulation and decreasing emotional reactivity.
  • Create a support system at work by seeking out like-minded colleagues and finding a trusted mentor.
  • Work a mental fitness program for recovery, such as The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life.
  • Visit for more information and resources.
  • Seek legal advocacy.

Empowering the Bystander

A recent study shows that bystanders exist in 88 percent of workplace bullying incidents, and the usual response is apathy and overlooking what they have observed rather than having the moral courage to say something and file a report. Fear is what prevents these silent observers from stepping in–fear of becoming a target, fear of retaliation, and fear of making the situation worse.

Empowering the bystander is one of the most effective ways to stop workplace bullying.

Bystanders need to do one of three things:

  1. Say something right then and there in front of everyone: “That’s not okay!”
  2. Say something in private to either the bully (“That wasn’t cool”) or the victim (“Are you okay? Do you want help filing a report?”).
  3. Tell a supervisor or HR rep.

Don’t ignore workplace bullying, or nothing will change.

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” —Albert Einstein


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