Workplace bullying is a critical issue for companies worldwide. Not only does it affect individual well-being; but it can also hinder organizational success. From subtle microaggressions to overt acts of intimidation, bullying behaviours can erode trust, reduce morale, and increase turnover.
In the U.S., 30% of the workforce experiences workplace bullying, and 43% of remote workers experience bullying. A full 65% of reported cases involve a bully boss, while 21% involve peers. And workplace bullying has far-reaching repercussions on both individuals and organizational success.
Let’s explore the different forms that workplace bullying can take, along with its serious impacts. Then, we’ll provide actionable strategies that HR professionals and leaders can use to detect, address, and prevent bullying. By adopting these strategies, you can foster a workplace culture that prioritizes respect, collaboration, growth, and employee well-being.
Table of Contents
Workplace Bullying Behaviours
To address workplace bullying, HR departments must understand the many forms it can take. While bullying can manifest in overt ways, its more subtle forms often go unnoticed—and unaddressed. Here are some behaviours that a workplace bully might engage in:
- Spreading rumors or distortions of facts
- Withholding information from a coworker
- Sabotaging or taking credit for a colleague’s efforts
- Insulting or embarrassing a coworker
- Blaming someone unfairly or gaslighting them
- Dismissing an employee’s claims of being highly stressed or overloaded
- Ostracizing someone from the group (giving them the “silent treatment”)
Bullies typically aim to undermine their victim’s self-identity as well as intimidate them. They may accuse them of incompetence, or of making mistakes they didn’t actually make. They frequently hold their target to a different standard than everyone else, as Amy Morin writes in Inc. A workplace bully engages in actions like these repeatedly and purposefully.
Research shows that high performers may be more likely to experience covert forms of bullying, like being silenced or dismissed. Meanwhile, lower performers are more likely to experience overt bullying, like insults.
Bullying may emerge from personal bias or insecurity, fuelled by bullies’ desire to get ahead at the expense of others. Sometimes this behaviour gets a pass because managers perceive the bully as a high performer, but in reality, that’s usually a carefully constructed image. “Bullies are usually mediocre performers who may appear to be stars, while in fact they often take credit for the work of others,” say Ludmila N. Praslova, Ron Carucci, and Caroline Stokes in Harvard Business Review.
Some bosses are naturally more abrasive than others. Does this count as bullying? According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, a manager who bullies people will typically focus on one individual (though different people can be affected over time). This laser focus is particularly harmful because it isolates the person while presenting them as inferior to their coworkers. On the other hand, if a manager lobs insults at various people regularly, or takes credit for their work, we would consider that bullying as well. Consistent incivility is unacceptable, no matter how many or how few people it targets.
Impacts of Workplace Bullying
The distress caused by bullying reduces creativity, innovation, and effectiveness, assert Praslova, Carucci, and Stokes. Over time, this can affect team and organizational success, causing workplace collaboration to suffer and eroding employees’ sense of psychological safety. The trust needed to effectively work towards big goals together will be lacking or absent.
Bullying brings all of these harmful consequences as well:
- High-stress levels
- Sharply decreased productivity (for both targets and teams)
- Plummeting employee well-being
- Poor workplace culture, which harms organizational effectiveness
- A spike in employee turnover
- A lack of employee growth
The high-stress levels caused by bullying can result in a host of physical and mental health issues, along with burnout and an unhealthy workplace culture. “Victims of workplace bullying can suffer long-term physical and mental health issues, including anxiety, stress, sleep deprivation, depression, hypertension, a loss of self-esteem, decreased productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism [being physically present but mentally ‘checked out’],” writes Jack Kelly in Forbes.
People experiencing bullying won’t perform at their best; often they start withdrawing from their work. Ultimately, they’ll opt to leave if leaders don’t address the problem. Bullying can also affect individuals and their organizations financially, leading to lost productivity, revenue, and wages.
Further, if managers are bullying their direct reports, these employees will lack the coaching needed to advance. Growth will stagnate, or performance may even decline.
Additionally, bullying can be considered a form of harassment, which is prohibited under Canadian and U.S. law. So, addressing workplace bullying is a legal issue too.
How to Address and Prevent Workplace Bullying
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends a zero-tolerance policy for workplace bullying. We’ll discuss how to adopt a range of strategies that address both systemic as well as individual causes of bullying. This will help you prevent and confront the issue, holding people accountable for their behaviour.
Adopt a Code of Conduct
Create a code of conduct that prohibits bullying behaviour—SHRM shares a sample one. Discuss it with employees in a group meeting, illustrating the types of behaviours that won’t be tolerated. Share the contact info for a specific HR staff member they can reach out to if they experience bullying.
To ensure accountability, hold periodic 360 surveys where employees can give anonymous feedback about their superiors and colleagues. This will help you enforce your code of conduct.
Identify the Signs of Bullying
People don’t always know when they’re being bullied. They may feel uncomfortable but not identify the behaviour as bullying. So, equip them with the tools to detect bullying when they—or others around them—are experiencing it. Workshops on bullying can also deter aggressive behaviours toward others, helping people recognize and address their impulse to bully coworkers.
The Workplace Bullying Institute shares common signs and symptoms of bullying, such as these:
- Dreading going to work, or stressing about work while at home.
- Feeling your work is never good enough for your boss or colleague.
- Regularly confronting barriers created by a coworker.
- Hearing your concerns about your coworker or manager validated by others (but not seeing anyone step in to help).
- Feeling a persistent sense of doom on the job.
Don’t focus mainly on overt bullying while ignoring covert bullying, they add. Covert bullying can feel relentless yet harder to speak out against.
Document any bullying behaviours to the extent possible, looking for evidence illustrating them. Ask if the target has kept a log recording times and dates of particular incidents.
Correct Behaviour in the Moment (When Feasible)
For instance, if one coworker continuously minimizes another’s contributions, correct the story immediately. If Todd passes himself off as responsible for the success of a project that Noah led, say, “I really want to thank Noah for his superb work in spearheading this initiative.” This lets the bully know that the behaviour won’t be tolerated—and that their efforts to claim credit will backfire.
Don’t expect the victim of bullying to just “work it out” with the bully. A workplace bully will typically deflect any efforts to resolve the problem. Instead, their manager or HR should confront the bully, explaining how the behaviour has affected others.
Make it easy for the bully to do what you’re asking, Savvas Trichas says in HBR. She calls this “building a golden bridge”—a tactic frequently used by high-profile negotiators. You’re essentially saying, “I want you to succeed. This behaviour is holding you back. Let’s talk about how you can change.” Use clear and direct language to explain what you want the bully to understand.
Make sure the target of bullying has access to a skilled counselor who understands the issue. Talking with a therapist can help ease the emotional toll and long-term effects of bullying, as Kelly notes. Access to a support group could also help.
Provide Coaching and Evaluation
Offer coaching or counseling to help bullies overcome their harmful behaviours, too. Then, survey colleagues and direct reports to find out if the behaviour has actually changed. Document all steps taken to address the bullying. (If further disciplinary action is required, having this paper trail will be crucial.)
Encourage Former Bullies to Make Amends
Facilitate this process by helping former bullies reflect on their behaviour. Mediate a conversation if that will make the target feel safer. Acknowledgment of the effects of the bully’s behaviour, coupled with a sincere apology, can help repair the damage.
Reassess Roles, If Needed
In some cases, the target may no longer feel comfortable working with the former bully. Consider reorganizing teams or duties to accommodate the target’s needs. If you learn that a manager has a track record of bullying, consider whether this person should return to an individual contributor role, as Megan Carle suggests in HBR. This will depend on the manager’s receptiveness to change and the extent of the harm done.
Reduce Workplace Stress
Address systemic issues causing bullying. “Systemically, hostility is typically triggered by resource scarcity and overall stress,” say Praslova, Carucci, and Stokes. “Reducing the stress of unrealistic deadlines, chronic under-resourcing resulting in workplace ‘hunger games,’ management by fear, and moral compromises can help decrease hostile bullying.” Work to eliminate a false sense of urgency and unrealistic demands.
Provide Equal Opportunities for Growth
Increase everyone’s sense of security by supporting all employees equally, decreasing the sense of competition for opportunities. Have open conversations about how to support employees’ growth, asking about their needs. By helping people feel more secure in themselves, you’ll reduce the likelihood of workplace bullying.
Utilize Accurate Methods of Tracking Performance
Implement objective and transparent systems for assessing performance. For example, use performance management software to evaluate employees’ daily contributions and skill development. Using collaborative tools for remote work can also provide a record of contributions, which can aid in preventing and addressing some forms of bullying.
Encourage people to break out of cliques and build a wide range of relationships. Set up social events and peer mentorships through which people can connect across functions. Grouping employees into different “learning pods” as they work through training modules can also increase new connections. Taking these steps will enhance workplace collaboration while promoting a strong culture and psychological safety.
Finally, model how to treat others with respect on the job. Through all of these strategies, you’ll promote employee well-being and job satisfaction. In turn, you’ll enhance workplace collaboration and organizational success. People will look forward to coming to work when their organization has a healthy culture that encourages them to thrive.
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