Identifying Workplace Bullying

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Most adults spend at least 40 hours each week at work, dealing with different personalities, so friction is almost inevitable. This often means someone snapping at a coworker or refusing to help a colleague with a project. However, sometimes the behavior escalates beyond these one-time incidents and turns into a campaign against a specific coworker. It is important for employers and employees to recognize the signs of bullying, understand when bullying becomes harassment and know how to handle a bully.

Bullying doesn’t end after high school and in fact, adults are more likely to experience bullying. A 2017 survey found more than 60 million employees in the U.S. have either been a target of or a witness to workplace bullying, though it is still easy to not even realize it is happening.

As opposed to childhood bullies, adults are capable of being much more subtle in their efforts. Bullying is often brushed off as a mean-spirited coworker or bad boss and frequently isn’t reported. If it’s a boss or a longtime employee, it can often be even more difficult to address it with other staff members.

Keep in mind one incident doesn’t mean someone is being bullied or harassed and can just be the result of a bad day or difficult situation. Bullying is ongoing, repeated behavior intended to hurt another person, and examples include:
• Public humiliation
• Victim blaming
• Intentional exclusion
• Threats

It is also important to remember bullying isn’t the same as having high expectations. A manager who is firm, holds high performance expectations and fairly disciplines employees isn’t typically a bully unless their tactics include some of the above examples.

Lonely Man In Workplace

The effects of bullying are far reaching and can impact not only the individual being bullied but also those around them. Some common effects can include:
• Depression
• Frequent illnesses
• Sleep disorders
• Anxiety

These symptoms aren’t just problematic for the person experiencing them but can lead to issues within the workplace as well. If a worker isn’t getting enough sleep because they’re worried about what the bully will do next, it can lead to mistakes and accidents. Those around the victim and bully might be easily distracted, especially if there is yelling or arguing. If the bullying is allowed or enabled by the employer, workplace morale could plummet, and grievances or lawsuits might be filed.

Bullying vs. Harassment

If an employer suspects bullying, there are times when it can be difficult to ascertain whether an employee is just having a bad day or if they’re truly a bully. One of the main factors in determining whether bullying is occurring is repetition. If an otherwise kind and caring employee has a bad day where they insult a coworker, it will generally not be bullying. However, if an employee has a pattern of insulting others, ignoring colleagues and generally being cruel toward others, it should be looked at more closely to determine if bullying is happening.

While bullying is not necessarily harassment, harassment will often include elements of bullying. Harassment must create a work environment that could be considered hostile or intimidating to a reasonable person.

Bullying crosses the line into harassment when it is specifically directed at a person belonging to a protected class. Protected classes include:
• Race
• Color
• Religion
• Sex
• National origin
• Age
• Physical or mental disability
• Genetic information

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Being unpleasant isn’t illegal, and if someone isn’t in a protected class, it generally won’t be harassment. For example, if a boss repeatedly makes fun of an employee for being a millennial, it isn’t harassment, because those under the age of 40 are not in a legally protected class. However, employees can still file a lawsuit against the company and the employee doing the bullying.

What You Can Do

When an employee is being bullied, it is important they stay calm and document exactly what is happening, including as many details as possible. The log should include the date and time, as well as what happened, who was involved and any witnesses.

Employees should always feel empowered to address a bully themselves. Speaking privately to the bully, they should set clear and firm boundaries, explaining the behavior and telling the bully directly that the behavior needs to stop immediately. If the behavior doesn’t stop, or the victim doesn’t feel comfortable approaching the bully, the incident log is a helpful tool to share with management or human resources. Employees can take advantage of the employee assistance program offered by their employer for additional support.

Woman Under Desk

As an employer, you should create a supportive work environment that encourages employees to feel comfortable speaking up for themselves or others. Bullying and harassment should never be ignored or covered up, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult it may be to handle.

Employees should know how to intervene if they see bullying or harassment occurring, even if they aren’t comfortable doing so. They should listen, ask questions and try to understand what is happening and why the bully is treating others badly. Employees should also know when to involve their manager, human resources or another trusted colleague.

Each company should develop and maintain a code of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying. It is also important to provide regular training for employees on how to identify bullying and what to do if they see it happening. Real consequences must be set for unacceptable behaviors. Employers must take every opportunity to reinforce that the company culture does not foster or tolerate bullying. There should also be a method for employees to report bullying without fear of retaliation.


Bullying and harassment is usually seen as something that ends once you leave the schoolyard, but the reality is, millions of adults fear going to work every day because of the treatment they experience at the hands of a colleague. It is critical for employers to take steps to create a culture discouraging bullying, and one where, if it does happen, it is addressed quickly and with as much privacy for the victim as possible.

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