Let’s talk about bullying in the workplace. With the recent news of Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez calling out the bullying behavior of fellow Congressman Ted Yosho, it’s time to talk about bullying in the workplace.

Bullying can happen anywhere and at any time. Bully can occur from your partner. While grocery shopping. Picking up your kids from basketball practice. And often, bullying occurs at work. Research from Dr. Judy Blando at the University of Phoenix found that almost 75% of employees surveyed have been affected by workplace bullying; they’ve experienced it firsthand and/or have witnessed a colleague being bullied.

Why? Most people spend the majority of their day interacting with their colleagues either at the office or working from home. The average worker clocks in about 8.8 hours of work a day. That means they’re spending most of their day surrounded by work colleagues, which can be a highlight depending on the company culture and team. However, if bullying exists, it can be detrimental not only to the person on the receiving end of it, but also costly for the organization.

What is bullying?

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Bullying is the umbrella term for acts or verbal comments that are meant to emotionally or mentally hurt, isolate, or disturb a person. It doesn’t necessarily mean physical contact---as often depicted in children’s cartoons shows. Bullying is the repeated action of an act or commentary intending to intimidate, offend, degrade, or humiliate a person or a group of people. It’s an aggressive behavior, even if done quietly.

What bullying and harassing behaviour does not include:

-expressing a different opinion

-giving constructive feedback or advice on work/task-related items 

-managerial behavior like assigning work and giving feedback on performance

-HR taking disciplinary action on inappropriate behavior 


What does bullying look like in the workplace?

Oftentimes, employees don’t actually recognize bullying.

A person may feel some discomfort around a certain person. There may be something they feel towards them, but they can’t recognize why they distrust them or why they feel energyless around them. Other people may feel they have to walk eggshells around the person, afraid to activate some sort of emotional rollercoaster or endless task list. The victims of a workplace bully may feel disrespected, but have no explanation as to why they’re treated unfairly.

If you or a colleague feels dread or fear around a certain person and do not enjoy tasks they enjoyed before, this may be the signs of bullying.  

The Canadian Centre for Health and Safety provides examples of workplace bullying:

-Spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendo.
“I heard Jackie left her old job because she stole money from the company”.

-Socially excluding or isolating someone
“No need for you to come to the work retreat. You’ve been here only 3 months”. 

-Intimidating a person. “I’ve worked here for 5 years, so what do you know?”

-Undermining or deliberately making another person’s work look bad. A colleague could change the font of your presentation to make it illegible. Or they could bring up learnings from the past to a present meeting.

-Physically abuse or threaten physical abuse

-Taking away job responsibilities without reason. “Don’t worry about talking with the clients anymore. We’ve assigned client-facing tasks to Marvin”.

-Constantly changing work guidelines. “Oh, no one told you? We’re updating the protocol again this week.”

-Setting impossible deadlines, knowing the person will fail. Remember in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”, the evil boss asking her assistant the impossible task of attaining the unreleased Harry Potter manuscript? That’s a bullying tactic.

-Not disclosing all necessary information or purposefully giving out wrong information. They don’t tell you about how they’re speaking at an event---one you should have been invited to due to your skills and experience. Or maybe they tell you the application for the new position is on the 25th, when it really is the 15th. 

-Making offensive jokes

-Trespassing on a person’s privacy. A colleague could be finding out about your past work history via the human resources department files or following you home. 

-Refusing to assign tasks or “underwork”
They don’t give you tasks or give you menial tasks that have nothing to do with the positions itself.

-Yelling or using profanity.

-Criticising a person persistently or constantly. “Why don’t you ever do anything right?”

-Belittling a person's opinions.
“Oh here we go again, Ms. Bright Ideas has something to say again”.

-Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion.

-Tampering with a person's personal belongings or work equipment.


What does it do to people in the workplace?

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Bullying takes a psychological toll. Employees begin to feel emotionally and mentally distressed with the behavior they’re receiving. Their stress comes out in several ways such as anger, depression, insomnia, and other physical symptoms. It can be disruptive to their family life, as bullying is a mentally and emotionally fatiguing; employees don’t just leave workplace dynamics at work. Bullied workers can't perform their jobs to the best of their ability. As a result, this affects how they make decisions, their capacity to concentrate, how they feel physically safe at work, and lower productivity. 

Needless to say, bullying affects the health of an organization

Bullying quickly creates a toxic and unhealthy work environment. Here’s why it’s so problematic to hiring managers and teams.

-Increased absenteeism.

-Increased turnover.

-Increased stress.

-Decreased productivity and motivation.

-Decreased morale.

-Decreased quality of customer service 


These are areas that hiring managers, recruiters, and executive managements specifically talent to hire and retain top talent. Bullying from a co worker or a manager can quickly unravel all the good intentions a company possesses. The cost of employee turnover averages 33% of the lost employee’s annual salary. If an employee leaves due to bullying, a company could be paying $15K for a horrible coworker----that likely will find another victim. 

Can hiring managers spot a bully during the recruitment process?

Unfortunately there’s no “Bully Detection Device” to be bought. However there is something that hiring managers may find interesting. 

A personality connection with bullying. 

A growing body of studies have investigated the role of personality traits as correlates of exposure to workplace harassment, how strong a connection lies between harassment, and the personality of the bully and the bully’s target. One research looked to the Five-Factor Model of personality to learn more. They found Neuroticism to be the highest correlator to bullying and/or being the target of bullying

One research study’s explanation:  “because of their essentially pessimistic nature, neurotic individuals experience more negative life events than do other individuals. Hence, following the Target behavior and the Negative perceptions mechanisms, it is reasonable that they also have a greater risk of being exposed to, as well as perceiving, workplace harassment. As for the Target behavior mechanism, the public perspective of neuroticism may contribute to workplace harassment as behaviors associated with nervousness and insecurity (e.g., fidgeting, nervous speech, excessive talking, ruminating aloud) may be viewed by others as annoying or bothersome, and may make the outwardly neurotic individual a provocative but also easy target of harassment”. 

Because these individuals are more sensitive to the world around them and their inward lives, they may detect the side comments faster than others would. Or they may be the irritable ones who say snide comments. 

What do I do when I’m the target of a bully?


1. Focus on your response

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The first step in understanding the bullying in theh workplace mechanism is to realize, it’s not your fault. Those weird feelings you have around a certain colleague is a reflection of them, not you. If they’re belittling your work, it’s because they’re a bully and thus, gives no indication on the quality of your work.

Focus on your response. It’s not easy to deal with a bully at work. What would you like to do? Weigh your options. Do you want to start a search for a new job? Are you willing to share your feelings with a human resources manager? Taking stock of your feelings on this particular issue is the important first step.


2. Create a paper trail

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This is the next step that will add to your case if your work is being sabotaged or you’re requesting a transfer to another office. Figure out ways to show the bullying behaviors on record. This could be done via emails, activity reports, meeting minutes, or other ways that show your work on a project. Keep your team members up-to-date about your progress, so you have their word on how you meet a deadline. While telling everyone how you’re doing is discouraged, be sure to figure out ways to record inappropriate remarks/comments or actions. 


3. Set your boundaries.

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This may be the most intimidating step. Going through your company’s hiring and recruitment process may have been tough, but confronting a bully may be the hardest thing for anyone. Once you have a decent paper trail and your colleagues trust you, the time is to be direct and upfront with your bully. List specific examples of them saying or doing intimidating or unfair tactics. Tell them how that made you feel. Finally, end with what they should be doing in the future from now on. 

For example, “I notice you keep bringing up how much I earn in our meetings. When you do that, that makes me feel like you don’t respect what I contribute to our team. Next time, do not disclose my salary.”  Be firm, confident, and assertive when saying this. You may also tell them, depending on the situation, that if they continue their behavior, you will report them to human resources. 


4. Report incidents 

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You have a responsibility to give yourself a thriving workplace and work environment. By suffering under a work bully, you’re increasing your chances of depression and poor work performance. When you feel ready, report the bully to your manager or human resources manager. Bring your paper trail--the emails, the meeting minutes, maybe even list a few colleagues that (with their permission) will be your references who have balked at the things that the bully has said and/or done to you. When sharing with the manager, speak firmly. This may be a highly emotional meeting, but focus on justice first. You want the manager to hear your message. If you're sobbing through tears, they may not be able to concentrate their full attention on your case and/or create a resolution with you. Be sure to ask for follow-up on what they intend to do. When you could expect them to do certain actions by. Ask if you could check back with them in a month to update them on the situation. Most likely they will agree. It’s about keeping that paper trail. 

Bullying in the workplace happens, whether you’re on the steps of Capitol Hill or the lunch hall at the office. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Again, it’s a reflection of that person---not on you, your work ethic, or your personal value. Keep alert for odd comments and/or strange actions from colleagues. Monitor how you feel around them. Ask yourself whether this person feels like a supportive person or not. By paying attention to yourself, you’ll be attuned to be firm in advocating for your needs---especially when it comes bullying.


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Elizabeth T.

Written by Elizabeth T.

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