What Is Workplace Bullying?

Exploring the dynamics of workplace bullying


Workplace bullying, like school bullying, occurs when one person or a group of people intentionally inflict pain or harm on another person in the workplace. Because the effects of workplace bullying are vast and far-reaching this can jeopardize the target’s health, career and even their home life. And because a large number of bosses are bullies, many bullied employees suffer in silence.

Workplace bullying is much like bullying you would find at school and can include such tactics as verbal bullying, physical bullying, relational aggression, cyberbullying, sexual bullying and sexual harassment, and prejudicial bullying.

But unlike school bullying, workplace bullies and office mean girls operate within the established rules and policies of their organization in both overt and covert ways.

For instance, the bullying may be couched in humiliating coaching practices or implemented as part of programs touted as being in the best interest of the employee. Or it can involve more overt bullying like berating, publicly humiliating and ostracizing another person. Regardless of the tactics used, workplace bullies are usually skilled social manipulators who get ahead at work by bullying others.

In fact, workplace bullies can be so adept at disguising their behavior that the intended target cannot even spot workplace bullying. Instead, they internalize the behavior and believe there is something defective in them.

Why Do Employees Bully One Another?

While there are a variety of reasons why bullies choose to target other people, usually their behavior is driven by the bully’s need to control the targeted individual.

These employees want to call all the shots. So they often insist on having things their way and if others do not comply they are targeted. Many times, these bullies have strong social skills and a lot of influence within the company. As a result, they use these attributes to dominate other people.

Sometimes workplace bullies target their co-workers out of envy.

They feel threatened by the target’s strengths or accomplishments or insecure about their own abilities. As a result, employees are targeted because they are good employees and get a lot of positive feedback or attention from others within the company. When this happens, the workplace bully wants this to stop. His bullying tactics then become an attempt to reduce the target's recognition by turning others against him. The workplace bully also wants to ruin the victim's reputation and cast a negative light on the person as a whole.

Other times, workplace bullying occurs because the bully has poor impulse control. These employees are quick-tempered, may scream a lot and sometimes even use profanity. These bullies are prone to hurling direct insults and negative comments. They also may dominate meetings with critical comments and sarcasm.

What Are the Components of Workplace Bullying?

Most bullying experts agree that what sets bullying apart from mean behavior is that bullies intend to harm their targets.

There’s also an imbalance of power and the bullying acts are repeated. In other words, bullying is not a one-time incident. Instead, it is systematic and ongoing until someone intervenes, the target leaves or the bully is fired.

Power imbalance: When there is an imbalance of power, it is hard for the target to defend himself against the bully’s attacks. Sometimes there is a perceived power imbalance and other times, the bully is the target’s boss or supervisor. Perceived power imbalances are harder to distinguish but examples can include having more social standing at work, having a sharper tongue or having more influence within the company. The consequences are that the target will feel isolated, alone, excluded, threatened and vulnerable.

Repetitive actions: Most of the time, bullying does not consist of a single mean act or word. Instead, it is ongoing and systematic. In other words, workplace bullies have zeroed in on the target and lash out multiple times. Sometimes the bullying will consist of the same act over and over again such as name-calling or berating. Other times, it will consist of a variety of actions such as taking credit for the targets’ work, leaving them out of important meetings, sending rude e-mails and spreading office gossip. The point is, that people can be rude and say inappropriate things, but if it is a one-time incident, it doesn’t constitute bullying. The hallmark of workplace bullying is that the torment is consistent.

Intentional actions: Another aspect of workplace bullying is the intention of the bully to harm, to control or to manipulate the target. Bullies deliberately target other people undermining their self-esteem and their work. There is nothing accidental about their behavior. And the consequences are significant. Targets of workplace bullying can feel humiliated, ashamed, upset, anxious and depressed. Some may even develop eating disorders, anxiety issues or post-traumatic stress disorder. And a few even contemplate suicide.

What Is the Impact of Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying impacts all areas of the victim's life. From his overall health, mental state and physical wellbeing to his job performance and attendance at work, everything is impacted by workplace bullying. Even the victim's home life is affected by workplace bullying.

Yet, many people do not talk about workplace bullying. In fact, workplace bullying is often referred to as the "silent epidemic." For many, workplace bullying is just too painful to discuss. Plus, there are very few laws in place to deal with workplace bullying. Consequently, many victims often feel like nothing can be done to put an end to it. Other times, victims of workplace bullying are too frightened to bring up the issue because they fear they might lose their jobs.

Overall, the impact of workplace bullying is significant. It can lead to anxiety issues, poor job performance, absenteeism and unhealthy work environments. All of this results in increased costs for the business. As a result, employers should take steps to develop bully-proof work environments. This includes educating employees, implementing an anti-bullying policy and developing steps for reporting bullying incidents. When they do this, they lessen the likelihood that bullying will occur but even the best bullying prevention programs will not completely eradicate bullying.

The key to effectively addressing workplace bullying is handling reports of bullying quickly and efficiently. This sends a clear message to employees that bullying in the workplace will not be tolerated. Unfortunately though, many employers are reluctant to handle office bullying situations because they are not sure what to do. But if workplace bullying is left unaddressed, it will only escalate and eventually rob the business not only of money but of good employees as well.

Employers who want to be successful in reducing the impact of bullying in the workplace will implement clear and concise discipline procedures and follow them when an incident occurs. 

How Do You Cope with Workplace Bullying?

The key to overcoming workplace bullying is to not allow the things that are said and done to you define who you are as a person. It also is important to take steps to report workplace bullying to a supervisor or to human resources. And if things are not resolved or continue to escalate it may be time to consider looking for employment elsewhere.

It is unrealistic to try to endure workplace bullying. Even the most resilient employees will be impacted by bullying. Instead, focus on making employment decisions that will benefit your emotional and physical health. And prioritize taking care of yourself. Once you do, you will be on the path to recovery.

If you absolutely must keep your job or have no other options for employment be sure you are diligent in taking care of yourself. Start by exercising and eating right. You also should take time for yourself when you are not working and make a commitment to do the things you enjoy. Look for healthy stress relievers and focus on your goals and the things that make you happy rather than dwelling on the negativity you experience at work. If you know your limits and work to stay healthy, workplace bullying does not have to have a lingering impact on your life. 

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