6 Signs of Workplace Bullying (And What to Do About It)

workplace bullying

We live in a competitive society – that’s probably the biggest understatement you’ve read all week.

Much of what we do at work and in our private lives is designed to foster competition. It’s how we increase productivity or results, create excitement or exhilaration, and generally keep people and society moving forward and growing.

But we all know that competition also has an ugly side: bullying.

For workers who are trying to play by the rules, bullying causes all kinds of damage, from mental anguish, frustration or fear (and associated physical impacts on health), to lost income and completely derailed careers or all of the above. Not to mention the cascading impact the bullying may have on the victim’s family.

For employers, bullying among employees can stifle productivity, destroy morale and even result in costly lawsuits.

All too often, bullying in the workplace also results in workplace violence and even deaths.

For all of these reasons and many more, workplace bullying can’t be tolerated. But bullying often goes unrecognized because people don’t know the signs.

Defining Workplace Bullying

Which one of these examples is bullying?

a) Every time Rick walks by, Jim stops what he’s doing and stares at Rick until he’s out of sight, saying nothing but often shaking his head in disgust or making a face.

b) Jane doesn’t think Brenda works hard enough, so she frequently prints out pictures of sloths, writes Brenda on them and hides them in Brenda’s workplace where she will find them. When she’s in a group, Jane also frequently makes comments like, “Must be exhausting walking to and from the kitchen so often,” when she sees Brenda.

c) When Cora hands in an assignment to Anton, Anton always makes a point to loudly berate her in some way, saying things like, “Amazing, you actually handed it in on time!” or “Am I going to have to fix this one like I did the last one?” or “Another masterpiece from Cora. Ugh.”

“Workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed toward an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate or undermine; or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s).”

If you answered all of the above, you’re right. In childhood, bullying often includes physical acts. In the workplace, it may include physical acts, but emotional attacks are generally more common in office settings.

So how is workplace bullying defined?

It’s important to recognize that bullying is about control versus performance.

It’s also important to distinguish between bullying and unlawful harassment, which is bullying or harassment directed at a protected class. We can build on scenario b above to get to a good example. If Brenda was part of a protected class, (perhaps she is over 50 and she often also gets teased about her age, or the aggression is based on a ”lazy” stereotype about national origin), depending on a variety of circumstances Jane’s treatment could constitute unlawful harassment.

Signs of Workplace Bullying

Since competitive behavior is the norm in most workplaces, it can be hard to tell where people should draw the line between acceptable interactions and bullying. It’s also important to keep in mind that bullying involves repeated behaviors that should be considered unreasonable. In other words, some behaviors that bullies may use may seem mostly innocuous when viewed in isolation. But when you look across a range of incidents, you will start to see unusual and thus aggressive patterns. Here are six signs of bullying that will help you start better understanding the difference.

1) Intimidating behaviors

Actions and communications that induce fear. The actions can include verbal threats or intimidating actions, such as staring or encroaching on personal space.

2) Unsupported criticism

An employee is dressed down by his or her manager frequently and aggressively in inappropriate settings and/or without substantiated examples of inappropriate behavior or poor performance.

3) Sabotaging work performance

One employee or manager makes it difficult or impossible for another employee to complete work or changes expectations frequently and suddenly to make success more difficult.

4) Social alienation

Coworkers start ignoring an employee and not inviting her to important meetings, but the reasons seem vague or based on deception.

5) Unnecessary scrutiny

A manager or co-worker makes a pattern of frequently watching someone for signs of mistakes or wrongdoing that could be reported.

6) Absenteeism

A worker with a good attendance record suddenly starts taking more sick days.

What Can HR and Managers Do to Stop Bullying?

Since bullying can have an enormous impact on workplace morale, productivity and people’s lives and health, bullying should not be tolerated in the workplace. Since bullying is a complicated issue, it’s important to establish clear policies against bullying and reinforce your commitment to stamping out bullying through training and enforcement of rules.

If your company is looking for a way to reduce and prevent workplace bullying, check out our Workplace Bullying and Violence Prevention course, which teaches employees how to spot and defuse bullying situations before they escalate.