Workplace bullying is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) as the “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators.” This type of behavior can be aimed at a staff member, manager, supervisor or colleague and may be direct or indirect. More than 60 million individuals in the US workforce are affected by workplace bullying, according to the WBI, with women representing 60% of the targeted victims. 

Abusive conduct deemed to be workplace bullying involves one or more of the following behaviors: threatening, humiliating, or intimidation, work sabotage, and verbal abuse. Some clear examples of workplace bullying include:

  • Spreading rumors or making innuendos about an individual 
  • Excluding or isolating an individual 
  • Displaying offensive material
  • Physically abusing or threatening abuse
  • Making jokes that are ‘obviously offensive’ by spoken word or e-mail
  • Yelling or using profanity
  • Unjustifiably criticizing a person
  • Making belittling comments, continually dismissing someone’s opinions 
  • Doling out unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment
  • Continually shifting work guidelines
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding an individual’s work, such as creating impossible deadlines designed to set up an individual for failure 
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion

The toll of bullying on individuals and the work environment

The effect of workplace bullying is far-reaching and impacts both the targeted individuals and employers. Various studies indicate that bullied employees have difficulty sleeping; experience more health problems such as depression and anxiety and even physical ailments such as headaches and stomachs; have poorer self-esteem and lower work motivation; and are more frequently absent from work. One survey from the WBI indicates that 45% of targeted employees reported stress-related health issues.

Workplace bullying results in additional costs to organizations, particularly small to mid-size businesses, in the form of employee turnover and increased absenteeism, reduced employee productivity and commitment, and additional health care expenses. Bullied employees who are stressed and unable to concentrate are also at a higher risk for on-the-job accidents and incidents, which can result in workers’ compensation claims, extended time off from work, and recruitment and training costs for temporary or permanent replacements. 

Workplace bullying also creates a negative work environment throughout an organization, not only impacting the person who is being bullied but also those who witness the bullying. Such behavior isolates good employees and creates a toxic culture, manifesting in low employee morale and an overall drop in productivity and confidence in the company, especially if it’s perceived that management is not doing anything to prevent and stop the bullying. If leaders fail to address the bullying behavior, an organization is demonstrating a lack of concern for the wellbeing of both the bullied employee and other employees. 

Additionally, businesses could potentially find themselves facing an employment practices lawsuit. Federal and state laws currently don’t prohibit workplace bullying unless the bullying is a form of discrimination or harassment based on the victim’s religion, gender, race, age or disability—what’s called a “protected class”. If a workplace bully is targeting an employee based on a protected class, the bullying may qualify as illegal harassment. The targeted employee could allege a hostile work environment claim and sue an employer for not putting a stop to the harassment. 

Reporting bullying

Data indicates that workplace bullying is much more widespread than we think, as people are often reluctant to speak out. They’re afraid they may be pushed out of their jobs and often want just to put the bullying behind them. Victims may also have a sense of guilt around the bullying, feeling they were responsible for it in some way, or feel a sense of powerlessness to stop it on their own. 

It’s important, however, that victims feel comfortable in speaking up about the behavior that’s taking place without fear of retaliation. With leadership’s support, policies and procedures should be implemented for incident reporting and resolution. Management should be provided with detailed records of the mistreatment including dates, times, what was said, and any witnesses who were present. These records will help the employer investigate and take action to stop the problem.  

In addition, everyone throughout the organization, including front-line leadership, should be trained to recognize and address bullying, and the staff should be encouraged to report all incidents of bullying whether they are the target or a witness. People must be made to feel comfortable in speaking up, which helps foster a healthy and productive workplace environment.