11 March 2024

Tips for tackling workplace bullying

A lady biting her nails looking anxious, after being victim to workplace bullying.

No one anticipates facing the worst kinds of playground antics in the workplace. Yet, bullies don’t necessarily leave their behaviors behind with their school days, and these actions can be even more harmful in adulthood.

Here’s how to recognize and deal with bullying at work. 

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is a significant problem that can impact anyone, no matter their role in an organization. It goes beyond occasional disagreements, involving repeated, damaging behavior that affects a person's dignity and well-being. 

This can range from clear acts of aggression like yelling and physical threats to subtler tactics such as spreading rumors, excluding someone from meetings, or consistently undermining their work. Bullying might not always be apparent to outsiders, making it crucial not to overlook an employee’s concerns simply because you haven’t witnessed them yourself. 

You might wonder how bullying differs from harassment at work. While both entail harming another through intimidating and unwelcome behavior, harassment usually involves clear discrimination based on aspects like race, gender, or religion. 

Bullying, however, can target anyone for any reason and often develops gradually. Although bullying can be more challenging to prove, employers must take both issues very seriously. 

The signs and impact of bullying in the workplace

Identifying workplace bullying is the first step in addressing it, and the emotional toll may become evident even before the specific behaviors. Signs include feeling constantly demeaned or humiliated by a colleague or manager, being isolated, or receiving unreasonable workloads or deadlines. 

The consequences of bullying extend beyond unpleasant experiences for the victims. It can lead to long-term mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, and even PTSD. 

Moreover, it fosters a toxic work environment that lowers morale, increases conflict, and reduces productivity and innovation. This can severely damage the overall employee experience in your organization. 

With stakeholders increasingly prioritizing ethical standards, allowing bullying to persist in your business could repel customers, investors, and potential employees. 

How to respond to workplace bullying

Whether you’re an employee facing bullying or an employer dealing with a report of it, ignoring the problem can be tempting. Confrontation is uncomfortable, especially when it feels like your career might be at stake. 

However, it’s crucial to act against bullying as soon as possible. If you’re being bullied, don’t suffer in silence; and if someone confides in you, don’t dismiss their experience. 

Documenting incidents can help, as bullying can be tough to prove. Record details like dates, times, and what occurred. This documentation can be crucial if the issue needs to be escalated. Keep this information confidential until you’re ready to seek help from your manager, HR, or another appropriate party. 

Employers should have clear procedures for addressing bullying and other harmful behaviors. Follow these by thoroughly investigating complaints and taking suitable disciplinary actions. Supporting affected employees through this challenging time is also vital. 

Employer's legal responsibilities

Employers are legally required by federal law to safeguard the health, safety, and well-being of their employees. This responsibility includes shielding them from workplace behaviors that pose a threat to these aspects. 

Simultaneously, several laws ban discrimination, harassment, and victimization based on protected characteristics like race, gender, age, and disability. Neglecting to tackle workplace bullying that intersects with unlawful behavior could lead to repercussions such as complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), fines, and compensation payouts. 

How to create a bully-free work environment

Beyond legal obligations and potential business impacts, employers have an ethical duty to foster a respectful work environment where everyone feels safe and supported. 

Here are some proactive steps to prevent workplace bullying and cultivate a healthy, positive work culture: 

  • Develop easily accessible policies and procedures that prohibit bullying, using platforms like People First. 
  • Train employees and managers to recognize and address bullying. 
  • Promote open communication and allow for anonymous reporting of bullying incidents. 
  • Enhance workplace diversity and inclusion through recruitment, training, and initiatives supporting underrepresented groups, reducing bullying risks based on protected characteristics. 

Resources for victims of workplace bullying

Victims of workplace bullying have several support options, including: 

  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs) offering confidential counseling and guidance. 
  • Trade unions providing advice and representation for members facing workplace bullying. 
  • External organizations like Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offering informal dispute resolution guidance and mediation. 
  • Employment lawyers advising on legal rights and options, and supporting legal action if necessary. 

Don’t stay silent – if you’re experiencing workplace bullying or are aware of it in your organization, take swift action to mitigate the negative impacts. 

Jannike Ohsten, freelance content writer

Jannike Ohsten

During a decade in writing-based marketing roles, Jannike has helped businesses define their brands, build powerful online presences, and convert prospects into loyal customers. Today, she supports organisations large and small to achieve their goals with better writing, whether it’s through copywriting or coaching.

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