Identifying Bullying in the Workplace — and How To Manage It

by Chloe Sesta Jacobs, 4 minutes read
HOME blog identifying bullying in the workplace and how to manage it

Bullying in the workplace is a worldwide phenomenon, however, few things can be more challenging than handling these issues.

The 2017 US Workplace Bullying Survey (run by the Workplace Bullying Institute) showed that almost 60% of US workers are affected by it.

Bullying can happen in any kind of workplace and is always some form of a power struggle. Bullying happens when a person or group of people repeatedly acts unreasonably towards someone else and this behavior creates a risk to health or safety. Unreasonable behavior includes victimizing, humiliating, intimidating, or threatening. Whether a behavior is unreasonable or not can depend on whether a reasonable person might see the behavior as unreasonable in the circumstances.

The word “reasonable” comes into play more often than not and it’s your job as an employer to ensure you have correct policies in place that cement what you and your business deem to be reasonable.

Examples of bullying

Workplace bullying can look different for each business. But you should know some of the common signs of bullying. Here are just a few of those unreasonable behaviors. Remember, these are just a few examples.

  • Behaving aggressively

  • Teasing or practical jokes

  • Pressuring someone to behave inappropriately

  • Deliberately excluding someone from work-related events

  • Unreasonable work demands

Bullying is targeted and doesn’t occur by accident. Bullying involves patterns of behavior, rather than isolated instances, which happen repeatedly and persistently over time.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) also states that "usually if a person genuinely feels they are being singled out for unfair treatment by a boss or colleague they are probably being bullied."

It’s important to note that reasonable management action that is carried out in a reasonable way is not bullying, no matter how much it might be unwelcomed from an employee. For example, it’s entirely reasonable for management to have conversations with their employees about unsatisfactory job performance and behaviors. And that includes taking disciplinary action.

Knowing the warning signs

Not everyone will report bullying and many suffer in silence, so it’s up to you as an employer to be well versed in potential warning signs. Leading a culture of psychological safety is also a critical first step in cultivating an environment where employees are more likely to raise issues with you, the management team, or other co-workers. Psychological safety is key to making workplaces successful.

Opening lines of communication with your employees about bullying from as early as their onboarding is crucial to give them the assurance that it is taken seriously at your workplace.

Bullying can impact everyone — those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying. Bullying is linked to countless negative outcomes which can include various mental health issues, alcohol and substance abuse, and physical responses that manifest through stress and anxiety (including weight loss and gain). And, in the worst cases, suicide.

Some telltale signs to look out for are:

  • A sudden or unusual change in an employee’s typical demeanor or behavior

  • A change to an employee’s usual work performance

  • A shift in the general social atmosphere of the workplace

  • A decrease in overall or individual productivity

  • An increase in levels of absenteeism

  • Aggressive or heated conversations

Remember that our brains are naturally looking for unconscious cues around body language. It’s easy to get caught up in your work, but it’s equally important as a leader to be really taking in and noticing what’s happening around you.

You shouldn’t just concentrate on what you’re seeing but think about what you’re not seeing. Are things not being shared with you or your wider team? Why could this be? Is there anything you or management can do about it? Prevention is better than cure.

Addressing bullying in the workplace

Harvard Business Review defines the acronym CAPE to provide workplaces with a framework to distinguish more fairly between well-meaning "hard-chargers" and sinister bullies.

  • Confront. Address the issue head-on. Research suggests the longer bullying persists, the more likely co-workers will align with them and enable bullying patterns. Impromptu meetings with a roundtable of diverse professionals — to interview suspected bullies, enablers, and victims separately — allows those far-removed and close to the situation to gather truthful evidence quickly.

  • Analyze. Once granular evidence is gathered, the roundtable should employ contemporary bullying frameworks and literature for thorough analysis and fair deliberation. At this point, if the suspected bully responds positively to the roundtable’s deliberation — via 180-degree change and public apology — these first two steps may prevent over-eager hard-chargers from being falsely labeled workplace bullies. However, if a suspected bully responds negatively to the process, these next steps become exceptionally critical.

  • Present. Documented proof of bullying, presented in writing after steps one and two is a giant leap towards engaging managers (and potentially outside legal counsel) with tangible evidence and roundtable witnesses. Don’t rely on hearsay. Bullying can be challenging to prove at times, so it’s imperative that you have a clear list of times and dates where incidents have occurred. You might not always have this information in a succinct way, but document whatever you can.

  • Expose. Outing bullies and their enablers courageously is the most important tool for eliminating bullying. Once exposed, bullying regimes vaporize.

Better together

Confronting bullies isn’t easy. Remember that you’re not alone. Sometimes certain situations are beyond your control and if you’re feeling out of your depth you should absolutely seek outside legal counsel. There are also countless resources available at your disposal online.

Regardless of whether you can do it alone or need outside help, you owe it to your workers and your business to eliminate bullying everywhere it exists.

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