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Workplace Bullying = Repeated and targeted harassment at work that is intended to demean, humiliate or intimidate.1

Although when we think of bullies and bullying we typically envision playground scenes and children – the unfortunate reality is that bullies are found in all age groups and the workplace can be a perfect environment for bullies to inflict harm on their victims.

For the harassment and aggression you experience at work to qualify as bullying, it must:

  1. Be repeated and sustained: bullying occurs when aggression is targeted at you repeatedly, over time
  2. Occur between people with differing degrees of power: Bullies typically attack people with lower work or social status or employment level – or those who are for any other reasons less able to defend themselves from attack
  3. Put your health, safety or career at risk – Bullying is systematic and it’s intended to do you harm

Examples of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying sometimes occurs as obvious harassment and is sometimes more covert.

Some examples of overt bullying include:

  • Teasing, belittling or consistently making a person the victim of mean-spirited jokes
  • Abusive language
  • Behaviors that are designed to humiliate or frighten - screamed critiques of performance by a boss, for example
  • Intentionally presenting materials that are designed to cause offense (materials against a religion, for example, or sexually suggestive materials)
  • Overt sexual intimidation or assault
  • Overt violent intimidation or assault
  • Threats
  • Spreading mean gossip or rumors about the victim

Some examples of more covert bullying include:

  • Giving an employee an impossible task or deadline, or a task that is obviously beyond their abilities or experience
  • Dumping an excessive quantity of work on a subordinate and demanding its completion
  • Assigning a meaningless, demeaning or unrelated task
  • Not letting an employee gain access to the resources needed to complete an assigned task
  • Writing unfair or inaccurate employee assessments
  • Blocking deserved or normal career advancement
  • Not offering equal access to training or other resources
  • Tampering with personal belongings
  • Intentionally isolating someone at work2

Bullying at work only rarely turns violent, in fact research suggests that only about 10% of workplace bullying involves physical assault.3

Not sure if you’re getting bullied or not? Then use the ‘reasonable person’ test. Would a reasonable person consider the behaviors you’re experiencing acceptable? If not - then it’s bullying.4

Also ask yourself:

  1. Are criticisms of performance reasonable or justified, based on an objective assessment of the performance?
  2. Are you performing at work up to an acceptable standard? – If you are failing to meet expectations at work, then repeated criticisms of your performance may not be bullying, and may be accurate and objective management.
  3. Are criticisms constructive? Bullies aren’t trying to help you – they’re trying to hurt you, so if you’re getting constructive criticism, then you may not be getting bullied.5

Workplace Bullying – What’s the Harm?

Most of us spend a majority of our waking hours at work and with workmates, so it’s hardly surprising that bullying at work leads to significant personal and professional consequences.

Victims of workplace bullying are at risk to experience:

  • Significant stress – even post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleeping disturbances
  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Lowered immune function
  • Social problems outside of work stemming from the pressures at work

But it’s not only the individual being bullied that suffers – studies show that bullying in the workplace leads to demonstrable reductions in the quality and quantity of performed work. Work environments which allow bullies to operate are at risk for:

  • High staff turnover and resultant higher training costs and lowered productivity
  • Staff taking more sick days
  • Legal process and investigative costs associated with dealing with bullying complaints (or lawsuits)
  • Energy spent dealing with and coping with bullying is taken away from work efforts
  • Teamwork within the work environment is adversely affected6

Bystanders to bullying in the workplace also experience increased stress.7

So What Can You Do to Make the Bullying Stop?

There’s no one perfect recipe for thwarting workplace bullies, and the success you’ll have in putting a stop to the abuse may depend on the willingness of your organization to listen to your concerns and work with you to deal with the situation. In general, however, here are some steps that the experts suggest you take when dealing with a bully at work:

  • Ask the bully to stop their behaviors. Tell the perpetrator that their behaviors constitute unacceptable bullying and ask them clearly to stop.  You may wish to have a supportive co-worker, a superior or a union representative at your side when making your statement to the bully. Once you’ve made your statement and labeled the behavior, do not get involved in debate over it - just walk away.
  • Keep a journal detailing incidences of bullying. Negative behaviors are only considered bullying acts when they are systematic and repeated over time. By keeping a journal, with documentation when possible, which itemizes bullying behaviors over time – you build your case against the perpetrator. For your journal to be taken seriously, try to keep it as factual as possible. Record dates, times and specifics of the events and list witnesses who can corroborate your descriptions.
  • Report the bullying to your supervisor. If the bullying is perpetrated by your supervisor, then move up to the next level in management. If your concerns are not taken seriously, continue to move up to higher levels of management.8

If the bullying involves violence, threats of violence or sexual assault, you need to put your personal safety first and make a complaint with the police.

While your natural impulse might be to try to get even with the bully, anything negative you do against the bully makes the situation more difficult for management to sort out. Instead of being a clear-cut case of bullying, it can begin to look like two workers who can’t get along and who are both behaving poorly.

In most cases, workplace bullying isn’t a crime. However, if you are bullied based on your race, sex, religion, country of birth or disability, you may be able to sue over a violation of your protected civil rights.9

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Page last updated Jan 17, 2015

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