An Overview of Workplace Bullying

Burnout businesswoman under pressure in the office
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Workplace bullying, like school bullying, occurs when one person or a group of people intentionally inflict pain or harm on another person in the workplace. Because the effects of workplace bullying are vast and far-reaching, it can jeopardize the targeted person’s health, career, and even home life. And since a large number of bosses are bullies, many bullied employees suffer in silence.

Workplace bullying can include such tactics as verbal bullying, physical bullying, relational aggression, cyberbullying, sexual bullying and sexual harassment, and prejudicial bullying. But unlike school bullying, workplace bullies may form cliques and operate within the established rules and policies of their organization in both overt and covert ways.

For instance, bullying may be couched in humiliating coaching practices or implemented as part of programs touted as being in the best interest of the employee. Or it can involve more overt bullying like berating, publicly humiliating, and ostracizing another person. Regardless of the tactics used, workplace bullies are usually skilled social manipulators who get ahead at work by bullying others.

In fact, workplace bullies can be so adept at disguising their behavior that the intended target cannot even spot it. Instead, they internalize the behavior and believe there is something defective in themselves.

Why Employees Bully Each Another

While there are a variety of reasons why bullies choose to target certain people, their behavior is usually driven by a need to control the targeted individual. Basically, these employees want to call all the shots and often insist on having things their way. If others do not comply, they become targeted. Many times, these bullies have strong social skills and a lot of influence within the company. As a result, they use these attributes to dominate other people.

Sometimes workplace bullies target their co-workers out of envy. They feel threatened by the target’s strengths and accomplishments or insecure about their own abilities. As a result, employees are targeted because they are good workers and get a lot of positive feedback or attention from others within the company. When this happens, the workplace bully wants it to stop. Their bullying tactics then become an attempt to reduce the target's recognition by turning others against them. The workplace bully also wants to ruin the victim's reputation and cast a negative light on the person as a whole.

Other times, workplace bullying occurs because the bully has poor impulse control. These employees are quick-tempered, may scream a lot, and sometimes even use profanity. These bullies are prone to hurling direct insults and negative comments. They also may dominate meetings with critical comments and sarcasm.

Components of Workplace Bullying

Most experts agree that what sets bullying apart from mean behavior is that bullies intend to harm their targets. This is done through:

Power Imbalance

When there is an imbalance of power, it is hard for the target to defend themselves against the bully’s attacks. Sometimes there is a perceived power imbalance and other times the bully is the target’s boss or supervisor. Perceived power imbalances are harder to distinguish, but examples can include having more social standing at work, having a sharper tongue, or having more influence within the company. The consequences are that the target will feel isolated, alone, excluded, threatened, and vulnerable.

Repetitive Actions

Most of the time, bullying does not consist of a single mean act or word. Instead, it is ongoing and systematic. In other words, workplace bullies have zeroed in on the target and lash out multiple times. Sometimes the bullying will consist of the same act over and over again, such as name-calling or berating.

Other times, it will consist of a variety of actions, such as taking credit for the target's work, leaving them out of important meetings, sending rude emails, and spreading office gossip. The point is that people can be rude and say inappropriate things, but if it is a one-time incident, it doesn’t constitute bullying. The hallmark of workplace bullying is that the torment is consistent.

Intentional Actions

Another aspect of workplace bullying is the intention of the bully to harm, control, or manipulate the target. Bullies deliberately target other people, undermining their self-esteem and their work. There is nothing accidental about their behavior. And the consequences are significant. Targets of workplace bullying can feel humiliated, ashamed, upset, anxious, and depressed. Some may even develop eating disorders, anxiety issues, or post-traumatic stress disorder. And a few even contemplate suicide.

Impact of Workplace Bullying

From overall health, mental state, and physical well-being to job performance and attendance at work, everything is impacted by workplace bullying. Even the victim's home life is affected. Yet, many people do not talk about workplace bullying. In fact, workplace bullying is often referred to as the "silent epidemic."

For many, workplace bullying is just too painful to discuss. Plus, there are very few laws in place to deal with it. Consequently, many victims often feel like nothing can be done to put an end to it. Other times, victims are too frightened to bring up the issue because they fear they might lose their jobs.

Overall, the impact of workplace bullying is significant and can lead to anxiety, subpar job performance, absenteeism, and a general unhealthy work environment. In turn, all of this results in increased costs for businesses. Employers should take steps to develop bully-proof work environments, such as educating employees, implementing anti-bullying policies, and developing steps for reporting incidents. When they do this, the likelihood that bullying will occur lessens. But even the best prevention programs will not completely eradicate bullying.

The key to effectively addressing workplace bullying is handling reports of bullying quickly and efficiently. This sends a clear message to employees that bullying in the workplace will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, many employers are reluctant to handle office bullying situations because they are not sure what to do. But if workplace bullying is left unaddressed, it will only escalate and eventually rob the business of both money and good employees.

Employers who want to be successful in reducing the impact of bullying in the workplace will implement clear and concise disciplinary procedures and follow them when an incident occurs.

Coping With Workplace Bullying

The key to overcoming workplace bullying is to not allow the things that are said and done to you define who you are as a person. It is also important to take steps to report workplace bullying to a supervisor or to human resources. And if things are not resolved or continue to escalate, it may be time to consider looking for employment elsewhere.

It is unrealistic to try to endure workplace bullying. Even the most resilient employees will be impacted. Instead, focus on making employment decisions that will benefit your emotional and physical health. And prioritize taking care of yourself. Once you do, you will be on the path to recovery.

If you absolutely must keep your job or have no other options for employment, be sure you are diligent in taking care of yourself. Start by exercising and eating right. You should also take time for yourself when you are not working and make a commitment to do the things you enjoy.

Look for healthy stress relievers. Focus on your goals and the things that make you happy rather than dwelling on the negativity you experience at work. If you know your limits and work to stay healthy, workplace bullying does not have to have a lingering impact on your life.

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.