If you have been bullied at work, you are not alone. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, upwards of 60.3 million U.S. workers report having experienced workplace bullying in the course of a year. Though anyone can certainly be a target for bullying, there are definite gender and racial differences in play. Over 70% of the perpetrators are reported as male, 65% of the targets are female, and Hispanics are identified as the most-bullied race.
Unfortunately, even though bullying causes stress and affects work performance, some employees who experience bullying have still been hesitant to report it. The reasons behind their hesitation are often complex but may include the following:
- fear of retribution
- fear of victim-blaming
- fear of being seen as the “real” problem
- lack of confidence in the reporting system
- lack of evidence that reports are acted on
- lack of support from fellow employees
If you are currently being bullied at work (or have witnessed workplace bullying in action), it’s important that you understand what bullying is and the forms it takes, what it means for everyone involved, and how it impacts the overall workplace environment.
The evidence suggests that if workplace bullying is ever going to end, we will all need to band together to put a stop to it.
What Exactly Is Workplace Bullying?
Although related to other types of toxic workplace behavior, workplace bullying is separate and distinct, with a dynamic all its own. Because it’s different from other types of harassment, it must be handled with a different approach from other problems.
“[Workplace bullying] is a type of aggression wherein there is an imbalance in power. The person who is bullying holds the power over the individual who is victimized.” (WiseStep)
As we mentioned already, the reasons people don’t report bullying include fear of retribution and lack of confidence in the reporting system. One reason they experience these reservations is the basic imbalance of power between themselves and the person they would like to report.
Consider this scenario: Angela is being bullied by her team leader. He is rude to her, makes disrespectful jokes about her weight, and often singles her out for the hardest and least rewarding tasks on the team. She’s tried speaking up and questioning him in the past; but when she’s done so, her team leader not only berated her in front of her coworkers (publicly shaming her), he then proceeded to double down on his behavior, treating her worse than ever. Angela is now extremely discouraged. Not only did standing up for herself backfire, but the silence of her coworkers as all of this unfolded also taught her that she couldn’t depend on them to advocate for her or offer their support if she tries to take her complaint further. Reporting her team leader’s behavior to HR or going over her team leader’s head could jeopardize her job and therefore her livelihood.
No wonder Angela feels stuck. Short of advocacy or intervention, it seems unlikely her situation will improve.
How to Identify Bullying in the Workplace
In order to protect yourself and your coworkers from being bullied at work, you must learn to recognize the three basic types of bullying and spot the signs that they’re being practiced at work. Only then can they be effectively addressed.
What Types of Bullying Are There?
Though workplace bullying can take many forms, they all generally fit into three basic categories:
- Physical Bullying. Physical bullying does not have to involve direct contact in order to be effective. Though a push, a shove, a punch, a slap, or a shoulder shove would definitely qualify as bullying, physical bullying also manifests itself through using size or strength to intimidate. Towering over someone, moving threateningly into their personal space, hovering insistently close after they’ve stepped away or asked the other party to step back — all these scenarios would qualify as physical bullying. Any time someone uses size or invades personal space to threaten or intimidate qualifies as physical bullying.
- Verbal Bullying. Much more common than physical bullying, verbal bullying is a completely demoralizing experience. Verbal bullying includes direct threats; yelling, shouting, and screaming; berating and tearing down; derogatory comments about someone’s physical appearance; racial, ethnic, and religious slurs; and a seemingly never-ending list of malicious comments, put-downs, and insults. It’s important to note that verbal bullying doesn’t all necessarily happen face-to-face. It also includes gossip, slander, and cyber-bullying. Closely related to Social Bullying, Verbal Bullying is often minimized because it doesn’t leave physical marks the way other forms of bullying can. Nevertheless, it is very serious and can have long-term impacts on the mental health of the one being bullied (as we will discuss below).
- Social Bullying. Closely linked to Verbal Bullying, Social Bullying involves leveraging the power of the group dynamic against the victim. Social bullying involves being given more or harder work than others, being purposefully excluded from social and relational benefits, and being targeted for public ridicule and shame during meetings.
If you’re willing to look for the signs, you can spot bullying behavior at work a mile away.
What Are the Signs of Bullying or Workplace Harassment?
Think you or a coworker may be in trouble? Here are a few red flags that point toward being bullied at work:
- you’re constantly being lied to
- your work is intentionally undermined and/or sabotaged
- you’re given more or harder tasks than other employees of the same level
- requirements and expectations are constantly changing
- someone else always takes credit for your work
- criticism is destructive rather than constructive
- your questions and concerns are dismissed rather than addressed
- you’re given the “worst” of everything (tasks, scheduling, break times, vacation days, etc.)
- you must fight off crude treatment and/or sexual advances
While this list is not exhaustive, it does give you some benchmark behaviors by which you learn to spot bullying behavior. If you suspect that you or someone you work with is being bullied, don’t delay taking steps to report it.
Delaying could have serious consequences.
How Does Being Bullied at Work Affect Your Mental Health?
Naturally, workplace bullying leads to low morale and poor job performance. When your work is constantly being undermined, your behavior mocked, and/or your requirements constantly shifting, it’s hard to find the energy to do your best.
Being a victim of bullying can cause physical and psychological health problems, including:
- Higher blood pressure
- Panic attacks
- Trouble sleeping
Unsurprisingly, the victims of workplace bullying take higher levels of anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medications than other employees, and their experiences with bullying can leave lasting marks on their emotions.
How to Handle Being Bullied at Work
Workplace bullying is not okay. It’s a serious matter with both personal and corporate implications. Fortunately, there are tools available to handle being bullied at work.
Resources to Handle Workplace Bullying
If you’re a reader, check out The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes from Killing Your Organization by Gary Namie. This practical guide moves past short-term solutions to offer the sort of preventative measures that will lead to long-term fixes.
For those who prefer to listen rather than to read, we recommend the Workplace Bullying Institute’s podcast. Informed by qualitative and quantitative research, these podcasts address the issue from many angles. With 39 episodes currently available, no matter what your issue with bullying may be, you’re likely to find good advice here.
Additionally, there are several organizations doing great work around this issue. One such is Empower Work. Their stated mission is “to create healthy, equitable workplaces where employees are valued, supported, and empowered.” One amazing service they offer is consultations (via confidential text messaging) with a trained peer counselor. If you’re looking for some advice to handle being bullied at work, this might be a good place to turn for advice on the first steps.
Another organization we appreciate is Culture Cure. Positioning themselves as the “leading toxic workplace resolution service and community,” they are well-positioned to help those who feel lost, undermined, and trapped in a toxic workplace environment. Stop by their site, check out their resources, and perhaps even avail yourself of their services. They offer both consultations and online courses to help you restore your self-confidence, strengthen your sense of wellbeing, and (if necessary) plan a toxic-free exit strategy from your current place of employment.
Finally, we want to point you toward the STOPit App. Designed to help end workplace harassment, this app streamlines the process of reporting bad behavior at work so that it can be addressed proactively by the company.
While we’re thankful for the help these tools provide, we’re sad that they even need to exist in the first place. Workplace bullying is not something anyone should have to live with; and hopefully, by working together to stop bullying at work, we can join hands to help shut it down.
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