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Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying in the Workplace

Some people experience bullying at school but even they hope to leave it well behind them once they get into their teens or early adulthood. Unfortunately, although it may take a less physical form, workplace bullying or harassment is a problem that many people increasingly seem to face at work, so it pays us to know how to both recognize and deal with it appropriately when it occurs (whether we are the direct victim of it or a witness to the bullying of a work colleague).

Unlike school bullies who often resort to physical bullying such as pushing, pinching, pulling, tripping, kicking and hitting, workplace bullies generally use non-physical tactics such as harsh words, angry outbursts, criticisms, put-downs, sarcasm and other generally manipulative verbal actions to intimidate their victims. These actions may be overt, meaning that the comments offered are direct and open and may be delivered to be deliberately overheard and add pressure to the intended victim. However the actions may also be covert, meaning that any comments are either delivered quietly to the victim out of the earshot of others or are more likely delivered indirectly via rumor, malicious gossip and false hearsay. While overt bullying is not pleasant to experience, at least it is in the open and other people are around to be possible witnesses to it. Covert bullying is much more difficult to deal with because a lot of personal damage can be done behind a person’s back without he or she knowing where the criticism is coming from (at least for a time) and colleagues may be in the dark too.

Both overt and covert bullying may come from many quarters. It may come from a boss, a peer or colleague or even a subordinate at times.  In addition, it may or may not be discriminatory or designed to exclude an individual who is different to the team of which he or she is a part in some way. In other words, some bullying is random or just about one person exerting power or influence over another. Sexual harassment often falls into this category because there may be some “role influence” of one party over another, which is extended inappropriately to the personal realm. In all cases however, it is a negative and destructive practice that not only victimizes the person at whom it is aimed but generally lowers morale of the whole team (because it is allowed to persist and may move on to someone else) and directly affects workplace productivity.

Dealing with workplace bullying or harassment

There are no easy answers for an individual who may be experiencing bullying or harassment of any kind in the workplace, as the circumstances will be unique to each situation. However, other than to report any incidences to a senior manager immediately when it occurs (which is often the best way to deal with obvious, persistent or aggressive bullying), there are a few things that an individual can consider when he or she does not want to make his or her complaint official:

An individual can:

  • Seek the advice of a trusted coach or mentor in the organization (or even outside it in some cases) who may have dealt with the particular circumstances reported before and may therefore have some good information or advice.
  • Safely challenge or confront person committing the bullying in a professional manner. This is simply a calm conversation about the behavior that the person finds unacceptable and a short, unemotional request for it to change or stop. If a person cannot do this safely on his or her own then a colleague can witness the conversation.
  • Try to avoid seeing any bullying behavior as personal and about what he or she is or isn’t doing. Most bullying behavior is gratuitously spiteful and more of an attempt to establish power and influence. The bully is therefore typically trying to get a person to feel nervous, frightened or emotional (and therefore less powerful or confident), often through mistruths and misinformation. The less a person responds to these tactics outwardly the better (and the bullying may stop or move elsewhere at the lack of response).
  • Continue to perform his or her job role as well as he or she can without reference to any bullying comments about style, approach or competence. A workplace bully often wants a person to fail and or “trip-up” in some way and when he or she doesn’t the bully will be undermined.
  • Make sure his or her manager is aware of current work projects and kept fully up-to-date on progress. Workplace bullies often try to spread the word that a person is not doing his or her job well and will even go as far as to comment on the smallest shortfalls. However, actions always speak louder than words, especially if they are well-communicated.
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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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