What to do if you have a workplace bully

Employee experiencing workplace bullying

Conjure up our favourite bullies from pop culture – Nelson Muntz, Regina George, Biff Tannen, Joffrey Baratheon, Draco Malfoy…every single one has yet to hit adulthood.

In the real world, though, it’s not that simple. Just take a look at the man occupying the White House, or the online commenters trolling the Internet, and it’s crystal clear: bullying isn’t just a relic of childhood.

In fact, workplace bullying is an all too common – yet often ignored – problem.

Workplace bullying: the facts

Every office has conflict; it’s only natural. But that conflict becomes workplace bullying if it’s a pattern of persistent, continuous, health- or career-endangering mistreatment of one employee by one or more employees.

This kind of negative and persistent abuse can many forms, including (but not limited to):

  • Social isolation
  • Personal attacks on a person’s private life and/or personal attributes
  • Yelling or using profanity
  • Excessive or unjustified criticism
  • Over-monitoring of work
  • Verbal aggression
  • Trivial fault finding
  • Withholding information and job responsibility
  • Setting unrealistic goals or deadlines

And this abuse is rampant in workplaces. A CareerBuilder survey found that 45 per cent of workers have felt bullied at their job. Of those workers, only 44 per cent reported the problem to HR. And of the workers that reported workplace bullying, only 54 per cent said that no action was taken to address the situation.

While some workers suffering from bullying opted to confront their tormentor directly (according to the survey, 55 per cent), others chose to simply get away. In fact, 26 per cent of the workers surveyed have left a job because of bullying.

These stats send a clear message: workplace bullying is a very real problem, and that workers often don’t report it. And when they do, their complaints are ignored.

And HR shouldn’t ignore bullying – after all, the employer stands to lose out too. Victims of bullying can become plagued by self-doubt, fear, anxiety, and depression, which can in turn lead to increased absenteeism and plummeting morale and motivation.

A workplace plagued by bullying has to cover stress leaves and manage increased turnover, not to mention reduced efficiency and productivity due to poor staff morale.

How to recognize workplace bullying

It can be difficult to identify workplace bullies. They may, in fact, appear quite charming and may even be well-liked by their supervisors. It’s critical, then, to be aware of the signs that workplace bullying is taking place. According to the Public Services Health & Safety Association, these may include:

  • Declining work performance of dedicated and hard-working employees
  • Increasingly strained relations among staff in a unit
  • Declining morale
  • Increased absenteeism in a department/unit
  • Reported fear of a co-worker by other workers
  • Symptoms of depression
… and what to do about it

Ultimately, workplace bullying is most common in offices where management is lax or lacking – meaning employees are left to figure out for themselves what qualifies as acceptable behaviour.

To combat bullying, employers must be ready to commit as an organization to recognizing its prevalence, and to identify and respond to it. That includes identifying the ways that managers may unknowingly incubate bullies, such as through emphasizing competition and setting unrealistic deadlines.

In the end, the best thing an employer can do to prevent bullying is to develop a workplace prevention program and to develop a comprehensive written policy that covers a range of incidents.

A program should be developed by both management and employees, and apply to every individual with a relationship to the workplace. Clear examples of unacceptable behaviour and working conditions should be outlined, as should the consequences of violations.

All employees should be encouraged to report incidents of bullying through a clear and confidential process, and procedures for subsequent investigations and resolutions should be clearly outlined as well.

With a policy in place, employers need to support it. That means actively encouraging everyone in a workplace to behave professionally and to treat others with respect. All complaints should be treated seriously, promptly and confidentially. Additionally, supervisors and managers should be trained to recognize symptoms of bullying and to deal with situations as they arise.

There is no simple solution to the problem of workplace bullying, but awareness of the issue is growing. Employers and employees must work together to create better policies and labour laws to prevent its growth – and defend against its devastating impacts.

See also:
What to do when an employee is stealing
What to do if your staff is sleep-deprived


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