How to Handle Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying isn't that different than childhood bullying -- except your job may be at stake.
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It's Tuesday morning. You've just sat down at your desk with a cup of coffee and are beginning to sort through your workload for the day. Out of the corner of your eye, you see your boss round the corner. Immediately your stomach tightens and shoulders hunch. You wait with your eyes glued to your monitor as she walks briskly towards you, knowing she's going to have something to say about the status report you submitted last night. You had made a small mistake and were planning on fixing it first thing this morning. It's nothing catastrophic, but experience has taught you that has no bearing on anything. Your boss walks up behind you, and before you can say a forced "good morning," she slams the report on the table hard enough to make your colleagues turn around and look. She says loudly enough for all to hear, "This is ridiculous. I don't know what's wrong with you but I do know this. I could pull anyone in off the street and they'd do a better job than you." The fact that you've seen co-workers make the same error without your manager breathing a word is irrelevant; she's singled you out to blame. Your stomach is in knots, and your colleagues go back to their work as you brace yourself for another long day.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Workplace bullying isn't uncommon. Chances are you've either experienced on-the-job bullying personally or witnessed it. Perhaps you felt powerless to confront your bully, or maybe you feared you'd be fired if you spoke up. If you have been bullied in the past or are currently being bullied, realize you aren't alone.


In the next sections, we'll learn what constitutes a workplace bully, the damage they leave in their wake and what you can do to defend yourself.


What is Workplace Bullying?

When you think of bullying, you may tend to think of a kid in gym class being shoved into the bleachers or a teenager being harassed online by other kids. What isn't talked about with similar frequency is bullying that happens to adults. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, the term workplace bullying is defined as "mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker's health, jeopardize her or his job and career, and strain relationships with friends and family" [source: WBI]. In other words, it is demonstrable abusive behavior that does more than make you uncomfortable; it negatively impacts your life inside the workplace and out. Examples of workplace bullying include the following:

  • Personal threats
  • Derogatory comments
  • Public humiliation
  • Intimidation tactics such as hovering or sneaking up to startle
  • Verbal abuse
  • Purposeful exclusion of others from meetings or discussions
  • Excessive demands, impossible deadlines or unreasonable requests

Bullies crave power due to their own insecurities. They feel that the only way to hold onto power is through coercion [source: Namie and Namie]. This is the arena where schoolyard bullies and workplace bullies meet. Both intimidate and humiliate their targets with the hopes of gaining -- or keeping -- what they perceive to be the upper hand. The main difference between the two: A childhood bully's torment can result in emotional damage with long-term and sometimes tragic consequences. A workplace bully adds another ingredient to this mix: the threat of losing one's job.


The majority of workplace bullying occurs between a manager and an employee. In fact, about 80 percent of bullies are supervisors [source: Boyle and Gibson]. The politics and hierarchy of your work environment may create a situation where you feel as though you are living in the den of a very hungry lion.

Bullying is also prevalent among co-workers. They might not have the same power as managers, but they will often employ the same tactics. Colleagues may bully because they believe they can advance their career by making co-workers look weak. Isolating a co-worker gives a false sense of power. Or perhaps, by bullying they think they can dictate work which they subconsciously feel they lack the skills for. Whatever their reasons, a bullying colleague is just as detrimental as a bullying boss.

A common misperception is that the person who is being bullied somehow invites the behavior. Also, people mistakenly think workplace bullying is not actual bullying -- but rather, a form of teaching on the job to toughen up an employee. Unfortunately, many employers either ignore the situation or place blame on the victim, which is often easier than confronting the problem at hand. These solutions only encourage the issue to continue.

As we'll see a little later on, many types of workplace bullying are legal, giving a bully the leg-up in terms of immunity. Before we explore the legal arena, let's turn our attention to what bullying feels like.


How It Feels to Be Bullied at Work

Workplace bullies thrive in a culture of silence. They recognize fear and capitalize on it to maintain power, to look confident and in control to their superiors and, in some cases, further their own careers. These types of people look for colleagues or employees who appear to be passive or docile. Workplace bullying experts Gary and Ruth Namie put it like this: "What makes someone a target is when the bully is testing her or his humiliating tactics on several people at work, the target does not fight back or confront the bully immediately. That yielding opens the door to future mistreatment because the target failed the test of being a jerk just like the bully" [source: Namie and Namie].

The emotional and physical impact a bully may have on a co-worker can be extreme. As mentioned earlier, the fear of losing one's job can be a powerful motivator to stay put, despite the abuse. It is not unusual for adults being bullied to exhibit the following behaviors:


  • Dread going to work
  • Lose a significant amount of sleep
  • Suffer from depression
  • Obsess over their job performance
  • Rationalize the bully's behavior or begin to believe he or she deserves to be mistreated
  • Have difficulties at home due to extreme stress at work

Bullied adults often feel they have no recourse but to endure the situation. They may put up with the treatment because they are the sole income provider for their family, think there are too few opportunities for work where they live or need the health insurance provided by their company. Perhaps they view quitting as giving in or validating a bully. People will often create justifications for staying in an unhealthy environment; don't fall into that trap. If you are the target of bullying or witness such behavior, there are steps you can take to right the wrong. In the next section, we'll explore what you can do to fight back against a workplace bully.


Dealing With Bullying in the Workplace

It is very difficult to take legal action against your bully or employer. The Civil Rights Act protects people from discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, national origin or sex. Unless your bully is subjecting you to discrimination or harassment that falls into one of these categories, the bully is probably doing nothing illegal. Although it causes pain, it is difficult to prove their behavior is causing you harm. This is not to say you shouldn't talk to a lawyer if you feel it necessary. Just be aware going in that this is a difficult war to win.

The first step in dealing with a workplace bully is learning how to protect yourself against abusive behavior that is technically legal.


Confronting bullying requires bravery on your part. It will not be easy and may result in some unintended consequences. Bullied people have a 64 percent chance of losing their job once they've been targeted [source: WBI]. Being prepared with strategies to deal with the bully can help to increase your chances of success.

The WBI suggests three strategies for dealing with bullying.

  • Legitimize bullying behavior by naming it. (Example: emotional abuse)
  • Take time off work.
  • Expose the bully.

According to Robert Mueller, author of "Bullying Bosses," one of the first steps to warding off a bully is limiting the amount of personal information you share. Bullies will often use what you have mentioned in passing as a weapon. Maintaining personal boundaries is an important line of defense. Mueller also suggests the "Restroom Retreat" strategy. When you find yourself being bullied, don't wait for your manager to finish his or her tirade. Calmly excuse yourself and leave. By ending the "conversation" on your terms, you are sending a clear message to your bully that his or her behavior will not be tolerated.

Mueller also recommends talking to trusted co-workers in a professional manner when instances of bullying occur. Approach the abuse as "bullying for all." In other words, a bully who targets one person indirectly targets the entire team. Bullying is demoralizing to the group; it can hamper productivity and have a negative impact on the business as a whole.

At some point, you may decide that the best way to remedy the situation is by leaving. This is not a retreat or a failure to cope on your part. It is simply a decision based on your experience. If you have worked to find a solution, and the administration is less than helpful, you may want to consider going elsewhere. No job is worth losing your dignity and mental health. To leave on an empowered note, try the following tactics:

  • Ask colleagues and allies for a positive reference letter.
  • Understand the laws regarding defamation of character.
  • Review your documentation of bullying, and decide whether there is justification for legal action.
  • If an exit interview is required, bring along a letter from your attorney

[source: Namie and Namie]

If you want to go beyond simply dealing with the bully and have decided it's time to take action, read on to find out the best way to report what's been happening.


Reporting Workplace Bullying

In 62 percent of cases, employers who were informed of bullying behavior either ignored the complaint or targeted the person who filed a complaint [source: Namie & Namie]. If you are planning to report being bullied, having a record of when, where and how you were bullied is invaluable. In any legal case, evidence must be brought forth to prove a crime has been committed. The same holds true in the workplace. If you are experiencing bullying, it is vital to keep detailed documentation of each instance.

  • If your bully writes demeaning emails, print and save them in a safe location. Do not leave them sitting in your inbox.
  • Ask co-workers who witnessed a particular incident to corroborate your account of events.
  • Check a company handbook or state or federal laws to see whether your civil rights were violated.
  • Gather documentation for proof if you believe bully is costing the company money.

[source: Namie and Namie]


Lodging an official complaint against a co-worker or boss can be tricky business and is often riskier for you than the bully. Many human resources departments often view the person reporting the abuse as the troublemaker. While many companies have policies against harassment, many of those same companies ignore complaints or build cases to purge the complainer. "Managers generally function under the traditional illusion that by protecting the bullies in their company, they are protecting their employers and themselves" [source: Mueller].

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. In recent years, many countries have made great strides in dealing with workplace bullying. Australia, France, Canada and Britain have passed laws that directly address workplace bullies. Some U.S. states have similar laws, and there is a growing awareness of the issue. Many universities are conducting research in the areas of adult bullying in the workplace. In June 2002, the case of Raess v. Doescher -- an Indiana hospital worker's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault against a surgeon -- went to court, ending in a win for the plaintiff, though the case has gone through appeals since then. And in 2009, a school district in Sioux City, Iowa, passed a policy addressing teacher-on teacher bullying [source: Matheny].

For lots more information about bullying, workplace conflict and how to deal with it, read on to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • ACLU "Through the Keyhole: Privacy in the Workplace an Endangered Right." July 26, 1998. (July 9, 2010)
  • bNet, CBS Business Network. "Understanding the Reasons for Workplace Bullying." (July 8, 20100
  • Boyle, Amy, and Sue Gibson. "Dealing with Workplace Bullies." Leading Edition, E-Newsletter for Purdue University Supervisors. (July 8, 2010)
  • Carey, Benedict. "Fear in the Workplace: The Bullying Boss." New York Times. June 22, 2004. (July 9, 2010)
  • Carter, Jay. "Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them Without Becoming One of Them." Contemporary Books. Copyright 1989
  • Matheny, Keith. "Schools Tackle Teacher on Teacher Bullying." USA Today. April 7, 2010. (July 12, 2010)
  • Mueller, Robert JD. "Bullying Bosses: A Survivor's Guide." Bullying Bosses. Copyright 2005.
  • Namie, Gary PhD, and Ruth Namie, PhD. "The Bully at Work. What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job." Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright 2009.
  • Parker-Pope, Tara. "When the Bully Sits in the Next Cubicle." New York Times. March, 25, 2008. (July 11, 2020)
  • Wambach, Julie Ann, PhD. "Battles Between Somebodies and Nobodies." Brookside Press. Copyright 2008
  • Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. "Workplace Bullying: What Everyone Needs to Know." April 2008. (July 8, 2010)
  • Workplace Bullying Institute. "FAQ: What is Bullying?" (July 8, 2010)
  • Workplace Bullying Institute Healthy Workplace Bill.
  • Workplace Bulling Institute. "2007 WBI-Zogby U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey." (July 9, 2010)