How to Handle Workplace Bullying

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.