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Company Culture

How To Spot And Stop Workplace Bullying

Jasmine Panayides

When we think of bullying, we think of schoolchildren on the playground. A slightly bigger child is stealing lunch money or shoving kids in the hallway, and a teacher is swooping in to save the day. But bullying doesn't stop after school — it can follow us into the workplace, where it's often harder to spot and tackle.

According to a study by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 30% of the US workforce are victims of workplace bullying. The same report found that 19% have witnessed it. More interestingly, since the rise of remote working, 43.2% of those who work solely remote have been bullied at work.

When we go to work, we expect at the bare minimum to be physically safe and respected. Unfortunately, bullying in the workplace not only steals away this basic right but it can also lead to an environment of fear and hostility. With so many employees affected, understanding what workplace bullying is and what we can do about it is paramount for a healthy work culture.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), "workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above."

Bullying in the workplace can take the form of physical intimidation, humiliation/ridicule, psychological manipulation, and abuse. It may take the form of personal attacks, such as gossiping and exclusion, or aggressive behavior, such as constantly criticizing a person's work performance.

Workplace bullying often involves an imbalance of power between the bully and their target. The bully usually has more power or status than their target and may use this position of authority to take advantage of them, such as making unreasonable demands or taking credit for the target's accomplishments. Of course, this isn't always the case; bullying can occur between colleagues, and sometimes a subordinate may bully their boss.

Though if there is one thing to say about workplace bullying, it is that the consequences are serious. For instance, multiple research studies prove that it can have a negative effect on:

  • Mental and physical wellbeing: Studies have linked workplace bullying with depression, burnout, ulcers, and musculoskeletal issues.
  • Employee Productivity: As a result of the stress and anxiety caused by workplace bullying, employees can become demotivated, disengaged, and less productive.
  • Workplace Performance: A negative work environment affects morale, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment, leading to decreased performance. You may even see the employee making more mistakes or taking longer to complete tasks.
  • Employee Retention: A hostile environment can create a stressful and uncomfortable atmosphere that causes employees to leave or seek alternative employment opportunities.

Two employees arguing on opposite sides of a table.

How To Spot Workplace Bullying

It's not always easy to spot workplace bullying, as it can be subtle and isn't always obvious. Of course, if you see a high employee attrition rate or disengagement between teams and their managers, these could be potential signs worth investigating.

However, it's important to remember that bullying in the workplace isn't always physical or visible. Look for any signs of employees feeling uncomfortable, anxious, or scared around certain colleagues, as this could indicate an underlying issue.

Organizational Psychologist Dr. Luminda N Praslova and her co-authors, in a recent HBR article on bullying in the workplace, identify 15 types of bullying behaviors that can help you spot workplace bullying. These include:

  • Hostile (aka "hot" or "emotional"): This involves raising voices out of anger, throwing things, and lying to get someone fired or in trouble.
  • Instrumental (aka "cold"): This involves creating rumors, lies, and distortions about someone, to remove the victim from being a threat to their position, office space, or resources.
  • Direct: This is very similar to hostile bullying. However, this goes one step further. You can identify direct bullying as punching, blaming, shaming, sending angry messages, and displaying antagonistic or hostile body language.
  • Indirect: Again, this is similar to instrumental bullying but times ten. It involves spreading rumors, withholding information, and sabotaging someone’s position, role, or project.
  • Overt: This includes humiliation and public ridicule, such as silencing someone in front of others.
  • Covert: This is often harder to spot, as it involves more subtle methods such as isolation or manipulation. It involves excluding someone from work activities and conversations, subtle blaming, and gaslighting.
  • Downward: Essentially, this is the bully boss. The researchers claim they are responsible for 65% of workplace bullying cases.
  • Horizontal: This type of bullying usually occurs between colleagues and is often seen as an attempt to boost a bully's position, status, or power. This happens in 21% of reported cases.
  • Upward: Only reported in 14% of cases, this type of workplace bullying involves the employee trying to bully a higher-level leader to gain something from them.
  • Mixed: This is a mix of supervisors and subordinates coming together to bully in multiple directions.

The remaining five behaviors represent the costs (as mentioned in the previous section) of workplace bullying, which could be significant indicators of a potential problem. These include:

  • Physical illness
  • An onset of psychological determent
  • Social avoidance
  • Economic downfalls
  • Organizational pitfalls (e.g., productivity, revenue, absence, etc.)

8 Strategies For Stopping Workplace Bullying

For years, workplace bullying was often seen as a necessary evil or an inevitable part of the job. Fortunately, things are starting to change.

In 1993, Sweden was the first country to pass laws against bullying in the workplace. This was followed shortly after by other countries, including Ireland and Canada.

While there are currently no laws against workplace bullying in the UK, under the Equality Act 2010, harassment and discrimination are both illegal; therefore, employers have to take steps to protect employees from these behaviors.

And if we look at the USA, 31 states have introduced the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) to make it illegal for employers to ignore forms of bullying.

The world is slowly but surely getting there.

The simple truth is, if you want a harmonious and successful workplace, then bullying cannot be tolerated and must be stopped. And while in many countries and states in the US, bullying in the workplace laws are not yet present, there are still methods employers can use to stop it.

Here are eight strategies employers should implement to help prevent and stop workplace bullying:

1. Have A Clear Zero-Tolerance Policy On Bullying

Just because your country or state doesn't have bullying in the workplace laws, that doesn't mean you can ignore bullying within your workplace. Make sure you have a clear zero-tolerance policy on bullying within your company. You should also ensure that all employees are aware of your policy.

SHRM has a good workplace bullying policy template that can be used as a draft that you can then adapt to your company policies. However, at its minimum, this policy should include:

  • A definition of what workplace bullying is.
  • The procedure to follow when bullying is reported or noticed.
  • Consequences for those who are found guilty of bullying others.

On top of an anti-bullying policy, you should also have straightforward policies that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Employees must understand that you take the issue seriously for these policies to be fully effective. Senior leadership and managers must also embody and enact these values in their behavior and demonstrate that bullying will not be tolerated.

Two employees reviewing a document

2. Investigate All Reports Of Bullying

All reports must be taken seriously and should always be investigated. The investigation can be done by an internal grievance process or by an external body, depending on the nature of the case.

Regardless, if you fail to investigate properly, it could have serious legal implications for your organization and likely harm the relationship with employees and their morale.

You should appoint a representative or team of representatives to whom bullying complaints can be made. They should ensure the process is followed and support both parties involved.

3. Establish An Open-Door Policy

Ruth Cooper-Dickson, positive psychology practitioner and Founder and CEO of CHAMPS, a UK-based organization focused on helping businesses ingrain a positive mental wealth culture, explains that having an open-door policy is the key to building a bullying-free environment.

Ruth suggests that having one-on-one conversations between managers and their subordinates to check in and understand how they are doing could help reduce the risk of bullying in the workplace.

She explains that:

"This should be an always available space to talk, without the pressure of focusing on job performance. When these conversations happen regularly, employees can build trust with their managers and create a sense of psychological safety. This allows them to open up and share without fear of negative consequences on promotions or projects. By building a culture of psychological safety, rapport, and trust within the team, individuals feel empowered to speak up and seek support if they are experiencing bullying."

Though sometimes, it may even be the manager who is the workplace bullying perpetrator. In such cases, it's essential to have another trusted individual in the organization who can help employees report any issues that occur. This can be appointing mental health first aiders or introducing employee assistance programs. Some companies may even have anonymous forums or internal communication tools to enable employees to report bullying confidentially and safely.

Having multiple avenues in place creates a safe and supportive environment for employees where they can feel comfortable speaking up if they ever find themselves in a bullying situation.

4. Provide Training On Bullying

To ensure that all employees are aware of your anti-bullying policy and cultural expectations, you should train managers and staff on what bullying looks like in the workplace and how it should be addressed. This should include the different types of workplace bullying behaviors and a clear demonstration of what diversity, inclusion, and respect for colleagues means.

Ruth also shares that training should go beyond simply training on workplace bullying awareness. She adds that it’s equally important to train managers on conflict resolution skills and the people management skills required to mediate conversations, build relationships, and create a team of equals.

The Founder and CEO of CHAMPS highlights:

"It's important to recognize that some people naturally possess strong qualities such as openness, approachability, empathy, and compassion. However, not everyone possesses these traits. Additionally, individuals are often promoted into managerial positions based solely on their technical abilities or their ability to generate revenue, without consideration for their ability to effectively manage people. But it's important to remember that teams are made up of people. Managers need to be equipped with the necessary skills to effectively manage and lead their teams, including creating an inclusive work environment and effectively managing expectations."

By proactively educating managers and staff on workplace bullying and providing them with the adequate skills and resources to ensure bullying is not tolerated, businesses can create a safe and supportive work environment for all employees.

A woman giving a training presentation in front of a group of employees

5. Effective And Merit-Based Performance Reviews

Performance reviews are an essential tool for managers to monitor and assess employee performance, but they can also be an opportunity for downward bullying.

To avoid such situations from occurring during performance reviews, it is recommended that businesses evaluate their employees in a merit-based manner. This means judging them based on their performance and not considering other factors that could lead to personal bias. To help combat this, you could have multiple people assess each employee’s performance or have a set of criteria for evaluating employees across the board.

Though when having a set of criteria, you must avoid the rank and yank system, which uses performance reviews to compare employees against each other. This kind of system can lead to a competitive environment where employees are pitted against each other and bullying behavior can arise.

In such cases, a better approach would be to ensure that performance reviews focus more on the employee's strengths and weaknesses rather than comparing them to others. This can create an environment where employees are encouraged to collaborate and support one another in their respective roles.

It is also crucial for businesses to ensure that employees can provide feedback on their performance reviews and have the chance to challenge any areas where they feel they may have been unfairly judged or experienced workplace bullying from their manager. 

A meritocratic performance review system can help ensure fairness and equity in reviewing employees. It also ensures that employees aren't unfairly judged based on their gender, race, ethnicity, or any other personal factors. By introducing such practices and processes into their performance reviews, businesses can ensure that all employees are objectively assessed for their performance and that any workplace bullying is avoided.

6. Build A Culture That Enforces And Supports Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion

Creating a culture that encourages diversity, equity, and inclusion is paramount to preventing workplace bullying. Diversity brings different perspectives and skill sets, creating an environment of creativity, synergy, and innovation. Equity ensures that everyone is treated with respect, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Lastly, inclusion allows for the voices of all employees to be heard and respected.

By reinforcing these aspects in your company culture, businesses can create an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable speaking up and reporting any instances of bullying behavior without fear of repercussion.

And while you may have policies and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) in place, it is ultimately up to the managers and senior leaders in the organization to demonstrate their commitment to these values and ensure that they are upheld.

As Ruth explains, "not everyone is born with the skills to be an emphatic and inclusive leader." But through regular training, development workshops, and mentorship, managers can learn the skills to lead with purpose and integrity.

7. Encourage A Culture Of Recognition

When employees are valued and rewarded for their contributions, it can help to create a positive workplace environment. And when they are recognized for the work they put in for their company, it not only boosts morale but encourages them to do better in their respective roles.

On the other hand, when employees aren't recognized for their hard work, it can create a toxic environment where they are motivated by fear rather than appreciation. As a result, employees may feel that they are being taken advantage of or not valued for their efforts which could lead to feelings of resentment and eventually workplace bullying.

Therefore, by creating a culture of recognition, where employers, managers, and colleagues are encouraged to acknowledge the accomplishments of each other, workplaces can foster an environment of trust and respect. This can be done through rewards, shoutouts, or celebrating an employee's career or personal milestones.

Also, by reviewing the flow of recognition and appreciation, you can identify where some employees might be at risk of feeling isolated and alienated. These measurements can then be used to investigate further and determine any underlying issues that might be at play in your workplace.

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8. Don't Forget The Aftercare

Say you found your perpetrator guilty of bullying and took the necessary disciplinary action. It is about ensuring that the incident never happens again and that both parties return to work feeling safe and respected.

Providing aftercare for victims of workplace bullying can include offering counseling services or regular check-ins with senior leaders to ensure that the employees feel supported and valued. It is vital to confirm that the perpetrator of the bullying also gets the help they need so that they do not go down a similar route in the future.

When speaking to Ruth, she also highlights the importance of offering aftercare support from a team perspective. She adds:

"There may be people in the team that were witnessing the workplace bullying, that were too frightened to speak up. How does the team deal with that recovery? How do you come back together as a team after such an incident? That is where the focus should be, to ensure everyone is heard and all perspectives are considered when trying to move forward."

You may consider team building activities or regular check-ins so everyone feels supported and valued. The bottom line is, by providing aftercare for employees who have experienced workplace bullying, you can create a safe atmosphere in the company which will help retain talented individuals and prevent further cases of bullying.


No matter how small or large the scale of workplace bullying is, it is a serious issue that can devastate employees and employers. However, by understanding what constitutes workplace bullying, having clear policies in place, encouraging open communication channels, investing in the development of their managers, and ensuring an inclusive culture of appreciation and recognition, businesses can create an environment free from hostility.

It is up to employers to provide a safe working environment where individuals are respected and valued and bullying isn't tolerated. However, it requires a collective effort from employers, employees, and senior leaders to eradicate workplace bullying completely.

If you are ready to take the next step towards creating a workplace culture free from bullying, request a demo from Nectar to see how we can help you promote a more positive workplace culture. Our recognition and rewards software will enable you to recognize hard work, team collaboration, and encourage peer-to-peer appreciation while preventing cases of workplace bullying.

 All employees should feel valued and respected in the workplace, and we want to help make that happen.

Actionable workplace tips & insights for fellow people lovers

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