How to Avoid and End Workplace Bullying in Your Company

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As employers and recruiters, we often find ourselves hyperfocused on the overall performance of our employees, tossing aside any connection through both human experience and emotion. In a way, this is easily understood. When dealing with both statistics and staffing quantities on a daily basis, it can be easy to forget the human side of the subject. At the end of the day, employees are humans, not just pawns on a board of production. This, as an employer, is the most important thing to remember. But, with humanity comes a multitude of facets, both good and bad. With a team of humans together with complex emotions and independent motives, it can be easy for things like workplace bullying to take place.

We often discuss concepts like improving production, happiness and reducing burnout, but we overlook topics like workplace bullying. It’s hard to think of any of our employees as bullies, especially if they have great production on their own. Unfortunately, bullying within workforces is more common than you’d like to imagine.

According to the 2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, 30% percent of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work, 19% have witnessed it, 49% are affected by it, and 66% are aware that workplace bullying happens. Furthermore, the study found that an estimated 48.6 million Americans are bullied at work.

So, how did we get here? What is workplace bullying, how can we identify it as supervisors and business owners, and how can we stop it in the future?

What Is Workplace Bullying?

In a stereotypical sense, bullying is often seen as the playground brute, pushing little kids into the dirt and calling out insulting names. While adults have grown past simple name-calling and physical altercations (hopefully), the concept of bullying amongst employees is not much different than the age-old stories.

Ultimately, the act of bullying is to outwardly and purposely seek to harm, intimidate, or humiliate another person. The bully decides that they want to cause emotional, physical, or mental harm to another person and does so through an array of different techniques. As a result, the perpetrator works to make themselves feel better about some psychological or revenge-related underlining.

What Bullying Looks Like:

According to a CareerBuilder survey, responders said the most common forms of bullying were:

  • Falsely accused of making mistakes (45%)
  • Comments ignored, dismissed, or not acknowledged (42%)
  • Criticized constantly by boss or co-workers (37%)
  • Different standards or policies applied to them (34%)
  • Gossiped about (36%)
  • Belittling comments made during meetings (28%)
  • Someone didn’t perform certain duties, which negatively impacted their work (29%)
  • Yelled at by boss in front of co-workers (26%)
  • Excluded from projects or meetings (20%)

The Difference From Harassment

On paper, bullying and harassment seemingly go hand-in-hand. In a way, they are the same thing. Harassment and bullying are both an act of attempting to hurt someone through physical or verbal means. The difference is ultimately the reasoning behind the act.

Overall, harassment involves being outwardly aggressive toward another based on a protected class. This involves racism, classism, ageism, and sexism. Furthermore, if the act involves actual physical harm, sexual misconduct, or derogatory statements, it’s harassment.

At the end of the day, harassment is a legal issue and should not be taken lightly. If an employee is bullying someone due to something uncontrollable or is outright harming (or assaulting) them, legal means should be taken immediately.

Bullying, on the other hand, often involves more harmless interactions based on relationships, professional jealousy, or other means that are not prejudiced. This is not to undermine its true harmful nature, but to differentiate the legality.

Workplace Bullying Laws

While harassment can lead to a plethora of legal results, bullying is a bit murkier. Overall, there is no federal law against workplace bullying. Knowing that the issue is both significant and impactful for business production, it’s a shame that there are no legal ways to combat it. Overall, it would be a hard battle to fight, though. How does one truly prove that bullying is happening and harmful enough for legal action?

Of course, if the bullying involves someone of a protected class, harassment legality can be issued.

If the bullying is bad enough but is not legally harassment, termination should be pondered. Though we can write endless essays about how to stop or prevent bullying, sometimes the only solution is to let the instigator go. If the state follows at-will employment, you will have no issues or arguments for letting an employee go due to rumors or reports of at-work bullying.

If the state is not at-will, you may need to be able to prove or define bullying following your business’ policies or guidelines.

Different Kinds of Workplace Bullying

If you are not a direct supervisor or are not around your employees at all times, it can be easy to overlook the signs of bullying. Oftentimes, an employee will not outright report bullying to a higher-up (we’ll get to this later), so it’s important to notice and identify bullying while it’s happening.

It’s also important to remember during your watch that bullying can come from anywhere or anyone. In fact, in a national survey, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 61% of workplace bullies are bosses. Therefore, it’s very possible that the bully is someone on your level or above the main employees. Do not just keep an active eye (and ear) out for employees bullying each other on the same level of employment. Supervisors and managers are the main perpetrators.

Regardless of the working relationships or role, here are the main types of workplace bullying.

1. Aggressive

This one is the most obvious. The aggressive bully is your stereotypical troublemaker. They’re in-your-face and confrontational.

Overall, this type of bullying uses aggression to get others to back and break down. The forceful nature will cause bystanders to avoid the situation, not attempting to speak up due to the fear of being on the other end of the aggression.

This bully may use yelling, sending angry emails, other verbal forms of hostility, open threats, and imposing body language to upset other employees. Fear and blatant meanness are their weapons used to get what they want or to upset another employee.

2. Passive Aggressive

Passive-aggressive bullies are the ones that use words, tact, and wit to strike down other employees. They are often seen as the emotional aggressors, working to break down an opponent’s will and mental state. This often includes being sarcastic, lying to the victim, or telling on the victim behind their back.

For example, someone saying “Wow, you actually did a good job this time,” is considered passive-aggressive. The bully is insulting the victim through a two-faced compliment. The victim is left in a stage of confusion (or anger), not understanding what they did or if the bully was being serious.

Being a passive-aggressive bully may also mean things like moving an important document so the victim can’t find it (leading to getting in trouble or being late). They also may lie to supervisors or exaggerate something the other employee did, causing unneeded backlash.

They are the sneakier of the bullies, using words and stealth to hurt other people.

3. Critic

“There’s plenty wrong with the need to be right.”

— Frank Sonnenberg, American Author

Ever dealt with a manager that has to criticize every little thing that you do? Ever had a performance review that involved insulting your workstyle for the entire time, regardless of if you deserve it or not? That’s the critic.

The critic bully is obvious with their words. They micro-manage and insult an employee’s work ethic (or performance) through every action. Ultimately, they are a bad leader that has decided they are better than the other employee, working to break them down with every little insult and ‘work tip‘.

Furthermore, the critic may work to sabotage an employee to give them more grounds to critique. For example, the critic may withhold information about a task. When the victim doesn’t complete the task correctly (due to the withheld info), the critic will berate them or critique their work based on the gatekeeping they performed.

This type of bully may be the most common in workplaces. As the aforementioned CareerBuilder survey stated, 45% of those bullied claimed it involved being falsely accused of making mistakes. That’s the unnecessary micromanagement of the critic bully. Furthermore, these bullies are most likely superiors or managers. They’re the ones considered know-it-alls.

4. Gossiper

We spoke of workplace gossip and how to stop it in our article above. Though, to continue throughout this article, we will paraphrase what workplace gossip is:

Ultimately, workplace gossip is the act of employees speaking negatively about other employees. This gossip can include any number of things from work performance to outside life. Though it may be hard to decipher, it often leads to negativity surrounding the overall opinion of a person. It’s not necessarily straightforward bullying, but an inadvertent attack.

There is also seemingly harmless gossip. Two employees can be discussing positive or indifferent things about another person’s life or work performance. While it may seem as if benign banter, it’s a slippery slope. If an employee believes they can speak behind another person’s back, even if only positively, things can easily become negative.

Overall, workplace gossip is when an employee or multiple employees speak about another behind their back.

Therefore, the workplace gossiper is a bully that uses behind-the-back measures to start issues amongst the employee base. They are the hardest to notice and differentiate. Their actions may seem like harmless small talk. As we said, we broke down the entirety of the issue in the article above.

In a way, workplace gossip is its own beast entirely.

How Did This Start?

There’s some famous quote our high school social studies teachers pounded into our brains. Something along the lines of, “You study history to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes in the future.”

Sound familiar?

In order to prevent and stop future workplace bullying, it’s important to note where it all went wrong. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in which bullying began to spiral out of control, creating a work environment that’s hostile and hurtful. On the other hand, it may be as easy as pointing a finger.

If bullying started at the introduction of said bully, the cause is simple. If you hired someone and they quickly became the bully, they are the bad apple on the tree. In this case, they need to be reprimanded or let go before the workplace becomes toxic (more on that next).

If the bullying started from an employee that has tenure or a group of already-established workers, something personal has come about. Though less easy to deal with and correct, it’s still an obvious bud to nip.

The worst situation is when bullying comes from all over. If you are noticing bullying amongst multiple parties and multiple victims, it may be hard to pinpoint where it began. It may be that policies, hiring strategies, or lack of leadership have led to a workplace that isn’t afraid to be negative or toxic. If this is the case, team-wide solutions must be implemented. The company, as a whole, must look inward to find where things went wrong.

Why do employees believe they can, and should, be mean?

The Dangers of Letting It Continue

Letting any negativity thrive throughout a team can quickly lead to a toxic workplace. Bullying is especially efficient in creating a company that no one wants to work for (or with).

Basically, a toxic workplace is when bad employees thrive and great employees have disdain for their jobs. A barren wasteland of all things productivity and positivity. Gossip and rumors fly around. Everything is gray. Everyone hates being there.

In all seriousness, a toxic workplace is bad. When bullying or attacking becomes the main production of a team, many employees pay more attention to the drama or hurt than their jobs. Anxiety and tension begin to grow in employees attempting to dodge the drama. Sides are chosen on topics, creating a large shift in workplace dynamics. Those that are hurt may begin to lash out themselves, creating more bullying.

Long story short, it’s bad news bears.

The worst outcome of a toxic workplace is the downward spiral of productivity. Good workers will no longer want to be in the workplace. Some may no longer take the supervisor’s management and some may lose all trust in leadership. It’s extremely important to nip this all in the bud before it gets completely out of hand.

If you are looking for more information on how to deal with toxic employees overall, check out our article
How to Deal With Toxic Employees – Without Causing Damage

How to Stop and Avoid It

Look, let’s be clear: Workplace bullying is an issue. The prevalence has gone up 57% since 2017. As a culture of empathetic humans, we need to work together to break it down.

Furthermore, as a company and business, you need to stop it and prevent it to continue to be a productive and successful workplace.

Unfortunately, all tips will not fit all situations. Humans are complex and unique. Stopping workplace bullying is completely case-by-base. It’s impossible to clear the entire situation up here through overall writing.

We will share some of the biggest tips for stopping and preventing workplace bullying, though.

Be Straightforward With Situations

When you, or another worker, notice that an employee is workplace bullying, it’s important to speak to them directly. Ask for a private meeting with them and attempt to figure out what’s going on. As a leader, it is crucial to be direct and affirmative when speaking in an authoritative manner. Don’t be harsh, but don’t be soft.

Sometimes employees may not understand that they are in trouble or are being mean. They also may not understand what you want from them. Clear all of this up with direct communication. State that you will not tolerate bullying in the workforce and you will have to write the employee up if it continues (if a no-tolerance policy is in place).

Following the discipline, it’s important to ask why the employee was in such an aggressive mood. There may be something bigger at play. If there is a conflict between two employees, then you may have to bring them both in for a discussion.

There should be empathy at play here. It’s possible that the bully feels hurt or scorned and is acting out. It’s possible there’s something else drastic going on in their lives and they don’t know how to deal with it. Being a bully is bad, but it’s often caused by something more sympathetic.

While it’s not your job to have to improve an employee’s mental health, you should do what you can to help. If they are a productive member of your team, they deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt at first. They deserve help and support.

As stated, it’s all case by case. Just remember to be straightforward and to listen with empathy.

Keep Communication Open

You have a busy schedule, we’re sure. But we have already hammered in how important it is to squash a toxic workplace.

Never turn down someone that’s willing to bring you their problems. If an employee is willing to speak up about bullying, give them the time and ear for the situation. It may not seem like the most important thing on your schedule, but it may have the highest ramifications. Always be present and open with your employees.

Furthermore, let everyone know that communication is always open. You don’t want to be closed off or hands-off supervisor or employer. Tell your workers you are there for them and are there for any issues and be there for them. Walk the walk. Even if the problem seems minuscule to you, listen and do what needs to be done.

Listening to your teammates should always be a priority. This does not mean you have to take all of their grievances into account, but you should be available for them to express them.

This goes for remote work, too. Be open to emails, calls, and video meetings. The aforementioned Workplace Bullying Institute study found that 43.2% of remote workers have experienced remote or virtual bullying via email, chat, or other communication forms. It’s prevalent there, too.

Consider Workplace Training

Reducing bad habits can start and end with workplace training. There is a reason that seminars and companies providing them are so popular.

Firstly, make sure that bullying and anti-bullying are addressed in the onboarding process. The onboarding process is crucial for establishing workplace culture and letting employees know what won’t be tolerated before they make the mistake. Make intentions and rules clear when the employee starts working.

Secondly, if you believe that bullying is going on within the workforce, hold a team meeting to discuss it. You don’t have to give out specific examples or name names for employee safety, but you can bring up and address the topic. This can help create both common ground and rules for the future.

If all else fails, you can look to bring in a professional team to hold anti-bullying or anti-harassment seminars and training to help bolster your workplace and team.

Walk the Talk

The first tip may not be a definite way to stop bullying, but it is a way to prevent it.

GoRemotely found that only 2.6% of management is highly engaged. Therefore, a manager may miss that their workforce is growing sick with negativity until it’s too late. In a way, this is understandable. If the job is busy or super hands-on, it can be impossible to overhear or read the hushed rumors boiling at the bottom of the pot. If you (or your managers) are not highly engaged, prevention and stoppage of bullying can be hard to grasp.

Therefore, a great way to combat this is to lead by example. Your leaders should never be outwardly mean or hostile and should shut down bullying when they hear it. They should never let it get to the point of becoming an actual issue.

If your leadership is the one bullying (which is often the case via former studies), you are in for some trouble. They are showing that it’s okay for everyone else to act that way, as well.

Review or Change Policies

The best way to counteract bullying is to state that it’s not allowed from the jump.

Think about adding a zero-tolerance policy to your rulebook regarding bullying or aggressive behavior. It’s entirely fair and justifiable to add a no-gossip act to your rulebook. It doesn’t make your company seem overbearing or strict. It’s an effort to keep and establish workplace culture.

It’s very possible that the rules are already in place (as they are in most companies). If so, make sure that new employees are informed about these rules. It may ultimately be a mistake of the trainers or human resources team not telling new employees about anti-bullying policies.

Also, having a policy regarding bullying can give you the opportunity to discipline employees that refuse to follow it. You can write up bullying employees for doing just that. It sounds harsh, sure, but it’s better to have a disciplinary track in place before trouble starts bubbling.

If You Need to Fire, Fire

We’ll keep this short.

If the employee is outright toxic and is not willing to budge on their bullying ways, it’s totally okay to let them go. As we stated, keeping a pleasant and comfortable workplace is crucial for future production. A company without happy employees is soon to not be a company.

It can be hard to let a worker go if they are productive or are not a bully to most, but it’s important to keep the whole situation in mind. A bully can be nice to everyone but one person, but other workers will see the issue and react accordingly. Even if they are just bullying one person, they can quickly poison the entire workplace.

If they need to be fired, it’s okay to fire them (as long as it’s legal).