How to Battle Bullying in the Workplace

Maryalene LaPonsie

Workplace bullying can occur in almost any employment setting. Even remote workers who are part of a team can find themselves the target of negative behavior from a colleague or supervisor.

"It can be a very tricky situation to navigate," says Stacey Engle, president of Fierce Conversations, a company that teaches organizations how to communicate effectively. However, it helps to know what options are available to you and how to address a potential bullying situation.

Keep reading to understand how workplace bullying is defined, what your rights are and how to react if you or a co-worker is a victim.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying shouldn't be confused with illegal harassment, which targets people based on legally protected classes such as age, race, sex and religion. Bullying does not have such clearly defined parameters, says Domenique Camacho Moran, head of the labor and employment practice at law firm Farrell Fritz in Uniondale, New York.

"It can come in a lot of different shapes and forms," says Jill Gugino Pante, director of the Lerner College Career Service Center at the University of Delaware. "Bullying can be targeted or it can be one person who bullies everyone."

Bullying may take many forms, from being ignored during office meetings to being verbally berated for making mistakes. "We define it as (when) someone doesn't feel comfortable being themselves in the workplace," Engle explains.

[See: 16 Low-Stress Jobs.]

Signs of Bullying

In some cases, workplace bullying is obvious. "Bullies can do things like threaten and humiliate you," says Vanessa Matsis-McCready, assistant general counsel and senior human resources consultant at Engage PEO, a company providing human resources outsourcing solutions to small and medium-sized businesses.

Yelling and name-calling are clear signs of bullying behavior, but it can also be subtle. "We think of it as being outright and overt, but it could be someone gossiping about you or talking about you to the supervisor behind your back," Gugino Pante says.

A co-worker who rolls their eyes every time you talk or blames you for office mistakes can be engaging in bullying behavior. It can even extend outside the confines of the workplace if someone is posting negatively about you on social media.

How to Stop Workplace Bullies

There is more than one way to address a workplace bully, and the following steps highlight how best to tackle the issue.

1. Decide Whether to Discuss the Matter Directly

If you feel comfortable doing so, Engle suggests talking one-on-one with the bully. "The first step is to engage in a feedback conversation," she says. This conversation isn't about accusing the other person but rather trying to understand their perspective. Point out the behavior you noticed, such as being talked over or ignored during a meeting, and then give the other person the opportunity to explain their actions. It's possible they may not be aware what they are doing is negatively impacting others.

2. Talk to Human Resources

Although working out the situation directly with the other person may seem ideal, it isn't always possible. "Not everyone may be comfortable with that approach and it may not be effective," Camacho Moran says. In that case, it's better to go directly to your HR office, particularly if the bullying involves threatening behavior or verbal harassment. If your employer doesn't have an HR office, speak to your supervisor or, if your supervisor is the bully, the next person up the line of command.

3. Cooperate With the Investigation

In most companies, a complaint of workplace bullying should trigger an investigation by the HR office. While it's not necessary to provide a detailed log of interactions, provide as much information as possible about the difficulties you've encountered. "It's very difficult for the company to help you if they don't know what happened," Matsis-McCready says. Sometimes, workers want to only talk off the record or provide vague allegations against a co-worker, which makes it hard for HR staff to properly investigate the problem.

4. Understand Termination May Not Be the End Result

While you might want the bully to be dismissed, that's not necessarily the outcome in many investigations. "The purpose of the complaint is to cause a change in behavior," Camacho Moran says. "It does not have to mean someone is fired." Instead, retraining, mediation or other avenues may be used to ensure the problematic behavior ends.

5. Consult With an Employment Attorney

Unlike illegal harassment, workplace bullying can be a gray area in the law. However, if you don't feel your HR office is responding to your concern appropriately, you may want to meet with an attorney to discuss whether other options are available to you.

[See: How to Change Careers Successfully.]

Workplace Bullying Statistics

Statistics vary considerably when it comes to gauging how often workplace bullying occurs.

The Workplace Bullying Institute has been studying the issue since 1997 and issued their latest report on the topic in 2017. That report, which relied on a random sample of 1,008 Americans, found 19% of workers had experienced workplace bullying and 19% had witnessed it. Males accounted for 70% of the perpetrators while females were the victim of bullies two-thirds of the time, regardless of whether the bully was a man or a woman.

A more recent poll, conducted by Monster.com in 2019, found 90% of respondents have directly experienced workplace bullying. In half of those cases, a boss or manager was the perpetrator, and aggressive emails and gossiping were among the bullying behaviors reported.

Workplace Bullying Laws

Federal law doesn't address bullying that is of a generic nature. Instead, it only protects workers from illegal harassment on the basis of being part of a protected class such as race, religion or national origin. Many states have laws similar to the federal statute.

"In most parts of the country, harassment has to be severe or pervasive," Matsis-McCready says. "Calling a person 'sweetie' once isn't going to hit that."

While some states have introduced or passed legislation to address workplace bullying, those typically only apply to a small number of workers, according to the Society for Human Resources Management. For instance, the Tennessee Healthy Workplace Act was passed in 2014 to prohibit abusive conduct, but it only applies to government workplaces.

Workers shouldn't let the lack of laws discourage them from taking action though. "Just because it is not unlawful, that doesn't make it right," Camacho Moran says. "Businesses and workplaces should have higher standards than the law." What's more, hostile behavior isn't conducive to creating a productive or efficient workplace, so companies have a vested interest in rooting it out, regardless of whether it's illegal.

[SEE: 26 Careers With the Most Job Security.]

What to Do if You Witness Workplace Bullying

You may not be the target of workplace bullying, but you may witness a co-worker being a victim. The best thing to do in those situations is to talk to your co-worker before taking any further action.

"Go to the person you think is being bullied and ask if they are OK," Gugino Pante says. Avoid confronting the bully directly. "You don't want to make the situation worse."

It's possible that what you perceived as bullying was not bothersome to your co-worker. However, if it was upsetting, encourage them to speak to the HR staff. If they decline, you may want to consider speaking to the office yourself if you believe your co-worker's health is in jeopardy or if physical contact has occurred between the bully and victim.