Bullying In The Workplace

Bullying, what is the first thing that comes to mind for you when someone mentions bullying to you? Children in a playground ostracising another child for not wearing the latest brand of trainers? Teenagers belittling a younger child simply for being younger? Or perhaps you know colleagues who are bullies? You may have even been bullied yourself?

Bullying has been around for years, and yet it remains one of the most difficult issues in the workplace to deal with. All too often bullies are very good at covering their tracks; they are manipulative and can successfully convince their “victim” that it is all in their mind or even worse that no one will believe them.

Bullying comes in all shapes and sizes, from excluding colleagues from meetings, making unkind remarks about someone behind their back, talking openly about someone in the office, getting a laugh at someone’s expense or deliberately undermining another to gain a competitive advantage.

Bullying at work is behaviour that is:

  • threatening, aggressive or intimidating;
  • abusive, insulting or offensive;
  • cruel or vindictive; or
  • humiliating, degrading or demeaning.

Bullying will inevitably erode the victim’s confidence and self-esteem. It normally relates to negative behaviours that are repeated and persistent, and deliberately targeted at a particular individual.

Bullying is often an abuse of power, position or knowledge, and may be perpetrated by the victim’s manager, his or her peers or even by subordinates.


The following list gives some examples of behaviour that could be perceived as bullying, depending on the circumstances.


  • Ostracising someone, i.e. refusing to speak to him or her, blatantly ignoring his or her views or comments, or excluding him or her from work-related or social activities.
  • Deliberately withholding vital work-related information in order to embarrass someone or make him or her look foolish.
  • Personal insults or put-downs.
  • Spreading rumours or gossip or making false allegations about someone in order to discredit him or her.
  • Physical shoving or barring someone’s way.
  • Playing practical jokes on someone.
  • Aggressive or intimidating behaviour towards an individual, especially if displayed in front of others.


  • Deliberately imposing grossly excessive or unachievable workloads or impossible deadlines in order to make life difficult for a particular employee.
  • Repeated unfair criticism or destructive and negative criticism that focuses on blame rather than future improvement.
  • Criticising the individual in front of colleagues.
  • Excessive or overbearing monitoring of a particular employee’s work without good reason.
  • Ordering a particular employee to work below his or her level of ability, or to perform mundane or demeaning tasks, for no proper reason.
  • Removing an employee’s responsibility without consultation and for no proper reason.
  • Threatening an employee with dismissal


Managers need to be particularly careful when delivering criticism, for example where an employee has made a mistake in his or her work. Feedback will be essential to help the employee to understand what he or she has done that is unsatisfactory, why it is unsatisfactory and how to put matters right for the future. Giving criticism is part of every manager’s job but it is important to ensure that it is delivered in a way that is constructive, not destructive.

Constructive criticism will focus on:

  • actions and behaviour, i.e. discussing what the employee has or has not done;
  • facts, and specific examples of the unsatisfactory behaviour or performance;
  • future improvement, e.g. seeking to agree what the employee should do differently or what changes he or she should make; and
  • acting calmly and reasonably.

Destructive criticism may involve:

  • aggressive behaviour, e.g. shouting or swearing;
  • personal insults or put-downs, e.g. “you’re useless, you’re always making stupid mistakes”;
  • allocating blame rather than responsibility; or
  • acting emotionally and irrationally.

Managers should never use bullying strategies or tactics to make life miserable for an underperforming or otherwise unsuitable employee to induce him or her to leave. Such behaviour is likely to be viewed as a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence entitling the employee to claim constructive dismissal. A manager should instead deploy proper performance management processes or disciplinary procedures to deal with performance and conduct issues in the workplace.

The use of social media has made it easier than ever before, for workplace bullies to target individuals and make their lives a misery. Comments can be posted anonymously, and once it is out in the public domain, comments can often not be removed.

In the U.K., under the 2010 Equality Act, harassment is considered unlawful, but bullying is not.


The issue of bullying and harassment at work is a serious matter. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development published a study showing that 13% of employees reported having experienced bullying or harassment at work in the previous 12 months; 58% of bullying targets are women and 62% of bullies are men. Yet many managers assume that the problem does not exist within their department, often because no one has complained. A belief or assumption that bullying and harassment do not happen is probably the biggest barrier to tackling the problem.

Many employees may be reluctant to report instances of bullying or harassment out of fear of damaging working relationships with their colleagues, fear of reprisals, embarrassment or worry that they may be perceived as troublemakers. It is important for managers to bear in mind that just because no one has complained this does not mean that no bullying or harassment is taking place.


Bullies often present as confident, assertive and competent, yet often they are insecure and feel threatened by others. Often ambitious and eager to get on, they possess high levels of social competence which enables them to galvanise support, or even be regarded as popular by others.

People who are bullied are typically competent and skilled, and they’re likely to be helpful and caring. As a target of a bully, they may question whether they have attracted the unwanted attention. They frequently keep the bullying to themselves and often will be reluctant to report it, fearing further reprisals if they do.

Victims will often endure:

  • Stress-related illnesses, such as hypertension, heart disease, and stroke increases
  • Neurological problems
  • Ulcers and skin conditions
  • Depression and anxiety
  • In some cases, victims may also suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder

Around 70 percent of people targeted by bullies will lose their job – either being forced to leave, having their contract terminated on the grounds of, for example, poor attendance, or being constructively dismissed.

Without proper policies in place, victims may lack confidence in the organisation to tackle it properly. Even worse, some organisations fail to address it properly fearing that it may prove too difficult, or the problem will resolve itself.


Being the victim of a bully is tough. Yet, with the right support the behaviour can be addressed and you do not have to suffer in silence.

Step One: Name the Behaviour

Admit that you are being bullied and it is not your fault! The bully is to blame for their behaviour not you. Do try and find someone you can trust to talk to. It helps to have the support of another when asking for the issue to be dealt with promptly and respectfully.

Step Two: Look after your own well-being

If you’re the victim of bullying behaviour, your emotional and physical well-being may be at risk. If you need to, take time off work to recover from the physical and emotional effects. If necessary, ask your doctor for a Fit Note. If you do not want to take sickness absence, consider taking annual leave.

Your health should be your number one concern:

  • Make an appointment to get a medical assessment. Bullying can have a number of negative health effects, so it’s important to take care of your physical and psychological well-being. You can also talk to family and friends about your situation, and practice meditation, deep breathing, and yoga.
  • Get plenty of sleep and exercise. When you feel good you are in a better position to deal with stress and pressure. Exercise can also boost your self-confidence and improve your sense of self-worth.
  • People who are bullied often experience a loss of self-esteem. Set yourself small, personal goals that are non-work related. Every time you achieve a goal, celebrate your success.
  • Keep a record. Describe what, where, when, and how events occurred. Record what was said, how you felt. Were there any witnesses?
  • Have others also been bullied? This may include your predecessor in the job. Did she leave because she was bullied? A group complaint will be harder to dismiss.
  • Draft a business case against the bully. Senior managers and your HR department will find financial data difficult to argue with. This may include:
  • Staff turnover
  • Absenteeism
  • Disability claims
  • Litigation
  • Investigate your options. Talk with a workplace representative or trade union representative or other relevant professionals to plan your next steps. If the bullying involves an element of illegal harassment or discrimination (on gender, age, racial, sexual orientation, or religious grounds), you may be able to use this information to make a case against the bully.
  • Look for another job. If your employer handles the situation well, the situation may be resolved. However, if it’s seriously affecting your health, you might consider moving on.

Read our blog:

For further information on support available to victims of bullying, visit:

Step Three: Expose the Bully

This will be hard and it will take enormous courage. Follow the steps above to evidence your case. Its hard to argue or rebut allegations when it is backed up with good, solid evidence.

Here are some ways to handle this situation:

  • Do take your complaint to your HR Department
  • Ask for the bully to be transferred to another department until the situation is resolved. Some organisations may wish to consider suspension. This should only be considered if they fear the bully may intimidate other witnesses
  • Seek support. Ask your colleagues to stand up for you (but don’t be surprised if they’re too scared), and make sure you do the same for them in return.
  • Learn how to deal with difficult people. Be assertive, but not aggressive, when you confront your bully. Use a strategy like role-playing to prepare for the confrontation.


We can look at others, and be critical of their behaviour, yet can we spot that own behaviour is not acceptable?

If, someone starts to become distant with you check your own behaviour. Are you:

  • making unreasonable requests? Seek a second opinion if necessary
  • being avoided by others? Do people avoid eye contact?
  • dismissive of the feeling of others?
  • blaming others for your mistakes?
  • arcing round other colleagues, and excluding them from key conversations?

If you believe you do these things, stop immediately. Apologise for your behaviour and ensure you change your behaviour. Seek support from others to help you, including your own line manager. Work with a coach to increase your self-awareness, and develop your emotional intelligence. Continually check your behaviour and seek feedback from others.

Key Points

Bullying is a harmful behaviour. It harms others and reduces workplace productivity and engagements. It can have long-term effects on the emotional and physical well-being of others.

To successfully address bullying in the workplace, you need to first raise awareness of the problem, be clear that you have a zero tolerance policy toward bullying and it will be dealt with. Encourage victims to come forward by publishing a policy and include a section on how to raise complaints. Ensure, that any investigating officer is appropriately trained. If you do not have trained personnel, consider bringing in an external organisation. This latter option can give both the victim and the alleged bully of the impartiality of the investigation.

Don’t think that bullying won’t happen to you, or that it couldn’t occur in your workplace. It can happen anywhere, and the best solution is to confront the bully and address the problem directly.


Dos and don’ts
Do take prompt action whenever there is evidence of bullying behaviour, whether or not anyone has complained.

Do take any complaint seriously.

Do investigate all allegations carefully and thoroughly.

Do approach investigatory interviews with an open mind.

Do listen carefully and without bias to what employees have to say.

Don’t jump to premature conclusions about the validity of a particular complaint.

Don’t show emotion, for example anger, during any of the interviews.

Don’t try to rush the interview as the employee may need time to respond fully.

Don’t forget to follow up afterwards to ensure that the matter has been properly resolved, and to make sure that working relationships have settled down and there are no recriminations.


For a powerful talk on bullying, listen to Monica Lewinsky talk about her experience:

Monica Lewinsky: The price of shame