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Identifying Workplace Bullying: 7 Signs of Bullying at Work

2022-08-16
Identifying Workplace Bullying: 7 Signs of Bullying at Work

With deadlines to meet and projects to juggle, it's easy for tempers to flare in the workplace. Unfortunately, when these disputes erupt into full-blown conflict, they can quickly spiral out of control. Bullying behaviors can create a toxic work environment that jeopardizes occupational health, safety, and productivity.

While it's not always easy to identify workplace bullying, some signs can clue you in. If you're worried that your workplace might be a hostile environment, read on for some tips on how to spot bullying and how to protect employees.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 30% of adult Americans are bullied at work. [1] Workplace bullying is a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others in the workplace that causes either emotional or physical harm. It can involve such tactics as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, physical abuse, and even sabotage that prevents work from getting done.

Workplace bullying can come from bosses, co-workers, or even customers. It can occur in face-to-face interactions or through technology such as email or social media.

While workplace bullying is not technically illegal, it can create a toxic work environment and lead to claims of discrimination or harassment.

What Causes Bullying in the Workplace

Workplace bullying is a serious problem that can hurt employee morale, productivity, and even physical health. Although there is no single cause of workplace bullying, there are several factors that can contribute to its development:

  • Job insecurity. Employees who feel insecure about their jobs may be more likely to bully others to make themselves feel more powerful or in control. Additionally, workers who are worried about losing their jobs may bully co-workers in an attempt to secure their own position within the company.
  • Workload. If an employee is constantly behind on their work, they may be more likely to lash out at others to relieve some of the pressure they're feeling. Furthermore, employees who are regularly given unrealistic deadlines or sizeable projects may also be more likely to bully others, as they may feel that they need to put extra pressure on those around them to meet their job demands.
  • Role conflict/ambiguity. Constantly changing expectations can cause employees to take out their frustration on those around them. In addition, when there is a lack of clear authority figures in the workplace, employees may take matters into their own hands and try to assert their dominance over others.
  • Cognitive demands of the job. When employees are required to constantly process large amounts of information, they can become overwhelmed and stressed. This can lead to them feeling less capable, which can make them easy targets for bullies. In addition, the cognitive demands of the job can also lead to employees feeling isolated and disconnected from their colleagues. This can create an environment in which bullies feel empowered to target their coworkers.
  • Negative emotional states. Although many factors contribute to workplace bullying, it is often triggered by negative emotional states such as stress, anxiety, and insecurity. When employees are feeling overwhelmed or threatened, they may lash out at co-workers in an attempt to regain power or control. In some cases, bullying may also be a way of coping with personal problems or frustrations.

How to Identify Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace

Many forms of bullying and harassment can take place in the workplace. It can be difficult to identify these behaviors, especially if you are not familiar with what to look for.

Signs of Bullying in the Workplace

It's important to be able to recognize bullying and harassment in the workplace so that you can take steps to address them. Unfortunately, bullying and harassment can sometimes be difficult to spot. Here are 7 signs that may indicate that employees are experiencing bullying or harassment:

Gossip

There are a few telltale signs that something is gossip. First, gossip is usually about someone who is not present. This allows the person spreading the gossip to say whatever they want without having to worry about being called out on it. Second, gossip is often based on rumors or secondhand information, rather than facts. If you're hearing something from someone who wasn't there themselves, likely, they're just repeating what they've heard, and it may not be true. Finally, gossip often has a negative slant to it. If someone is sharing information that makes another person look bad, chances are it is gossip.

Disrespect

Disrespect at work takes many forms. It could be something as simple as talking over someone in a meeting, or interrupting them when they are trying to speak. It could also be something more subtle, like not respecting someone's time by regularly canceling meetings or appointments, or not respecting their opinion by disregarding their input altogether. In addition, you can disrespect some by violating their emotional boundaries which involves talking about sensitive topics without consent or sharing confidential information.

Humiliation

Humiliating someone in the workplace includes belittling someone's work in front of others. This can be done in several ways, such as making sarcastic comments, publically critiquing their work, and making derogatory comments about their abilities. Humiliating someone in the workplace can damage their morale, motivation, and confidence, and can lead to them feeling isolated, anxious, and depressed.

Exclusion

Exclusion in the workplace can take many forms. It can be as overt as discrimination based on race, gender, or age, or it can be more subtle, such as excluding someone from important meetings or social events. Exclusion can also occur when an individual is repeatedly passed over for promotions or given assignments that are outside of their area of expertise. Another example of exclusion occurs when an employee is subject to different rules or standards than others in the workplace.

Cyberbullying

The anonymity of the internet can make it easier for people to bully others without consequence. For example, an employee may be the target of hateful or threatening comments on social media. Or, an employee may receive harassing emails or text messages. In some cases, cyberbullying can even lead to doxxing, which is when an individual's personal information is made publicly available online. It can be more subtle, such as when someone is excluded from email threads or left out of important meetings.

Physical violence

Workplace violence can take many forms, but physical violence is the most extreme and visible type of workplace violence. It can range from offensive physical contact, like pushing or shoving, to more serious assaults, like hitting, kicking, or using a weapon. Violence in the workplace can cause physical and emotional damage to employees. Physical symptoms of violence may include bruises, cuts, or broken bones. Emotional effects can be just as severe and may include anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sexual harassment

Workplace sexual harassment can be defined as unwelcome verbal, physical, or visual conduct of a sexual nature that is offensive or potentially offensive to an individual. Some common examples of workplace sexual harassment include unwanted sexual advances, comments or jokes of a sexual nature, displaying sexually explicit images, and making lewd gestures.

Who Are the Targets of Workplace Bullying?

Anyone can be bullied at work, but those most often impacted are employees who are perceived as different in some way. Some of the characteristics of an employee who may be a target of workplace bullying include race, gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, personality traits, and so on.

People who are shy or introverted

Introverts and shy individuals may be perceived as weak or easy targets. Additionally, they may be less likely to speak up for themselves or to defend themselves against bullies. This can leave them feeling isolated and alone. Shy people may also be less likely to develop strong relationships with co-workers, which can make them more susceptible to bullying.

People who are ambitious or hard-working

One theory is that these individuals are seen as a threat to the bully's position within the company. Another assumption could be that bullies are intimidated by people who are more successful than them, and so they try to bring them down to feel better about themselves.

People who are struggling to cope with stress

Increased stress may cause workers to appear frazzled or overwhelmed, which can make them an easy target for bullies. Additionally, bullies may see someone who is struggling to cope with stress as someone who is not performing up to par. This can lead to the bully feeling threatened or concerned that their own job may be in jeopardy.

Women

Unfortunately, women are disproportionately likely to be targeted by bullies. Women are often seen as easy targets because they are less likely to fight back. In addition, women may be more likely to report incidents of bullying, which could lead to them being targeted more often.

LGBTQ+ community

Many LGBTQ+ individuals feel they have to hide their identity in the workplace out of fear of discrimination. This can make them easy targets for bullies, who may see them as vulnerable. Additionally, LGBTQ+ workers often face microaggressions from their colleagues, such as being misgendered or having their pronouns ignored. Finally, workplace bullies may target LGBTQ+ employees in an attempt to prove their own heterosexual gender identity.

new employees

Not knowing the ropes of the work setting, newly hired employees may unwittingly violate an unspoken rule or practice. This situation can open them up to criticism or unfair treatment from co-workers. Additionally, new employees may not yet have established strong relationships within the workplace, making them more vulnerable to bullies. Those who are in positions of authority may also target new employees to assert their dominance over the workplace.

Employees with disabilities or chronic health conditions

Employees with chronic health conditions may need to take more time off for doctor's appointments or to recover from treatments. This can lead to feelings of envy among coworkers who view the time off as an unfair privilege. Furthermore, some coworkers may simply be uncomfortable around employees with disabilities or chronic health conditions. This discomfort can lead to discriminatory behavior, such as name-calling or intentional exclusion from company activities.

Workplace Bullying Scenarios

Here we list a couple of famous workplace bullying cases to illustrate the issue.

governor andrew cuomo investigation, 2021

Andrew Cuomo is an American lawyer and politician who served as the governor of New York from 2011 to 2021. In 2021, Cuomo resigned from office following numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. At the time of his resignation, he was the longest-serving governor in the United States.

Cuomo was exposed in an investigative report as a man who used his powerful position to sexually harass female workers who were half his age — including touching their private body parts without them consenting to it.

179 witnesses were interviewed, including Cuomo — and a long report, with more than 450 pages of evidence with hand-written notes, text messages, and e-mails that documented the governor’s inappropriate behavior was released. The report demonstrated that Cuomo retaliated against his victims and created a hostile environment for his female workers.

Despite the mountain of evidence, all the sex-crime inquiries against Gov. Cuomo were dropped in 2022 due to insufficient legal grounds to bring criminal charges. 2,3

Meghan Markle and the buckingham palace investigation, 2021

The Duchess of Sussex is facing allegations of bullying after reports emerged that she mistreated staff during her time as a working member of the royal family. The investigation was done by an independent law firm and was funded by Queen Elizabeth.

The reports allege that Markle was highly critical of her staff, frequently made unreasonable demands, and was quick to anger. Two personal assistants claimed that they felt "broken" and terrified" by the cruelty of Markle and were driven away, and the third employee felt undermined by Markle.

Buckingham Palace has revealed that the findings of the investigation will remain private, however, "the lessons have been learned” and its HR policies were adjusted. However, Markle has heavily denied the allegations, saying that she is "saddened" by them and citing that she has taken a stand against bullying since her own experience of it within the media. 4

How to Not Be a Target of Workplace Bullying

While it can be difficult to protect yourself from bullies, there are certain steps you can take to prevent workplace bullying and reduce your risk of being targeted:

  • Build a strong network of support at work. Having allies in the workplace can help you feel more confident and protected from bullies.
  • Document the bullying behavior. This can be done by keeping a journal or taking screenshots of any harassing messages.
  • Keep your interactions with the bully professional. This can be difficult, but it is important to remember that the bully is likely trying to get a reaction out of you.
  • See a mental health professional. A professional can provide you with the support and tools you need to deal with workplace harassment. They can also help you to develop a plan for dealing with bullies.
  • Take a stand. If you experience or witness bullying, speak to your supervisor or human resources department.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Is Workplace Bullying Hard to Detect?

Workplace bullying is a difficult problem to detect for several reasons:

  • Bullying can take many forms, from overt aggression to subtle snubs and put-downs. As a result, it can be hard to identify–even for the victim.
  • It often happens gradually, with the perpetrator slowly escalating their behavior over time. This can make it hard for victims to realize that they are being bullied.
  • Bullying often takes place behind closed doors, making it even more difficult to detect.
  • Workplace bullying is often motivated by power dynamics, so the perpetrator may be careful to target someone they believe will be unlikely to speak up or fight back.

As a result, workplace bullying can be a very stealthy and insidious problem, and even the most observant people can still miss signs of workplace bullying.

Why Don't People Focus on Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying is a common problem that can have serious consequences for both employees and employers. Despite this, many people choose to ignore the issue or downplay its importance. There are many reasons why this may be the case:

  • Lack of anti-bullying policies and training. Not having a clear set of rules of what constitutes bullying in the employee handbook or not receiving regular training on the policy creates uncertainty around the topic.
  • What one person considers to be harmless banter may be viewed as harassment by another. This can make it hard to identify instances of bullying behavior, and even harder to take action against them.
  • People may be reluctant to speak up about workplace bullying for fear of retaliation. Victims of bullying often feel powerless and fear that reporting the problem will only make it worse.
  • Some people may simply not be aware of the potential consequences of workplace bullying behaviors.

Resources

1 Workplace Bullying Institute. https://workplacebullying.org/

2 Hogan & Golding, 2021. https://nypost.com/2021/08/03/ag-to-release-report-on-andrew-cuomo-sex-harass-probe-sources/

3 The New York Times, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/31/nyregion/andrew-cuomo-charges.html

4 Crane, 2022. https://nypost.com/2022/06/30/palace-wont-release-meghan-markle-bullying-probe-findings/