Updated: May 17, 2022
Great article on Workplace Bullying by
Emily A. Kuhl, Ph.D., owner and operator of Right Brain/Left Brain, LLC, is a consultant to the Center for Workplace Mental Health and a medical writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., area.
What is Workplace Bullying?
Workplace bullying involves multiple, repeated, intentional acts of aggression, hostility, social isolation, or disrespect. These acts often happen in person but also can occur through email, text messaging, and social media. Between 15-19% of working adults are victims of workplace bullying.1,2 Perpetrators are usually male (70%) and in supervisory positions (61%), while 60% of targets are women.2
Here are common examples of workplace bullying:3
Intentionally sabotaging or undermining a coworker’s performance
Giving a coworker constant and unwarranted criticism
Cursing at, threatening, or humiliating others
Spreading gossip or rumors about a person
Willfully excluding or ignoring a colleague
Suggesting a coworker quit or transfer to a different department in the company
Certain work environments are more likely to foster bullying, such as those with high stress, demanding workloads, and those in which employees feel high levels of job insecurity or boredom.4,5,6,7
Workplace bullying can harm a company's reputation, weaken employee morale, and strain finances.
Hostility at work is often a significant source of physical and emotional stress, leading to higher healthcare costs and absenteeism. Individuals targeted for mistreatment at work can experience increased rates of:8,9,10
Insomnia and other sleep problems
High blood pressure
Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder
The Impacts of Workplace Bullying
People who work in hostile environments are more likely to leave the company, be absent from work, and feel dissatisfied with their job.3,11,12
These factors seriously impact a business’s bottom line in multiple ways. Consider these alarming facts:
Bullying results in companies losing more than $250 million every year. This results from lost productivity, employee turnover, healthcare insurance claims, worker’s compensation disputes, employee recruitment and retraining, and litigation.3
Workplace bullying costs businesses approximately $14,000 per employee in lost job performance.13
Nearly 18 million work days are lost each year to workplace bullying.14
Effective Ways to Eliminate Workplace Bullying
Bullying is a manageable problem. Despite its cost, employers can take action to stop workplace bullying.2 Rather than turning a blind eye, employers should adopt these strategies to effectively stop workplace bullying:10,15,16,17
Acknowledge that workplace bullying exists, is real, and is a problem. Being dismissive and unsupportive only exacerbates the problem.
Don’t normalize bad behavior by dismissing it as “healthy aggression” or competitiveness between coworkers. If the phrase “survival of the fittest” describes your company’s culture, it’s probably time to adopt a new approach.
Develop guidelines identifying acceptable company standards of conduct that defines bullying and the consequences. These should:
Be clearly written and shared with all employees.
Include procedures for responding to and reporting bullying.
Include a “zero-tolerance” policy toward aggressive behaviors.(To view a sample anti-bullying workplace policy, check out the Resources section below.)
Provide employee and management training programs on workplace aggression. Topics to address should include:
Maintaining a civil and pleasant work environment.
Resolving conflict in a respectful and productive manner.
Identifying and responding to bullying by a coworker or supervisor.
Reporting bullying to management.
Disciplining bullying by those you supervise.
Consider a workplace mediation team for incidents involving employees with a clear power imbalance (such as supervisors and those they supervise) to ensure all parties are treated fairly. This team could be internal—made up of employees and supervisors trained in conflict resolution—or could be a neutral third party, like professional workplace mediation consultants.
Foster a positive and supportive work culture so employees that have been bullied feel safe raising incidents with their supervisors or Human Resource specialists. Many workers feel ashamed or embarrassed about being targets of workplace bullying and are afraid to report incidents.
Remind employees about your organization’s Employee Assistance Program and how to access these services. EAP programs provide individuals with counseling, support and stress management solutions.
Develop social media policies that protect employees from cyberbullying and clearly state the consequences for employees that violate these policies.
Know the difference between bullying and harassment. The distinction is important because each has different legal consequences and should impact how a company responds to employee complaints.
Bullying vs. Harassment
Harassment involves targeting victims based on their membership in a protected class, such as gender, race/ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, or disability. Harassment is illegal. When harassment is reported, Human Resources should conduct an investigation and explore methods of resolving the dispute internally. The police must be notified if criminal activity is alleged to have occurred.
Bullying typically targets an individual without focusing on the person’s membership in a protected class. While inappropriate and unacceptable, there are currently no laws in this country that address bullying outright. But bullying is illegal when employees engage in or violate state or federal discrimination or harassment laws.
Despite these differences, companies should treat bullying and harassment with equal swiftness and seriousness. Bullying is costly, can lead to litigation, seriously damage a business’s reputation, and even worse, have long lasting negative effects on employees’ lives.
Bullying is not always preventable, but employers can significantly reduce the incidence and create a healthier work environment for all. Creating a supportive work environment may require time and resources up front but is a small price to pay with a high rate of return.