How to recognize and deal with bullying at work


Bullies, bullies and more bullies — I can’t get away from writing about this topic.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying at work means “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of a person by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference or sabotage which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.” The organization further notes, “it is driven by the bully’s or perpetrator’s need to control the targeted individual.”

A study by Career Builder identifies bullies as peers (46%) as well as managers (45%) and sometimes even higher-ups in the organization (25%). Researchers have documented significant consequences of being bullied at work such as sleeplessness, ulcers, severe mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression, migraine headaches, relapse of previously controlled addictions and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are also serious outcomes for employers, including declines in employee morale and productivity, and increased healthcare costs.


We may think that only “weaklings” get bullied at work, but that is only part of the picture. “Strong” people who are highly intelligent, well-liked and socially acceptable can also get bullied. Some people may be targeted because they are seen as threats to the perpetrators: A co-worker bullies you because you are closer to the boss or you are more knowledgeable or skilled and your co-worker is jealous of you. You may not even know you are being bullied until you start to suffer some of the effects.

Some of the signs that a person is being bullied at work include:

•Being excluded from meetings

•Not receiving all of the necessary information to do the job effectively

•Someone consistently taking credit for your work

•Being gossiped about

• Someone sabotaging your work

•Someone belittling your work

•Someone swearing or yelling at you in a public venue

•Scathing or inflammatory emails blaming you for a problem or issue

•Bringing up your mistakes over and over again (especially in front of others)

•Micromanaging you and thereby showing distrust in your skills, no matter how successful you have been

So what can you do if you are being bullied or someone you know at work is being bullied?

•Examine the situation to determine whether it’s a pattern of behavior over time or one isolated incident.

•Try not to react to the bully. While this is difficult to do, it is important because bullies hope to get a reaction from you. If they don’t get the reaction they were hoping for, they may just quit bothering you.

•Stand up to the bully. Use an assertive (not overly emotional or aggressive) tone to point out their behaviors and your views of them.

•Report the bullying to your supervisor, sticking to data and facts. If the bully is your supervisor, you’ll have to go to his/her supervisor.


•Get professional help if you have physical or mental symptoms as a consequence of the bullying.

•Record your interactions with the person. Document any incidents, including dates, times and witnesses.

•If needed, get a mediator involved.

•Find out what your firm’s policy on bullying is (and the consequences). Many organizations have a zero-tolerance policy.

•Plan your options if your organization does not take any action against the bully. What will you do?

Increasingly, bullying has become a major problem in organizations, and is directed at people at all levels and with all types of personalities. As leaders, we must be aware of what bullying is and how crucial it is to take immediate action against it. Otherwise, we are condoning it to everyone around us. By ignoring the bullies, we may lose the very employees we would like to keep in the firm and destroy what positive morale we do have.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business with more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She writes the Career Coach column for the Washington Post.