Bullying in the workplace is more than just a few people behaving badly or treating others unkindly.

Bullying is a kind of power struggle where one or more people (the perpetrators) repeatedly mistreat another person or group (the targets) with the aim of causing harm to the target.

Bullying behaviors can include:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Threatening, humiliating, and/or intimidating a person or group
  • Interfering so that work tasks cannot be completed

Bullying behaviors can be obvious or subtle. They happen both online and in real life. Ultimately these behaviors are persistent and intended to be disruptive and inflict injury. (Learn more in 22 Shocking Statistics About Mental Health In The Workplace).

The Impact of Workplace Bullying

Causing stress and strife, bullying behaviors undermine workplace morale and productivity along with causing stress-related health problems. For employers, bullies in the workplace lead to lost productivity, increased absenteeism, avoidable worker turnover, and higher healthcare costs.

In its annual survey, the Workplace Bullying Institute documents that 19% of Americans report being the target of a bully at work. Another 19% report witnessing bullying in the workplace.

An astounding 40% of targets suffer adverse health effects from being bullied at work.

It’s hard to calculate the dollar cost of workplace bullying. One reason is because bullying often goes unreported, with 29% of targets remaining silent.

All told, it’s estimated that 60.4 million Americans have been affected by bullying in the workplace.

Dealing with Bullies and Bullying

The most common advice on how to deal with bullies boils down to:

  • Set limits on the behaviors you’ll tolerate
  • Stand up to bullies and tell them to stop
  • Report any bullying to your supervisor and/or HR
  • Prepare for any fallout; think about changing jobs

While this David vs. Goliath approach may sound courageous, often it’s ineffective and in many cases leads to more harm. Consider that 71% of people surveyed said that their employer’s reactions to bullying actually harmed the target, i.e., it made things worse. When it came to peers stepping in when bullying happens, the results were almost as bad. Sixty percent of survey respondents said that coworker responses harmed the target. These results leave people feeling that it might be better to do nothing when faced with a bully in the workplace rather than risk more negative effects.

Ultimately, 65% of targets leave their jobs in order to stop the bullying. Of these, only 11% transfer to another job with the same employer. The lion’s share (54%) lose their current job.

Facing the possibility of more harm and disruption, and even the possibility of losing their job, deters people from dealing effectively with bullying in the workplace. So, how do we effectively deal with bullies in the workplace?

A Comprehensive, Effective Approach to Bullying

Bullying in the workplace is based on a complex dynamic of power plays and dominating behaviors. There is no easy, three-step process that will end bullying. To effectively deal with bullying requires a comprehensive approach that builds an inclusive, supportive, safe work environment for all employees.

1. Check your workplace climate

The first thing that must be examined is the workplace climate. Is your workplace inclusive for all employees and groups? Is everyone free to contribute their ideas and observations? Does it feel safe for everyone everywhere in the workplace?

Or, is the work of some groups valued more than others? Is competition between departments encouraged? Does that competition ever get aggressive? Do some workgroups speak disparagingly of other workgroups, saying things like “we do all the work” or “we don’t know why we even that department”? Are there hallways or break rooms that people avoid using?

The answers to these questions provide clues about just how much your workplace tolerates bullies and bullying behavior, even if you may not be initially aware of it.

2. Put anti-bullying policies in place and enforce them

Policies let your employees know what is expected of them at work. A well-considered Workplace Civility Policy will let your employees know that bullying behavior is not tolerated and what kind of response they can expect if bullying does happen.

A civility policy should clearly define the types of behaviors that are inappropriate and won’t be tolerated in the workplace. It should also explain the consequences of such behaviors. The reporting process for bullying needs to be clear and straightforward so that targets, witnesses, and supervisors can all effectively deal with bullying in the workplace. And, ensure the written policy is available in every language used in the workplace so that everyone can be equally informed.

While there is no federal law that defines workplace bullying as a crime, when bullies target members of a protected group their behaviors may violate civil rights laws and trigger legal consequences such as civil action for perpetrators and their employers.

3. Train supervisors to recognize bullying and respond effectively

Supervisors must understand what bullying behavior is and the negative effect it has both on the target and the company as a whole. Once they recognize bullying, they must take action. They must follow HR disciplinary procedures and restore peace to the workplace.

Bullying behavior is not always obvious, but it is persistent. Behavior that is seen as goodhearted teasing in a social situation could be bullying in the workplace. This is especially true when the perpetrator is in a position above the target.

Supervisors, upper management, and HR are all responsible for ensuring workplace safety, which includes addressing bullying.

Part of encouraging a positive workplace environment is talking openly and honestly about bullying and making it clear that it won’t be tolerated. While employee confidentiality can prohibit discussing a specific incident or situation, discussing why bullying is not tolerated and what to do when it happens will help people know how they can respond when bullying happens.

When supervisors see bullying behaviors, they must act immediately. They need to interrupt the behavior, offer support to the target, and respond to the perpetrator. Actions demonstrate how committed you are to building and maintaining a safe, inclusive workplace.

4. Train workers to recognize bullying and respond effectively

Bullying affects bystanders as well as targets. People who witness bullying behavior feel many of the same stresses as the target. When bullying happens again and again, everyone begins to feel unsafe and fear that they will also become a target.

Employees need to understand what bullying behavior is and why it happens. They need to know how they can respond to a bully in an assertive manner so that they can interrupt the behavior.

Employees also need to know how to provide support to their coworkers when they become targets. This can include speaking up in the moment, reporting a bullying incident to HR, and offering the target social support in the workplace.

By teaching your employees how to effectively respond to bullies they grow confident that they can defend themselves and feel safer at work.

Actively Manage the Workplace Climate

Addressing bullying in the workplace is not a one-and-done situation. Ongoing attention and nurturing are required to maintain an inclusive, supportive, safe work environment for all. Think of it as an investment that will yield a safer, more productive workplace for everyone.