According to several sources, approximately 35 percent to 40 percent (or 54 million) of adult workers claim to have been the victims of bullying in the workplace. An additional 15 percent of workers witness the bad behavior and, therefore, become indirect victims themselves. 

So, what is “workplace bullying?” While there is no universally accepted definition, it is generally agreed that workplace bullying includes unwelcome or irrational behavior that demeans, threatens or humiliates people—either individually or as a group. It is usually persistent and part of a pattern, but it can also occur as a single incident.  Typically, it does not include the occasional rudeness of a stressed-out supervisor or professional dissention between two equally powered individuals.   

Examples of bullying behavior include:

1. Verbal abuse

  • Using abusive and offensive language
  • Engaging in insults and teasing
  • Spreading rumors
  • Criticizing unreasonably
  • Trivializing work and achievements

2. Nonverbal abuse

  • Deliberately excluding employees from normal work interaction
  • Setting employees up for failure through excessive demands or impossible deadlines
  • Excessive supervision

3. Psychological abuse

  • Practical “jokes”
  • Public belittling or ridicule

When recognizing bullying in the workplace, it is important to remember that context plays a critical role. Clearly, there is a difference between friendly jousting among long-time work colleagues and comments that are intended to be, or are regarded as, demeaning. Notwithstanding, it is better to be over-cautious and err on the side of anti-bullying than to let actual bullying go unreported or uncorrected.

When a business ignores or tolerates workplace bullying, both the bullied employee and the employer suffer. The employee can experience stress-related illnesses, resulting in increased absenteeism, and his work performance can suffer.  The employer suffers from the resulting deterioration in the quality of work, increased absenteeism and high rates of turnover.

So, what can the conscientious employer do to prevent bullying in the workplace? The easiest place to start is with an effective anti-bullying policy. The policy should:

  1. Define workplace bullying (simply requiring a “respectful work environment” is inadequate)
  2. Encourage employees to report their good-faith beliefs of bullying
  3. Have a defined reporting procedure and ensure that there will be no retaliation for those who come forward.

The employer should take all reasonable steps to investigate complaints of workplace bullying promptly, fully and confidentially. 

The employer should also properly train employees as to what constitutes workplace bullying, how to avoid it and what to do if they witness or perceive bullying. Finally, the employer must confirm that disciplinary action, up to and including termination, will be taken against any employee found violating the policy. Businesses should make no exceptions based upon the identity of the alleged perpetrator. 

Once these common practices are in effect, employees will be more productive. They will suffer fewer stress-related illnesses and, therefore, will be more effective. Bullies will quickly recognize that there will be consequences for their bad behavior. In turn, the workplace will be more pleasant and professional—the perfect environment for an effective workforce.