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Feb 26, 2021

Who among us has never come across a bully in the school hallway? Bullying can become a part of anyone’s school experience, and it is not that simple to dodge that bullet. While many victims try to endure it, hoping that the end of school will bring the end of the abuse, the harsh reality is that workplaces are teeming with bullies, too.

Worse, a recent study reveals that 79% of workers have indirectly experienced or witnessed bullying at work. Also, 66% (more women than men) have personally been victims of such bullying. What makes the problem so difficult to address is that it usually looks different than its schoolyard counterpart. The research shows that most common types of workplace bullying cited by respondents:

  • Being picked on or getting regularly undermined (60%)
  • Becoming a victim of malicious rumors (30%) 
  • Having someone interfere with your work (29%) 
  • Receiving aggressive texts, emails, or phone calls (23%) 
  • Getting your work sabotaged (12%)

The study also discovered that rookies that have been in the workforce for only one to two years are more likely to have someone undermining them than senior employees with three to five years of experience. In addition, people workers with an undergraduate college degree are more frequently victims of malicious rumors than blue-collar employees who hold a high-school diploma (31% vs. 24%).

Types of Bullies

The Screamer. One of the most recognizable types of bullies is the Screamer. Screamers are intense and offensive and want to be seen and heard by everyone. They thrive on others being terrified of them and, unlike other types of bullies, don’t mind confronting their targets directly. They can be found anywhere in an organization, but often they hold more senior positions.

The Intrigant. This type of bully acts like a trusted friend. But once you are out of earshot, Intrigants will gossip and spread rumors about you. That makes such bullies especially dangerous — not only can they stab you in the back but they’ll exploit your trust to take credit for your work. 

The Constant Critic. This is someone who aims to one’s own confidence by destroying others’ self-esteem through persistent, and often unfair, criticism. Such people will ruin your credibility by spotting any possible flaws and undermining your efforts, always looking for something to pick on. Their primary intent is to shatter a victim’s self-esteem and capacity to do the job. It is particularly difficult to prove constant critics’ bullying, as they are often high-functioning employees in senior roles. 

The Cold-Blooded Bully. This one is by far the most difficult to spot. It’s often someone who has only a few interactions with victims. For instance, people working in finance, logistics, HR, or operations can impact colleagues’ work experience without direct interaction. They can make sure that their targets never get the resources they need, or always have a schedule that is stressful or even untenable. 

Additionally, the majority of bullies aren’t the managers of their victims. In over 50% of cases, bullying comes from co-workers. Direct managers (33%) and external managers (8%) come afterward.

Causes and Consequences 

What causes grown adults to behave this way? The psychology of a bully is often complicated, but jealousy, a sense of threat, low self-esteem, or various kinds of prejudices are frequently root causes.

But while causes can sometimes be hard to pinpoint, the consequences are clear. Workplace bullying can cost employees their jobs, as well cost organizations via low productivity and potential lawsuit. 

Indeed, the detrimental effects bullying can have on employees include:

  • High-stress levels (46%) 
  • Deteriorated performance (25%)
  • inability to concentrate (21%)
  • Sleep loss (21%)
  • Incapacity to make decisions (20%) 

Compounding the problem is that nearly half of employees don’t report workplace bullying when they see it. 

A Zero-Tolerance Culture

It’s up to every employee, HR professional, and leader to nurture a zero-tolerance environment when it comes to workplace bullying.

Turning the other way or trying to conceal such behavior does not do any good and gives the bully permission to continue misbehaving. When you spot bullying, consider standing up for the victim and addressing the bully’s behavior. Or get proof of a particular bully’s behavior and look for help from your manager, HR, or another third party in power to conduct a meaningful investigation and take necessary action.

Bystanders, naturally, are a vital part of bullying prevention. Being an upstander instead of a quiet bystander can make a difference and flip the situation around. The best-case scenario is to openly defend the bullying target and state an objection to such behavior while it lasts. 

Another way of approaching the bully is reaching out privately to the person to express concern. But that depends on whether you have an existing relationship with the person and the specifics of the bullying behavior. For example, you might consider confronting someone about rudeness, but you should report incidents of sexual harassment.

At the same time, it’s crucial to approach the targeted co-worker and show them your support. The sense of having someone on your side means the world for some. 

Still, what if the victim then tells the bystander not to report the bully? Many victims fear that the bully will become further enraged if they are brought to supervisors’ attention. They are convinced that the bully may become even more offensive if they report the behavior — which may be the case if no adequate action will be taken. 

In such cases, it is crucial to ensure a sense of safety and support to the victim. Reporting to the supervisor against the targeted coworker’s may harm their sense of security even more. Instead, calmly and openly explain the situation, show support, and propose to report the behavior together. Bullying victims often feel abandoned and alone in their suffering. Granting them support and understanding may give them courage to take steps and fight against the bully.

Investigating Incidents

Workplace bullying is a serious allegation that should be treated with due care. For this reason, take each accusation seriously, no matter how exaggerated or insignificant it may sound. While it’s important to remain objective, you must also ensure the victim that you will further investigate the situation. 

What’s more, an investigation is a complex process that demands prudence and should be conducted fairly. To begin with, the investigator should be qualified, neutral, and non-judgmental. All parties should feel like they’re being heard. 

It’s also critical to conduct the investigation right away and in a timely manner. The more time you wait to react, the more damage a bully can inflict. Also, be sure to focus on facts and don’t get distracted by emotions.

Finally, it’s extremely vital to keep records to show compliance and to guard against future claims of bias. Your ultimate aim is to ensure that people trust your process and believe you’re doing all you can to provide a safe working environment.

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