What Constitutes Bullying in the Workplace?

Discover what is workplace bullying, workplace bullying examples, how to deal with workplace bullying, strategies and its effects on employees' well-being.

HR Managers
May 2024

Among the many challenges businesses face, workplace bullying remains a pervasive issue – with big implications for employee wellbeing and organisational culture. As leaders and business professionals, it’s imperative that you are able to recognise the signs of workplace bullying and understand HR's role in addressing these issues. Only by cultivating a culture of respect and support within your organisation can you ensure a safer, more inclusive workplace for all employees.

Let’s dive into the nuanced issue of workplace bullying and shed some light on how it can impact everything from productivity to mental health in the workplace.

What is the meaning of workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying involves repeated and unreasonable mistreatment, often through power imbalances between the perpetrator and the target. This bullying can manifest in several different forms, from verbal or physical threats to psychological abuse, as well as exclusion or sabotage.

So, what are some examples of workplace bullying? It comes in many forms, but it may include belittling or humiliating remarks, persistent criticism, intimidation, threats, spreading rumours or gossip, sabotaging work efforts, or isolating co-workers from social or professional networks. The key distinguishing factor of workplace bullying is the repetitive nature of the behaviour and the intent to harm or control the target.

It's important to recognise that workplace bullying can happen at any level of an organisation, from frontline employees to senior management and the C-suite. Bullying behaviours can also take place in person or through digital channels. Sometimes, it may even occur outside of the workplace in social settings.

Ultimately, what constitutes bullying in the workplace is the impact it has on the target’s well-being and ability to perform their job. It goes beyond occasional disagreements or conflicts and instead involves a pattern of behaviour that creates a hostile or intimidating work environment.

Over time not addressing workplace bullying can lead to significant decreases in employee retention, employee wellbeing and work culture.

Workplace bullying examples

Workplace bullying can manifest in many different ways, from subtle acts of intimidation to overt acts of aggression. All the various examples of workplace bullying illustrate the diverse ways in which people can experience mistreatment within a professional setting. These behaviours can have a profound effect on the psychological well-being and performance of those targeted, so it’s important to know the signs of workplace bullying and how to address it.

Some common examples of workplace bullying include verbal abuse, such as yelling, belittling remarks or constant criticism, which can undermine the target's self-esteem and confidence. Physical intimidation, such as invading personal space, making threatening gestures or overly aggressive posturing, can also instil fear and anxiety, thus creating a hostile work environment.

Some of the most common examples of workplace bullying include:

  • Exclusion: Deliberately excluding someone from meetings, social gatherings or professional opportunities to ostracise or marginalise them.
  • Micromanagement: Excessive monitoring or control over someone’s work tasks, undermining their autonomy.
  • Sabotage: Undermining or sabotaging the work efforts of a colleague through actions such as withholding information, tampering with their equipment or spreading false rumours.
  • Cyberbullying: Using channels such as email, social media, messaging apps, etc. to harass, threaten or intimidate colleagues.
  • Discrimination: Targeting people based on attributes such as their race, gender, age or disability, usually through discriminatory actions or remarks.

What is classified as workplace bullying?

Being able to classify workplace bullying requires identifying patterns of behaviour that are creating a hostile or abusive work environment. Only by understanding what constitutes workplace bullying can your organisation implement effective prevention and intervention strategies.

Below, we explore some common workplace bullying examples and how they might manifest so you can take the most appropriate steps to stop workplace bullying.

Constant unproductive criticism

One common form of workplace bullying is constant unproductive criticism, where workers are subjected to relentless negative feedback that serves no constructive purpose. This criticism is usually disproportionate to the person’s performance or responsibilities, and it can erode their self-confidence and motivation over time. Employees may feel demoralised and disengaged, resulting in poor productivity and lower job satisfaction.

Aggressive and intimidating behaviour

Aggressive and intimidating behaviour is another hallmark of workplace bullying. It typically involves threats, verbal abuse or physical intimidation, and such behaviour creates an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, which makes it difficult for employees to perform their jobs effectively. Perpetrators of this aggressive behaviour might use their position of power to exert control over others.

Excluding someone from work-related events

Exclusion from work-related events, such as meetings, networking gatherings, or professional development opportunities, can also constitute workplace bullying. Deliberately excluding someone from these events undermines their sense of belonging and can lead to feelings of isolation and marginalisation. Tactics might be used to assert dominance or punish individuals they perceive as threats or outsiders within the organisation.

Belittling and setting up someone to fail

This form of bullying involves undermining someone’s credibility, competence or reputation through disparaging remarks or sabotage. This manipulative behaviour can take many forms, whether that’s assigning impossible tasks, spreading rumours, withholding essential information and more. Undermining the target's confidence and credibility allows the perpetrator to maintain power and control.

How do you deal with bullying in the workplace?

For employees dealing with bullying, it’s essential to assert boundaries and advocate for yourself in a professional manner. This might involve directly addressing the bully’s behaviour, documenting the incidents, and getting support from trusted co-workers.

Employees can also look to internal resources, such as employee assistance programs or counselling services. These can help you cope with the emotional impact of workplace bullying. Building a strong support network within your company can also provide validation and reassurance.

Business owners and HR professionals play a key role in creating a culture of respect, inclusivity and accountability within the company. It’s vital for leaders, in particular, to establish clear policies and procedures that address workplace bullying and provide training on how to recognise and respond to such behaviour.

When allegations of bullying arise, HR professionals must conduct thorough investigations while remaining confidential and impartial throughout the process. Depending on the severity of the situation, disciplinary action may be warranted — this could include anything from coaching and counselling to termination of employment for repeat offenders.

Overall, organisations should promote open communication channels and encourage employees to report instances of bullying without fear of retaliation. Regular anti-bullying training can help foster a culture of empathy and inclusivity, which in turn can help prevent bullying behaviours from occurring in the first place.

How to report workplace bullying

Reporting workplace bullying requires a deft touch and discretion to ensure the issue is handled well while minimising any potential repercussions. Those who feel they have been bullied should assess the severity of the situation and consider speaking to trusted co-workers, mentors or HR first.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind when reporting workplace bullying:

  • Document the incidents: Keep a detailed list of the bullying incidents, including dates, times and specific behaviours experienced.
  • Follow company procedures: Learn about your organisation’s policy for reporting workplace bullying. They may need you to submit a formal complaint through HR or speak with a designated supervisor/manager.
  • Seek support: Reach out to supportive co-workers or mentors or participate in employee assistance programs for emotional support throughout the reporting process.
  • Maintain confidentiality: Respect the confidentiality of the process and don’t discuss the issue with people who aren’t directly involved in the matter.
  • Provide evidence: Share all evidence you’ve gathered to support your report. This might include witness statements, harassing emails or recordings.
  • Follow up: You might want to follow up with HR or management to ensure appropriate action is being taken to address the bullying behaviour.

How to stop workplace bullying

The only way to effectively stop workplace bullying is for organisations to take decisive action and address the underlying causes. This might mean implementing anti-bullying policies, providing ongoing training and education on how to respond to bullying behaviours, and setting up clear channels to report incidents.

Leaders should lead by example. That means modelling respectful behaviour and holding people accountable for any instances of bullying. Additionally, your organisation can create support networks for employees affected by bullying, with resources such as counselling services or employee assistance programs on offer.

The role of HR in workplace bullying

As part of their responsibilities, HR professionals act as advocates for employees dealing with bullying. They must also ensure workplace policies and procedures are in place to prevent and address bullying. HumanX can help your business develop anti-bullying policies, provide in-house training, and conduct thorough investigations into reported incidents via our outsourced HR services.

Creating a positive work culture – one characterised by respect, inclusivity and open communication – is a way HR professionals can help reduce the risk of workplace bullying while fostering a supportive environment where employees feel valued and safe.

Ways to tackle workplace bullying

You can tackle workplace bullying by asserting boundaries, documenting incidents, and seeking support from trusted co-workers and HR professionals. It might also be valuable to develop coping mechanisms like practising self-care, getting counselling, and maintaining a strong support network — all of which may help you deal with the emotional impact of bullying.

For leaders and HR teams, creating a culture of open communication and mutual respect within the organisation can actively discourage bullying behaviour. At the same time, it can promote a supportive work environment where employees feel empowered to speak up against mistreatment.

Tackling workplace bullying requires a collective effort from everyone in the company—from frontline workers and junior staff to leadership and HR managers. By raising awareness and implementing preventive measures, you can support those affected while developing a culture of genuine respect and dignity in the workplace.

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