Skip to main content
Skip global navigation and go to main content

You play a critical role in spotting, curtailing workplace bullying

Posted January 10, 2017

By Kyra Kudick, associate editor, J. J. Keller & Associates

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), bullying is four times more common than either sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job.

More than one-quarter of U.S. workers say they have been bullied at work, and another 21 percent say they have witnessed bullying conduct, including threats, intimidation, humiliation, work sabotage, or verbal abuse, a WBI survey reports.

Bullying in the workplace impacts employee morale, engagement, and ultimately, productivity. It has also been linked to higher rates of employee turnover, as research shows that the majority of bullied employees leave the workplace rather than file a complaint.

The costs of allowing bullying to occur in your workplace are clear, but the tactics for prevention can be harder to recognize.

Identifying bullying behaviors

Experts agree that bullying (be it physical, verbal, relational, or even carried out via technology) is comprised of three key elements: an intent to harm; a power imbalance; and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. The trouble with this definition is that it most easily recognizes overt forms of bullying.

One of the greatest challenges that supervisors and Human Resources practitioners face when addressing bullying behaviors in the workplace, however, is that bullies can be skilled social manipulators who operate in covert ways within the established rules of their organization.

While it might be easy to spot a supervisor loudly berating or threatening a subordinate, it can be much harder to recognize (and discipline) a passive-aggressive employee who engages in regular rudeness or quietly subverts the opportunities of others.

Perceived power imbalances are also harder to distinguish, but might include a colleague with longer tenure or more influence within the company who is bullying a new employee or even a new supervisor.

Covert bullying is usually repeated abuse of a psychological nature, and might include any combination of the following:

  • Excluding or isolating a coworker from important meetings;
  • Falsely accusing someone of making errors;
  • Starting or perpetuating rumors about a person;
  • Taking credit for another person’s work;
  • Monopolizing supplies or other resources;
  • Sending aggressive emails;
  • Belittling others either verbally or nonverbally;
  • Attempting to intimidate an employee by staring or glaring; or
  • Encouraging others to ostracize a coworker.

Taking action

We have a tendency in business environments to make allowances for high-performers who get results, but who may have a personality quirk or two that results in ongoing workplace conflict.

So, instead of addressing unacceptable behaviors as they occur, supervisors often end up tolerating, or even enabling, covert bullying behavior over time.

To prevent this from happening, you can develop a company policy that helps supervisors identify, address, and even discipline employees for repeated acts of incivility. The framework should state your expectation for all employees to behave in a civil manner, and you should provide examples of unacceptable behaviors (such as those listed in this story).

Train supervisors to not only address incivility and related behaviors when they witness it, but also to act as good examples of civility in their own dealings with employees.

Awareness about how you treat others, and immediate behavior corrections, can go a long way toward curtailing common forms of covert bullying.

About the author:

Kyra Kudick

Kyra Kudick is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., a nationally recognized compliance resource company that offers products and services to address the range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. Kudick specializes in employment law/HR issues such as employee relations, hiring and recruiting, and training and development. She is the author of J. J. Keller’s Employee Relations Essentials manual and SUPER adVISOR newsletter. For more information, visit