Signs Of Bullying at Work: The Complete Managers Guide

Signs Of Bullying at Work: The Complete Managers Guide - Shiftbase
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In this guide, we'll explore workplace bullying, its impacts on employees and the work environment, and strategies to address it.

What is workplace bullying? (Quick Answer)

Workplace bullying can manifest as hurtful, repetitive actions or words designed to belittle and isolate a person. It could also include physical contact with malicious intent.

Such bullying incidents intentionally degrade one's self-esteem and relevant protected characteristic.

Types of bullying at work

  • Verbal Bullying: This involves name-calling, telling jokes of a sexual nature, threats, and other types of verbal abuse. It can be directed towards a particular employee or group of employees and can significantly impact the targeted individuals' self-esteem and mental health.

  • Physical Bullying: Physical bullying involves physical violence, such as pushing, hitting, or kicking. This type of bullying is less common in the workplace but can occur in certain industries or work environments.

  • Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying involves using digital technologies such as email, social media, or instant messaging to harass, intimidate, or embarrass someone. This can include spreading rumors, posting embarrassing photos or videos, or sending threatening messages.

  • Sexual harassment: This type of bullying involves unwanted sexual advances or behavior, such as touching, groping, or making inappropriate comments. It can create a hostile work environment and lead to serious legal consequences for the perpetrator and the organization.

  • Discrimination: This involves treating someone unfairly or differently based on their race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, or other personal characteristics. Discrimination in the workplace can take many forms, from denying someone a promotion or training opportunity to making derogatory comments or jokes.

  • Social isolation involves intentionally excluding someone from social or professional events, conversations, or activities. This can be particularly damaging to an employee's sense of belonging and can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem.

  • Micromanagement: Micromanagement involves controlling and scrutinizing every aspect of an employee's work, often excessively. This can make employees feel they are not trusted or valued, leading to high-stress levels and burnout.

  • Passive-aggressive behavior: This involves indirect or subtle forms of aggression, such as ignoring someone, giving silent treatment, or withholding information or resources. This type of bullying can be difficult to detect and create a toxic work environment.

The common factors that encourage bullying at work


Poor Leadership

When leaders fail to set clear expectations or provide consistent feedback, employees may feel uncertain about their roles and responsibilities, leading to conflicts and power struggles. Additionally, leaders who engage in bullying behaviors themselves can create a toxic work environment that encourages others to do the same.

Organizational Culture

A company culture that values competition, individualism, or aggressive behavior can create a breeding ground for workplace bullying. When employees feel they need to be ruthless or cutthroat to succeed, they may engage in behaviors that harm their colleagues.

Power Imbalances

Significant power imbalances within an organization, such as between managers and subordinates, can create a dynamic where bullying behaviors are more likely to occur. Managers who abuse authority or use fear and intimidation to control their subordinates can create fear and mistrust.

Job Insecurity

Employees who feel that their jobs are at risk may become more aggressive or hostile toward their colleagues to protect themselves. This can lead to a culture of blame and scapegoating, where employees are more interested in protecting their interests than working collaboratively.

Personal Characteristics

Certain personality traits, such as a tendency towards aggression, impulsivity, or narcissism, can make individuals more likely to engage in bullying behaviors. Additionally, employees struggling with personal problems, such as substance abuse or relationship issues, may be likelier to lash out at their colleagues.

Lack of Policies and Procedures

Organizations with unclear policies and procedures for addressing workplace bullying may inadvertently create an environment where such behaviors are more likely to occur. When employees do not feel they have recourse or support when being bullied, they may be more likely to engage in bullying behaviors themselves.

Useful Read: 10 Essential HR Policies Every HR Department Should Master

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Indirect bullying at work

Indirect bullying, also known as passive-aggressive bullying, is a subtle but damaging form of harassment that can occur in the workplace. Unlike direct bullying, which involves overt aggression and hostility, indirect bullying is more covert and relies on manipulative tactics to demean, isolate, or discredit the target.

Here are some key characteristics of indirect bullying at work:

  • Exclusion: Deliberately excluding someone from meetings, social events, or information sharing.
  • Withholding resources: Denying access to necessary tools, equipment, or information to complete tasks effectively.
  • Unreasonable workloads: Assigning an overwhelming amount of work or setting unrealistic deadlines.

Useful Read: The Employer's Guide to Implementing Workload Balance

  • Scapegoating: Blaming someone else for mistakes or taking credit for their work.
  • Giving the silent treatment: Intentionally ignoring someone or refusing to communicate with them.
  • Spreading rumors or gossip: Maliciously sharing negative or untrue information about a colleague.
  • Undermining or sabotaging work: Setting someone up to fail by providing misleading instructions or interfering with their projects.

These tactics can create a hostile work environment for the target, leading to decreased employee morale, anxiety, and even depression. It can also impact productivity and overall workplace well-being.

For HR professionals and employers, recognizing indirect bullying is crucial to fostering a safe and respectful work environment. By understanding the signs and taking steps to address them, organizations can create a culture of open communication and prevent the negative consequences of bullying.

Indirect bullying at work examples:

  • The Excluded Expert: Sarah consistently presents well-researched ideas in team meetings. However, David, a colleague vying for the same promotion, never acknowledges her contributions. He might rephrase her ideas as his own or simply move on without addressing them. This isolates Sarah and downplays her expertise.

  • The Sabotaging Supervisor: Mark excels at his job and is well-liked by clients. However, his manager, Linda, feels threatened by his success. She starts assigning him unrealistic deadlines or withholding crucial project details until the last minute. This sets Mark up for failure and damages his reputation with clients.

  • The Cold Shoulder: Maria is a new hire on the team. While some colleagues are welcoming, others completely ignore her. They don't invite her to lunch, answer her questions curtly, or leave her out of casual conversations. This social exclusion makes it difficult for Maria to integrate into the team and can affect her sense of belonging.

How workplace bullying affects employees: physical and emotional impact

Here is how workplace bullying affects employees both physically and emotionally:

Physical Impact:

Here's how it affects physically:

  • Stress: Employees subjected to insulting behaviour can experience high levels of stress. This can result in physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances. Chronic stress can also weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses.

  • Fatigue: Workplace bullying can lead to feelings of exhaustion and fatigue. The constant emotional turmoil can take a toll on an individual's energy levels, making it difficult to perform their job effectively.

  • Physical Health Problems: The physical impact of workplace bullying can extend beyond stress and fatigue. It can also lead to more serious health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, and gastrointestinal issues.

Useful Read: Stress Leave from work: Implications and Best Practices

Emotional Impact:

  • Anxiety: Employees who experience workplace bullying may feel anxious about going to work or interacting with their colleagues. This can lead to fear, worry, and nervousness, impacting an individual's ability to perform their job.

  • Depression: Being treated unfairly can lead to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. Employees who experience bullying may feel they are not valued or appreciated, which can contribute to depression.

  • Low Self-Esteem: Workplace bullying can lead to a decrease in self-esteem and self-confidence. Employees subjected to bullying may begin to doubt their abilities and worth, which can impact their performance at work.

  • Isolation: Workplace bullying can lead to feelings of isolation and social withdrawal. Employees who are bullied may feel as though they have nowhere to turn and no one to confide in, which can make them feel even more vulnerable.

How does workplace bullying affect the overall workplace?


Workplace bullying can significantly impact the workplace, affecting the individuals directly involved and the broader corporate culture and productivity.

Here are some ways in which workplace bullying can affect the workplace:

  • Offensive Work Environment: Workplace bullying can create an offensive environment where employees feel unsafe, unsupported, and demoralized. This can lead to decreased productivity and higher turnover rates and negatively impact the company's reputation.

  • Decreased Morale: Employees who witness or are aware of workplace bullying may experience a decrease in employee morale and job satisfaction. This can lead to disengagement and decreased motivation, further impacting productivity and overall company performance.

  • Increased Absenteeism: Workplace bullying can also lead to increased absenteeism as employees may take time off to avoid the hostile work environment or to deal with the physical and emotional effects of bullying.

  • Costly Litigation: Workplace bullying can result in costly litigation and legal fees, particularly if the bullying behaviors are not addressed or resolved promptly and effectively.

  • Loss of Talent: Employees who experience workplace bullying may choose to leave the company, which can result in losing valuable talent and expertise. This can hurt team dynamics, productivity, and overall company performance.

  • Reputation Damage: Companies known for tolerating workplace bullying can suffer damage to their reputation and may have difficulty attracting and retaining top talent.

To prevent the negative impact of workplace bullying on the workplace, organizations need to take proactive steps to create a culture of respect, inclusivity, and support.

How to tackle bullying at workplace: manager's guide


As a manager, you are responsible for ensuring all employees are treated with respect and dignity. Dealing with bullying can be challenging, but creating a safe and supportive work environment is essential.

Here are some steps you can take as a manager to prevent bullying in the workplace:

Establish clear policies and procedures

Creating and communicating clear policies and procedures regarding workplace bullying is important. This includes:

  • Defining what constitutes bullying behavior.
  • Outlining the steps employees should take if they experience or witness it.

Ensure these policies and procedures are easily accessible to all employees, such as including them in the employee handbook or posting them in a visible location in the workplace. Additionally, train all employees on the importance of a respectful work environment and what behavior is considered bullying.

Useful Read: From Positive to Problematic: 12 Workplace Behavior Traits

Encourage open communication

Create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their concerns and reporting incidents of bullying. Encourage open communication by promoting transparency and trust in the workplace. Provide multiple channels for employees to report bullying, such as:

  • Designated HR representative
  • Anonymous hotline
  • Online form

Ensure that employees understand that all complaints will be taken seriously and that retaliation for reporting bullying will not be tolerated.

Investigate complaints thoroughly

When a bullying complaint is reported, it is important to investigate it thoroughly. This includes gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and documenting all findings.

It is crucial to approach the investigation in a neutral and unbiased manner, respecting the privacy of all parties involved. Be sure to follow the organization's policies and procedures and consider involving legal counsel if necessary.

Take action

If the investigation confirms that bullying has occurred, take appropriate action. This may include disciplinary action, retraining, or counseling.

Make it clear to all employees that bullying will not be tolerated and that there will be consequences for this behavior.

Ensure that the disciplinary action is proportional to the severity of the bullying behavior and that the consequences are communicated to all parties involved.

Provide support

Offer support to employees who have been affected by Bullying. This may include counseling, mediation, or other forms of assistance.

Ensuring employees feel valued and supported and know their well-being is a top priority.

Support the bully, such as coaching or counseling, to address the underlying issues that led to the bullying behavior.

Monitor the situation

Monitor the situation and follow up with all parties involved to ensure the bullying behavior has stopped.

If necessary, take additional steps to prevent future incidents of bullying, such as ongoing training, implementing new policies, or offering additional support to employees.

Educate employees

Provide training to all employees on what constitutes bullying behavior and the consequences of engaging in this behavior. Help employees understand how their behavior can affect others and encourage them to be respectful and supportive colleagues.

Provide training to managers on recognizing and addressing bullying behavior and creating a positive and respectful work environment.

By implementing these steps, organizations can effectively address workplace bullying and create a safe and supportive work environment for all employees.

Tips for employees to deal with bullying at work

Image of a succesful casual business woman using laptop during meeting
  • Document the incidents: Keep a record of any incidents of bullying, including the date, time, location, and any witnesses present. This will help you to have a clear understanding of the frequency and severity of the behavior and will be useful if you need to report the incidents to a manager or HR representative.

  • Speak-up:  If you feel comfortable doing so, address the bully directly and inform them that their behavior is unacceptable. Ensure you remain calm and do not engage in confrontational or aggressive behavior.

  • Talk to a trusted colleague: Talking to a trusted colleague may help deal with any harassment-related problem. They can provide emotional support and help you to navigate the situation.

  • Register a formal complaint: If you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, report any incidents of bullying to your manager or HR representative. They are legally obligated to investigate the matter and take appropriate action.

  • Seek professional Advice: If you feel overwhelmed by the situation, seek professional help from a counselor or therapist. They can provide emotional support and help you to manage your feelings healthily.

  • Stay strong: Bullying can be difficult to deal with but remember that it is not your fault, and you are not alone in this experience. Stay strong, stay confident, and don't let anyone undermine your self-worth.

By taking action, you can help create a workplace environment free from bullying.

Legal consequences of workplace bullying: understanding your rights.


Workplace bullying is a serious issue that can have significant legal consequences for employees and employers.

In the United States, no federal law specifically addresses workplace bullying. However, workplace bullying can be considered harassment, which is illegal under federal law.

Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct or behavior that creates a hostile work environment or results in an adverse employment decision, such as termination or demotion.

Useful Reads:

How to Build a Comprehensive Anti-Harassment Policy

 Employee Code of Conduct: Everything you should know

Legal Consequences of Workplace Bullying

  • Lawsuits: Employees who are subjected to workplace bullying may be able to sue their employer for damages. This can include compensation for lost wages, emotional distress, and medical expenses.

  • Workers' Compensation Claims: Employees who experience workplace bullying may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits if the bullying results in physical or emotional injury. This can include medical expenses and lost wages.

  • Criminal Charges: Workplace bullying can lead to criminal charges in extreme cases. For example, if bullying involves physical assault or threats of violence, the perpetrator may be charged with a crime.

  • Negative Publicity: Employers who are found to have allowed workplace bullying to occur may face negative publicity. This can damage the company's reputation and make attracting and retaining employees difficult.

Understanding Employee Rights

Employees subjected to workplace bullying have the right to a safe and respectful work environment. For employees experiencing workplace bullying, it's important to document the behavior and report it to the employer.

If an employer does not address the issue, employees may take legal action and file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a state agency. Taking legal action may also mean going to an employment tribunal.

Related: What is an Equal Opportunities Policy and Why Your Team Needs One


Bullying and harassment in the workplace is a serious issues that can lead to psychological and economic harm. It is essential to create an environment wherein victims feel safe to talk about their experiences and perpetrators understand why such behavior is unacceptable.

The key lies in leadership development, clear policies, effective training, and a culture of kindness and respect. Effective anti-bullying programs foster better communication between co-workers, making discussing issues easier without fear of retribution or judgment. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Harassment is unwelcome behavior based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Bullying behaviours are behaviour that is intended to hurt, degrade, humiliate, or intimidate an individual or group. While harassment tends to be a one-time event, bullying is typically repeated or pervasive behavior.

  • All too often, seemingly inconsequential actions like overlooking a colleague's hello in the morning, perusing one's phone when someone else is talking, deliberately excluding certain people from lunchtime gatherings, or refusing to chime into conversations can hurt team dynamics.

Topic: at Work
Rinaily Bonifacio

Written by:

Rinaily Bonifacio

Rinaily is a renowned expert in the field of human resources with years of industry experience. With a passion for writing high-quality HR content, Rinaily brings a unique perspective to the challenges and opportunities of the modern workplace. As an experienced HR professional and content writer, She has contributed to leading publications in the field of HR.


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