Unfortunately, bullying in the workplace is all too common. Reports show that around a third of all American employees have been bullied at work. But what can we do to stop it?

This Anti-Bullying Awareness Week, MINES & Associates discusses the complexities of workplace bullying and how organizations can address it.

What does bullying in the workplace look like?

Bullying behaviors in the workplace can be covert or subtle. It’s important to notice the more subtle signs of bullying because they often go under the radar. Covert bullying, like calling people malicious names, may meet the legal definition of harassment (and could be punishable). But more subtle forms of bullying can be just as damaging.

The Harvard Business Review identified 15 different features of bullying behaviors that commonly arise in the workplace. These features categorize the goals, dimensions, and costs of workplace bullying.

The HBR’s 15 features of workplace bullying are:


1. Hostile bullying: bullying that comes out of a personal feeling of dislike toward a person; things like screaming at someone, throwing things, spreading hatred about a colleague’s identity, lying to get someone fired due to personal hatred, and more

2. Instrumental bullying: bullying to achieve something more pragmatic; things like spreading rumors and lies about someone to gain their office space or get a promotion over them


3. Direct bullying: bullying done to someone’s face; physical harm, yelling, openly humiliating or blaming, etc.

4. Indirect bullying: bullying done behind someone’s back; spreading rumors, withholding important information, secretly sabotaging, etc.


5. Overt; bullying that is more obvious, like calling people names, humiliating them in front of others, laughing at them, etc.

6. Covert; more subtle bullying like gaslighting, withholding important information, subtly blaming or humiliating them in the name of “workplace competition


7. Downward bullying: the bully is a manager or boss and the victim is a subordinate (65% of cases)

8. Horizontal bullying: bullying between work peers

9. Upward bullying: bullying of the boss by subordinates

10. Mixed bullying: bullying goes in multiple directions


11. Physical: burnout, disability, calling out sick, fatigue

12. Psychological: mental health consequences like depression, anxiety, insomnia, and PTSD

13. Social: loss of reputation, friendships, networks, trust

14. Economic: potential loss of income for the employee

15. Organizational: the business also loses revenue and productivity, and may need to deal with legal and high employee turnover issues

On top of these features that can help you understand and categorize workplace bullying issues, it might also be helpful to know what, specifically, workplace bullying can look like. Some specific workplace bullying behaviors include:


      • Spreading lies or rumors about someone

      • Yelling at someone

      • Silencing someone during a meeting

      • Assigning an unnecessary amount of work to one person that you know they aren’t willing to take on

      • Unwarranted or undeserved punishment

      • Belittling someone

      • Making offensive jokes or comments

      • Purposely giving the wrong information so that someone fails

      • Deliberately impeding or sabotaging someone’s work

      • Excluding someone socially (like refusing to invite them to lunch with the whole team)

      • Placing impossible-to-meet deadlines or expectations on someone so that they fail

      • Constantly changing guidelines and projects to confuse someone

      • Underworking someone – not signing them any tasks and making them useless in the workplace

      • Talking about someone behind their back

      • Demoting someone for no real reason

      • Intruding on someone’s privacy (for example by reading through their emails)

      • Blocking applications for things (like training and events) that will help the person succeed

    What can we do about workplace bullying?

    According to a report by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), most Americans feel that employers don’t respond positively to claims of workplace bullying. According to the report, 63% of respondents said that their employers either:


        • Encourage

        • Rationalize

        • Ignore

        • Deny

        • or Discount

      Workplace bullying claims

      It may be surprising to you that any employer would actively encourage workplace bullying. Sadly, this is more common than you may think. Some employers may feel like this type of behavior is necessary for fostering “healthy competition” in the workplace.

      And unfortunately, only 6% of the report’s respondents said that the bullying came to an end due to actions taken by the employer. Over 65% of them said that the bullying only ended when they left the workplace, either “voluntarily” (to escape bullying) or forcibly.

      The first step to ending workplace bullying may be for both employers and employees to let go of the idea that workplace bullying is healthy or beneficial in any way. As we discussed earlier, workplace bullying can have serious consequences for both the employee being bullied as well as the organization as a whole.

      It’s also unhelpful to try to ignore, deny, discount, or otherwise sweep workplace bullying under the proverbial rug. Even if the behaviors don’t meet the legal definition of workplace harassment, you may lose a valuable employee, and the sense of trust in the workplace may be broken.

      So what are some more positive approaches to workplace bullying claims?

      The WBI states that positive reactions from the employer include acknowledgment, elimination, and condemnation of bullying.


          • Acknowledgment of bullying – First, acknowledge that it’s happening. If an employee comes to you with claims of workplace bullying, take them seriously – even when it’s a veteran senior employee being accused. Validate the victim’s feelings and let them know that you will investigate. In addition, the burden of proof should not be on the victim.

          • Elimination – There are many ways you could eliminate bullying in the workplace. Providing training on communication skills may be a good start. If the bullying is ongoing, the perpetrator themselves may need to be removed from the workplace. But wider changes may need to be made in order to eliminate the culture of bullying altogether. For example, you could use online co-creation tools to make it clear who was responsible for what (to avoid blame or credit-taking).

          • Condemnation – Make it clear that your workplace does not stand for bullying. Pay attention to subtle signs of covert or indirect bullying. Implementing a zero-tolerance policy is one example of condemnation. However, the WBI warns that such a policy in an organizational culture with a history of bullying will be ineffective. Changing such a culture requires extensive training and coaching.

        What employees can do: Reach out to your EAP

        If you are being bullied at work, then there are several ways you can approach it. Firstly, if it was a one-time incident, you may want to think about talking to your bully directly. You can communicate how you felt about the event and ask them not to repeat it.

        However, many people feel uncomfortable talking directly to their bully, especially if the bullying has been going on for a long time. In these cases, you can talk to your direct manager or your Human Resources department to ask for support.

        You can also contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for emotional support. MINES & Associates provides free and confidential counseling, and our licensed counselors are available 24/7. You can talk to us about what you’re going through at work, and we guarantee that the information you give us will never be shared with your employer.


        To Your Wellbeing,

        – The MINES Team