How to Spot and Stop Workplace Bullies

What image comes to mind when you hear the words “workplace bully?” A ranting lunatic who yells and stomps and is king of the insults? Or, is it someone who subtly circumvents your work while smiling to your face?

Well, it can be both. Either way, they’re toxic employees who inflict harm on your staff and company.

Types of workplace bullies

1. The blatant bully

It’s hard to believe, but the screaming, insulter still exists in the workplace. While the archetypical yeller is a boss who manages by fear, the blatant bully can be anyone in the workplace. You’ll hear it in belittling comments or when they talk over you in a meeting. They want their way. They want you to know they’re in control. And they want you to know how important they are.

2. The passive-aggressive bully

This is the one who’ll give an off-handed compliment. Sound familiar? It’s when you walk away wondering if you were just given praise or taken down a peg. You might find yourself saying: “Um, thanks, I think.”

Or this may be the person who tells you one thing and others another.

Often, they’ll act out in small, subtle ways, such as changing a workflow process or meeting agenda, to set someone up for failure.

For example, they may say, “I moved our meeting up; hope you can be ready to give your presentation.”

To your employees, this can feel like sabotage. And these bullies know what they’re doing. But, they’re doing it in a subversive way that takes a while to detect.

3. The direct bully

These workers aren’t typical bullies in that they aren’t intentionally trying to cause problems. Some people function in a very direct manner. For those familiar with the DISC personality assessment, the “D” is for “dominance” – people who are results-focused and action-oriented.

These people often are perceived as bullies. But it’s usually not their intention to bulldoze the rest of the group. They may not even know how they come across to others.

Direct people are quick, aggressive and unfiltered, which, over time, can seem like bullying. Sometimes they get away with this behavior because “that’s just how they are.” But, they have to be made aware that how they say things can be perceived as harsh.

Kinds of bullying

Twenty-eight percent of workers say they’ve been bullied at work, and 19 percent of them quit because of it, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey. Ways those surveyed said they were bullied include:

  • Being falsely accused of mistakes they didn’t make
  • Their comments were ignored, dismissed or not acknowledged
  • A different set of standard or policies was used for the worker
  • Gossip was spread about them
  • They were constantly criticized by the boss or co-workers
  • Belittling comments were made about their work during meetings
  • Their boss yelled at them in front of co-workers
  • They were purposely excluded from projects or meetings
  • Credit for their work was stolen
  • They were picked on for personal attributes

This last item could be a harassment issue if the comments were about race, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation – and the employer could be held liable in these instances.

Some states, such as Tennessee and California, have enacted laws about workplace bullying, and others have introduced bills in their state legislatures, but no federal law directly addresses the issue. However, the line between bullying and harassment is sometimes murky, so managing bullies is not only important for morale in the workplace, but also it helps to ensure no legal lines are crossed.

What the bully gets out of it

Why bullies do what they do and what they get out of it could run the gamut, from making themselves feel good and being in control to promoting their own career.

Some managers resort to management by fear, which can make them bullies. If their way of trying to motivate employees includes intimidation or scare tactics, an employee may feel picked on. Oftentimes, these people are not singling out individuals based on a protected characteristic; they are equal opportunity bullies and no one is safe from their tirades.

How to deal with workplace bullying

Dealing with a workplace bully can be a delicate situation. Some employees may take it upon themselves to deal directly with the offender, telling them how their words or actions affect their work. However, because intimidation may be at the root of the bullying, some employees may not feel they can talk directly to the bully.

Using the same chain of reporting that is used for a harassment issue may be the best course of action, however follow your company’s handbook for complaint-resolution processes, which typically use the company’s organizational chart and chain of command.

You should always be able to get help from your human resources representative in these types of situations.

When you’re faced with a report of bullying, you should try to encourage the employee to provide specific examples of when the behavior happened. This gives you and the HR department points of discussion with the bully.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to a manager that the bully is making everyone miserable. The manager should talk separately with the offender and the victims to determine what has transpired. If it continues to happen, the bully may need to be elevated to a progressive discipline plan – a process that includes verbal and written counseling. This plan can include having the bully attend classes or sessions that address specific behaviors.

Some survival tips for dealing with a bully


  • Maintain professionalism
  • Don’t engage with them
  • Don’t try to reciprocate
  • Stay calm
  • Get help from HR or other resource

Get tools to help manage your employees

Employees should know the behavior that is expected and the discrimination and harassment laws. When you define the parameters of acceptable practices during the hiring and onboarding phase, it’s easier to enforce them later.

Small and medium-size businesses oftentimes don’t have the resources they need to deal with issues such as workplace bullies, compliance training and discipline practices. When you have Insperity as your HR services provider, you get 28 years of experience and useful tools to help you succeed in employee management.

mr Kallinis Stylianos

it is a very important guide !

Insperity Blog

Thank you for your feedback! Glad you enjoyed the read.

Concerned Boyfriend

It isn’t me getting bullied, its my girlfriend. She works at a care center as a CNA, and is singled out by nightshift. I’m trying to find a way to help, because she really cares about the residents that she watches over. I don’t want to see her forced into a different job. Nobody in charge that she contacts does anything about it. I was wondering if there is any advice?

Insperity Blog

Hi there, I’m sorry to hear that your girlfriend is feeling bullied at work. If she feels like she’s not getting anywhere with those in charge whom she’s already talked to, she should try another manager or person in leadership who she’s comfortable speaking with. If her company has an HR department (or someone who works in the HR capacity) that’s another good place to start, even if it means that she needs to come in at a time that’s outside of her shift.

She should be prepared to provide specific examples of what’s happening and how it makes her feel. She should also be prepared to discuss what steps she’s taken so far and what outcome she’s looking for. Conversations like this are never easy, but if she puts in some time preparing for the discussion, it can help those with authority address the problem.

Kelly McCoy

I was bullied both by a desk super and my HR mgr at a kmart. I now connect the onset of my health liabilities to all the parallel instigators/happenings. “Get out quick.”

Insperity Blog

I’m so sorry to hear that, Kelly. Hope your health begins to improve.


There is 5 of us being bullied at work
We have gone to the owner .
And nothing has been done this has been going on for over 1 yr now
We just got and assistant manager we have all brought her our concerns and again nothing has been done giving the BULLY the right to do whatever that bully wants

Insperity Blog

Hi Echo, Does the company you work for have a human resources contact you can reach out to?

A Bullied employee


A Bullied employee

What id got tried HR and got nowhere?

Insperity Blog

Hi Bullied, I’m sorry – not sure I understand your question.