workplace bullying

How to stop workplace bullying and find the cause

Is workplace bullying a problem in your organization?

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 disregards someone else’s work while smiling in their face?

Turns out, it can be both.

Either way, these are toxic employees who inflict harm on your staff and your company. Bullying itself may be considered workplace violence, due to psychological scars left on its victims. Left unchallenged, bullies may even trigger workplace violence from the person being bullied or escalate their bad behavior into violence themselves.

Here’s how you can spot and stop workplace bullying before you lose valuable team members or productivity suffers.

What workplace bullying looks like

A third of workers say they’ve been bullied at work, according to a CareerBuilder survey. Young workers, women and LGBT employees report the highest rates of bullying. Survey responders said these were the most common ways they were bullied:

  • Falsely accused of making mistakes (45 percent)
  • Comments ignored, dismissed or not acknowledged (42 percent)
  • Criticized constantly by boss or co-workers (37 percent)
  • Different standards or policies applied to them (34 percent)
  • Gossiped about (36 percent)
  • Belittling comments made during meetings (28 percent)
  • Someone didn’t perform certain duties, which negatively impacted their work (29 percent)
  • Yelled at by boss in front of co-workers (26 percent)
  • Excluded from projects or meetings (20 percent)

Bullying can be a legal liability for your business if comments or gossip are about race, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation – since this can be considered harassment.

Many states have enacted workplace anti-bullying legislation, but no federal law directly addresses this issue. However, the line between bullying and harassment can be murky, so managing bullies is not only important for morale in the workplace – it also helps to ensure no legal lines are crossed.

Types of workplace bullies

Bullies are among the worst types of toxic employees, due to the damage they inflict through lost productivity, turnover and low morale. Do you recognize any of these types of behaviors among your staff?

1. The blatant bully

It may be hard to believe, but the screaming insulter is still alive and well in some workplaces. While the archetypical yeller is a boss who manages by fear, the blatant bully can be anyone in the workplace.

You’ll hear these types of bullies make belittling comments or talk over someone in a meeting. They want their way. They want you to know they’re in control. They want you to know how important they are, and it doesn’t matter who they have to step on to get their point across.

2. The passive-aggressive bully

This person will smile and give an off-handed compliment, such as, ”Wow, you’re on time for once. That’s great!”

Passive-aggressive bullies leave you wondering if you were just given praise or taken down a peg. You might find yourself saying: “Um, thanks, I think.”

Or they may tell you one thing, and tell others something completely different.

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

For example, they may say, “I moved our meeting up – I 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. Problem is, they’re doing it in a subversive way that takes a while to detect.

3. The overly direct bully

These workers aren’t typical bullies, in that they aren’t intentionally trying to cause problems. Some people simply 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 may be 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 and disruptive to team morale.

What the workplace bully gets out of it

 Why do workplace bullies do what they do, and what do they get out of it?

There’s no one simple answer. The reasons behind their behavior could run the gamut. It may result from a need to make themselves feel good, or because they need to feel in control. Their bullying tactics may also stem from a desire to promote their own career.

Weak managers, for example, will sometimes resort to management by fear, which can make them bullies. If their way of trying to motivate employees includes intimidation or scare tactics, employees may feel picked on.

Sometimes, these people aren’t singling out certain individuals; they are “equal opportunity offenders” and no one is safe from their tirades. Other bullies may unconsciously pick on those they perceive to be weak.

Survival tips for dealing with a bully

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, especially if the person outranks them. That’s why it’s so important for every manager to keep an eye out for such behavior – and address it promptly.

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

Employees who feel bullied should always:

  • Stay calm and maintain their professionalism.
  • Avoid reciprocating or confronting the bully.
  • Limit how much they interact with the bully.
  • Document the behavior.

Should the bullying escalate or start to impact an employee’s ability to get their work done, they should consult HR or another resource. If your company provides an EAP program, they may also want to refer to it for tips on dealing with difficult employees.

An employee’s documentation of the bullying, along with date and time (and any other people who may have witnessed the behavior) establishes a pattern of behavior and will lend credence to their allegations.

Documentation can serve three main purposes:

  1. It gives HR and management a sense of the frequency and intensity of the bullying.
  2. It also helps bullied employees reassure themselves that they’re not just being overly sensitive or imagining things (in the case of gaslighting).
  3. Finally, it gives your HR team and managers 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.

Workplace bullying has often been described as a silent crisis, which makes proactively addressing it especially important. That means learning to recognize the signs and empowering your team to do the same. Get more solid advice on how to cultivate an atmosphere of respect that sets everyone up for success by downloading our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.

How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business
Download your free e-book

18 responses to “How to stop workplace bullying and find the cause

Leonard Nolt

I was the target of a workplace bully for nearly three years at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho. The bully used several tactics including ostracism, withholding information, spreading rumours about me, and making false accusations. I reported it to management, but they were unable or unwilling to address the problem. Human Resources was worst than useless and actually threatened to fire me for reporting the bullying.

After several months of being bullied I began to develop symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). That included nightmares, exaggerated startle response, hypervigilance, sleep disorders, and others. Then the worst of all, loss of confidence which gradually eroded my ability to do some of the parts of my job description.

I eventually left, got a job at a different medical center and had to learn how to do my work all over again. That was in 2006. Now 13 years later I’m retired, but I still have nightmares of being bullied. My advice to anyone being bullied is to get it stopped soon, or leave before you become disabled. Also get professional help, which I did several times, and keep your closest friends informed. Having someone to talk to is priceless. Stay safe.

Insperity Blog

Hi Leonard, We’re very sorry to hear about your experience being bullied at your past workplace. Good for you for gathering the strength to move on to another company and cope with the aftereffects of what you went through. We appreciate you sharing your story in hopes that it may be helpful to others in a similar situation and make them feel that they are not alone.

Ellen Brubeck

Organizations should not allow bullying or endorse picking a ‘fall guy’ for Executive mistakes. Bullying exists because Executives allow this type of unprofessional behavior in the workplace. The only way to stop workplace bullying is to involve the CEO and a trusted HR member. The HR staff must have direct experience and not be a bully herself. Who to trust in the workplace should be a given not a daunting question.

Insperity Blog

Hi Ellen, Thank you for reading and taking the time to share your insight. We appreciate your comments.

Deborah Keller

In my experiences, workplace bullies ingratiate themselves with executive management so that when complaints surface, documents and procedures in the oranizations are not followed Human Resources have the paperwork taken from them an re-assigned to another executive who has no clue to real personality of the bully. Nothing is done about the bully, HR says they are helpless, and if tge the executives are confronted they say things like, “ Don’t stifle his inistive. He’s getting things done” and “You need to be a team player.” It comes to a point where the bully’s prey decide they don’t want to work for there anymore, if executives won’t open their eyes, so they retire early or find another job when bullying is not scceptable and written policies are applied always and all the time without interferring with HR. Best decision I made was that in this organizations how people were treated was less important that how a manager went about it. I left and started my own firm.

Deborah Keller

Sorry for the typos using a cellphone

Insperity Blog

No problem, Deborah. Thank you for sharing your experiences – glad you found success by starting your own firm!

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.

This site uses cookies to store information on your computer. Some are essential to make our site work; others help us improve the user experience. By using the site, you consent to the placement of these cookies. Read our privacy policy to learn more.