How to Recognize Workplace Bullying


If a co-worker says something to another coworker that makes that person uncomfortable, he or she may wonder if the person is bullying them. 

It’s important to figure this out early, because if it is bullying, the victim will want to put an end to it quickly. Bullying has a serious effect, over time, on the individual being bullied. Studies have found:

  • Bullying affects some people more than accidents, divorce, bereavement, and serious illness.
  • Targets of workplace bullying can experience the same level of emotional trauma as targets of physical assaults.

Bullying or not?

A co-worker says:

  • “What’s with that outfit you have on? You look like the Cookie Monster.”
  • “You’ll never make it here.”

One test is whether a reasonable person would consider the statements acceptable or unacceptable.

How about these statements:

  • “I disagree with your decision.”
  • “Our company policy prohibits shorts in the workplace.”
  • “As your supervisor, I must warn you about your lateness – two times this week.”

These statements aren’t bullying, they are expressing a difference of opinion, stating policy, or providing oversight. It’s not bullying if a supervisor repeatedly demands that an employee meet job requirements. The employee can avoid the negative treatment by meeting the standard. But it is bullying if a supervisor repeatedly tells an employee he is “worthless.”

If a comment is about something someone can’t change – he is short or has big ears — then it is more likely to be bullying than helpful feedback. If the comment relates to one’s race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age over 40, or disability, then it’s likely shifting into the realm of harassment. While there is no legal remedy for bullying, harassment can be the basis of a lawsuit or a report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But before deciding it is bullying, the employee should look within. If the comment wasn’t about their characteristics but about their work, the employee should ask:

  • Could I have avoided this by doing better work?
  • What was my role in this, if any?
  • Is this person expressing a difference of opinion?

If the employee is sure he had no role, what should he do?

Call the person out, as soon as possible, using their own words. Don’t label the individual — “You are a bully” — just repeat what was said, so they can’t say their remark was misinterpreted. Wait for a response. If the person says “What are you talking about?” or doesn’t respond, repeat what they said and add: “I find your words (or that behavior) unacceptable.”

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