What is Bullying?

What is Bullying?

Workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of an individual or multiple individuals directed towards an employee or employees, which intend to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine; or create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s).

Workplace bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness and injustice, and undermines an individual’s dignity and right to work.  

Bullying is different from aggression. Whereas aggression may involve a single act, bullying involves repeated acts and an on-going pattern of behavior. “Tough” or “demanding” people are not necessarily bullies as long as they are respectful and fair. Workplace bullying can be instigated by coworkers or supervisors.

Some bullying situations involve employees bullying their peers, rather than a supervisor bullying an employee. The term “mobbing” refers to a group of coworkers targeting another worker. Bullying is typically on an individual basis or very small groups of people. Supervisors should intervene immediately to address mobbing behaviors, or seek outside assistance if a situation becomes aggressive or prolonged.

Examples of Bullying:

  • Repeated unwarranted, excessive, or unreasonable criticism
  • Blame or scapegoating without factual information
  • Being sworn at or insulted
  • Exclusion or social isolation
  • Being shouted at or being humiliated
  • Excessive monitoring or micro-managing
  • Unrealistic deadlines or demands
  • Signs of Bullying in the Workplace:
  • Failure, as a whole, to meet organizational goals or major deadlines
  • Increased frequency of grievances, resignations, and requests for transfers
  • Increased workplace absences
  • Increased disciplinary actions
  • High employee turn-over
  • Loss of revenue or productivity

Impacts of Bullying:

  • An unproductive or unpleasant environment
  • Loss of qualified employees
  • Time and costs diverted towards new employee hiring and training
  • Frequent absences
  • Possible retaliation or harassment, or an increase in bullying
  • Employee disengagement, avoidance, and lack of collaboration
  • Misplaced time and energy for discipline or restructuring offices
  • Major costs due to potential legal action or fines

In addition, bullying can have serious short-term and long-term consequences for victims or targets of bullying behaviors. Personal impacts include elevated stress and anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, sleep and digestive disturbances, hypertension and chronic pain, conflict with family members, and financial problems due to hampered productivity and absences.

Risk Factors for Workplace Bullying:

                  Bullying is generally a control seeking behavior, rather than an actual personal problem. However, if bullying progresses, the situation may become personal and potentially toxic in the work environment. Workplace bullying can be exacerbated by significant structural changes, such as new leadership, a major overhaul in technology or organizational system, a new format for communication, or an internal change such as a departmental merge. People may resort to bullying behaviors to obtain control in the new environment. Workplace culture and workplace relationships may also foster bullying unintentionally, such as lack of employee input, limited communication, or conflict over roles and responsibilities.

Bullying is Different Than Harassment:

                  Harassment is a type of illegal discrimination and unwelcome behavior. Harassment should be automatically reported to a supervisor, human resources representative, or if necessary, law enforcement. Bullying differs from harassment. If the behavior is aggressive, intimidating, and/or is based in discrimination against a protected class, the behavior is considered harassment and is against the law. In the State of Oregon protected classes for employment includes race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, religion, veteran status, parental status, and physical or mental disability.

                  The University of Oregon prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national or ethnic origin, age, religion, marital status, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in all programs, activities, and employment practices as required by Title IX, other applicable laws, and policies.

What to Do:

                  If you are a victim or target of bullying, check the policy or code of conduct at your workplace. If applicable, recognize and acknowledge the situation as bullying. If it not possible to engage with a bully directly, engage a supervisor or outside assistance. Seeking an employee first may be the most helpful step to avoid escalation of the situation. Outside assistance may include another supervisor, the human resources department, the Title IX Coordinator, or an independent agency such as The Office of the Ombuds.

                  As an employer, understand and be aware of signs of bullying. Ensure full understanding and adherence to a Code of Conduct. If your office does not have one, build one as a team or update the standard policies. Most importantly, squash bullying incidents before escalation, follow-up on incidents, and facilitate open communication between coworkers and supervisors.

Elizabeth Merchant, M.S. in Conflict & Dispute Resolution, 2017 

State of Washington. “Stop Workplace Bullying” (2011). Referenced with permission by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, www.lni.wa.gov/safety.