Fi Bullying

Bullying at Work: What are the Signs and What are the Solutions?

Published by
08th November 2023

When we hear the word ‘bullying’, we tend to associate this with our school days. However, the sad truth is that more than one in ten people are bullied in their workplace.

Bullying behavior can be extremely damaging, whether this be through mental damage done to the employee suffering, or the knock-on effects this behavior has on the wider business (a toxic culture, lack of cohesion, drop in engagement levels).

However, how leader and HR professionals respond to bullying is so important in managing these ripple effects. Therefore, knowing the signs of this behavior is vital to mitigating the effects that it will have.

But firstly, what is bullying at work? The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; or work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done.”

There are two things to note from this; the first is knowing the difference between someone who is generally not nice and someone who is a bully. Bullying is targeted (so towards the same person, or same group of people i.e. women, a certain ethnic group) and repeated, whereas if a manager is found to be mean to anyone and everyone and it isn’t targeted, then this is simply seen as a manager having an attitude problem. The second thing to note is that bullying can look different depending on the context it is happening in, which is why it’s important for leaders to know all the signs and different forms that bullying can take in order to intervene quickly and efficiently.

So, what are the signs?

Overt signs of bullying will look like a person being aggressive through yelling, shouting, or hitting objects. It can be punishing a specific employee undeservingly, belittling or embarrassing someone, or even threatening them with unwarranted punishment and/or termination. Additionally, actively blocking someone’s learning and development opportunities and campaigning against them to remove them from the organization all constitute as openly bullying an employee.

There are also more subtle, covert signs of bullying that leaders have to be aware of too. This can take the shape of shaming/guilting someone, pitting employees against each other, isolating/excluding someone on purpose, ignoring them, and deceiving them to get one’s way.

There is a tendency for bullying to come from managers and higher-ups to their direct reports. I have previously worked with a leader who was consistently angry and frequently yelled, and would lie to HR about the performance of a member of staff to get action taken to remove them from the company. HR, upon investigating, discovered that the leader was purposefully gatekeeping information from the employee that they needed to perform their job, which was yielding these subpar results, as well as scheduling meetings surreptitiously so that the individual would miss out on key exchanges.

In a case like this, or any instance of workplace bullying, HR must handle it as if handling any other employee relations issue – by conducting a thorough internal investigation and taking direct action upon the conclusion of this investigation, whether that be coaching, punishment, or even termination.

But employers can also go one step further, and instead of being reactive to bullying, they can be proactive in preventing it in the first place. This can be done through:

  • Developing a training program for middle managers and leadership on appropriate conduct and inclusivity.
  • Building processes into the fabric of the business on an organizational design level which interrupt biases and make the recruiting process more inclusive.
  • Ensuring that the yearly harassment training is incorporating specific training around how to recognise, respond to and mitigate bullying in the workplace in all its forms.
  • Having a thorough investigative process for investigating toxic leaders and/or employees.

Employers who are working towards creating a harmonious and inclusive workplace are the ones that are going to get the best out of their people – after all, happy employees are productive employees!

If you would like to discuss the anti-bullying training and workshops we offer, please get in touch with me at

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