Sticks and stones may break my bones, but gaslighting will never hurt me.
That’s how it went, right? Well, not exactly, but that’s how it goes today.
Bullying is seeping out of high school playgrounds and following many of us into our adult lives.
It’s the harsh reality for many, and if you’re here then you’re likely suffering from it or trying to stop it in your workplace.
A staggering 75% of employees have witnessed bullying behavior, while close to 20% of the US workforce claim to have been a victim of bullying in their careers; you are not alone.
These alarming numbers are concrete evidence that workplace bullying is rife, and organizations need to address the issue.
In this article, we’ll break down what constitutes as bullying, how you can proactively prevent it, and how you can stop it if it’s an issue at work.
5 Different types of bullying in the workplace [plus, busting bullying myths]
The Workplace Bullying Institute found that workplace bullying has been on the rise—up 57% from one survey to the next—and it’s not just happening within physical office walls either.
Today, 43% of remote workers say they have or are being bullied, with most stating it happens in virtual meeting rooms more than anywhere else.
In today’s offices (digital or not) there are a few ways in which bullying can occur.
Some are old-school and more obvious, while others are more discreet: an evolution of bullying as it riddles through the adult world.
The five most common forms of workplace bullying:
- Direct insults & threats: These insults will often revolve around an employee’s insecurity or minority factor.
- Starting rumors: a more indiscreet type of bullying that will try and slander someone’s name and reputation.
- Passive aggressive comments: these types of comments can often be passed in a group setting, designed to belittle someone in front of their peers.
- Physical actions: this can be anything from playing pranks on someone to more aggressive actions.
- Gaslighting: psychological manipulation where the bully tries to instigate self-doubt in their victim.
With those most common forms of bullying on the table, let’s crush some bullying myths that often come hand-in-hand with them.
Workplace bullying myths
- Bullies are top performers: Myth. Bullies don’t have to be top performers to make someone feel little. Bullies can be anywhere from interns to service providers to line managers and higher-ups.
- Bullying is always in words: Myth. This is one of the biggest problems in workplace bullying as victims don’t always have hard evidence of their suffering.
- Bullying is only ever hostile and direct: Myth. Bullying can be covert, indirect, or instrumental. Just because someone is not actively yelling or discriminating to someone’s face, doesn’t mean their actions are not bullying.
The law on workplace bullying
In the United States, workplace bullying is considered in the same tier as discrimination or harassment.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that harassment “violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).”
The EEOC goes on to say that one-off incidents, as long as they’re not exceptionally serious, will not be considered illegal.
Instead, it’s repeated incidents of hate that qualify an employee to sue an employer for maintaining an unsafe work environment.
The EEOC confirms that harassment is any unwelcome act based on the victim’s:
Victims can also pursue legal action if they feel that their work environment has grown hostile, intimidating, or abusive.
What’s important to know is that a victim doesn’t necessarily need to be the target of the harassment.
A victim can be anyone who feels impacted by witnessing the bullying, and they’ll have an equal right to pursue legal action.
In short, if an employer ignores reports of bullying or fails to adjust working conditions they’ll be liable for harassment.
How to foster a bully-free workplace in eight steps
We spoke to CEOs, founders, and managers to understand modern companies’ measures to stop bullying from occurring.
Spoiler alert: It starts with your employer branding and recruitment strategy, and it’s a continuous process.
Here are seven ways to create a bully-free workplace according to industry experts.
Start with safe-space job descriptions
Building safe spaces starts with company culture, and that relies on those you hire.
However, those you hire rely on candidates that apply for your jobs.
“At dslx, we ensure all of our job descriptions are rid of gendered language and any conditions that may exclude minority communities.
We also take our job descriptions a step further, encouraging applicants to come as they are.
No matter what it is about them that they may have felt insecure about or vulnerable for in the past, it’s something we’ll embrace and welcome at our content agency.”Ella Webber, Lead Account Manager at dslx.
Introduce zero-tolerance policies in onboarding
From hiring to onboarding, it’s important to start with zero-tolerance bullying policies from hello.
Hiring managers and HR people need to start strong with these policies and let any new hire know that there are no exceptions or blurred lines around bullying.
This will affirm the culture to the new hire, and warn them that bullying will not be accepted.
At the same time, it promotes a sense of safety at work by knowing this policy is in place with every team member.
“Our online anti-bullying policy underscores the importance of respectful communication, a zero-tolerance approach to harassment, and clear reporting mechanisms for any concerns.
This ensures that every team member, regardless of their location, feels supported and protected. Our goal is to create a workplace culture where everyone can thrive without the fear of bullying.”Erik (Huy) Pham, Senior Editor at Healthcanal
Build buddy systems for new hires
Buddy systems are a fantastic way to avoid new hires feeling left out which can lead to them being targeted by bullies.
They’re especially effective with medium to large-size businesses where it can be easy to lose your way or find your community in the first few weeks.
Buddy systems work best when you partner a senior staff member with a new recruit.
They don’t necessarily need to be from the same team but should have a mutual interest.
Buddies are responsible for helping new hires find their feet, answer any questions, and make introductions where they see mutual interests with others.
A buddy system doesn’t expire, meaning that a new recruit’s buddy should be the same throughout their tenure within a company.
If that recruit is a victim of bullying, they should feel comfortable enough to confide in their senior buddy.
Foster a culture of continuous learning and development
He took some time to explain to us the importance of continuous learning to prevent bullying with a Learning Management System (LMS).
“It’s about creating an environment where every team member is encouraged to grow and improve. Not just in their specific roles but also in their interpersonal skills,”-Tim
Tim is responsible for implementing a robust LMS that’s packed with resources on:
- Effective communication
- Conflict resolution
- Understanding different personality types
Every employee, from new hires to seasoned veterans, is encouraged to take these courses and apply what they’ve learned in their daily actions at TeamUp.
Tim tells us more:
“This approach does two things: it equips our team members with the tools they need to navigate difficult situations, and it sends a clear message that we value respect and understanding in our workplace.
It’s not a foolproof solution, but it’s a significant step toward creating a safe, more inclusive environment. And as a leader, I believe that’s one of the most important investments we can make.”
Run regular 1-1 check-ins
Managers need to regularly keep their ears open and eyes peeled for signs of bullying.
Looking out for signs of unhappiness or underperformance (which can result from bullying, but can also be attributed to many more things) is a good indication that a 1-1 needs booking.
However, it’s not always possible to gauge if someone is unhappy at work—especially with fully-distributed teams operating asynchronously.
Remote teams don’t have access to those informal kitchen catch-ups that so many in-office managers can benefit from.
This means that managers need to be conscious of scheduling regular 1-1 informal check-ins with remote team members and force those “natural” conversations online.
These regular check-ins may not be able to prevent bullying, but they can definitely help managers identify it and act on it.
Introduce ERGs & internal community managers
Employee resource groups (ERGs) are a fantastic strategy for fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces.
ERGs are typically led by internal volunteers and can range on anything from “new moms at work” to a particular culture.
They aim to give employees a safe space to identify with, feel heard, and relate to others who associate themselves in the same way.
ERGs prevent loneliness, build more inclusive cultures, and help minimize bullying by promoting minority groups that may have been targeted before yet are now celebrated.
The elected community manager within each ERG is a spokesperson for that group across the entire company.
These managers are a vital outreach post for anyone who may feel discriminated against because of who they are.
Each ERG manager must be given the correct training on specific power skills like active listening, empathy, and communication to be approachable and deal with reports of bullying the right way.
Implement cross-team collaboration opportunities
Implementing a togetherness culture is a proactive way to minimize the chance of bullying, and this can be achieved by borrowing from the Spotify Squads framework.
If you work in SaaS, you may or may not be familiar with Spotify Squads.
This framework pulls together “cross-functional, self-reliant teams of up to eight people.”
Despite being famous for failing in product launches, there’s one area of the model that works well for cross-team collaborations: guilds.
Guilds are “A lightweight community of people with common interests across squads and tribes.”
This visual explains how they sit within team squads:
Pulling together guilds, be they recreationally or professionally, on larger projects is a great way to promote collaboration across teams and people who typically wouldn’t have the opportunity to work together.
Practice and teach empathetic leadership skills
Despite bullying being present across different seniority levels, it’s down to leaders to set the rules for a company’s tolerance of bullying.
Outside of policies, that comes down to how leaders conduct themselves around their team.
Empathetic leadership skills include:
- Active listening
- Emotional intelligence
Today, a great leader is a people leader, and those skills go beyond the traditional “hard skills” studied at school.
If you’re hoping to quell bullying in your workplace, start by looking at your leadership team first.
What power skills do they have naturally and what needs to be nurtured in order for them to be a better leader?
What to do if you’re being bullied at work, and how to stop it [+ help & support lines]
If you, or someone you know, are being bullied at work, there are a few actions you can take.
- Keep a diary of events: no matter how you go on to report your case of bullying or pursue legal action, you’ll always be asked for evidence to support your claim. Start keeping a diary of events, and save any communication you can from the bully. This diary will also prevent you from doubting yourself in the future by recording events and how they make you feel the moment they happen.
- Warn the bully: if you feel safe enough to do so, then confront the bully and ask them to stop. Ensure you have this interaction documented, and let someone you trust know what you’re doing.
- Reach out to your manager (if possible): if your manager is not part of the bullying or not socially tied to the bully, then try reaching out to them first. Many victims often feel like they won’t be taken seriously or the manager will be biased, so only do this if you feel it’s right.
- Reach out to HR: every business should have a HR person so that victims can report such events. Your HR person is the best person to make a formal complaint to, they’ll be able to back you up should things escalate in the future.
- Contact your union: unions are on the rise and their core responsibility is to protect members. If you’re not already part of a union, find one that best suits your role or industry and voice what’s happening to a member of their team. They’ll be able to set you in the right direction.
- Contact a helpline: every country, and many US states, have helplines for those suffering from bullying and harassment. Try the National Bullying Helpline, Acas helpline, or find one better suited to your case.
- Seek advice from a friend or colleague: it can be hard to see the forest through the trees. If you’re in doubt about what to do next or whether someone’s actions qualify as bullying, reach out to a trusted friend or colleague to gain the perspective of a third party.
- Make a formal complaint: whether that’s to your manager, HR, or the police, ensure what’s happening is on record
- Consider bringing in the law: if the bullying has gone too far and you can’t see another solution to overcome the situation, it may be time to call in the law. Consider finding a lawyer, or if the bullying is causing physical harm and is more of an emergency then call your local police department.
Wrapping up on workplace bullying
You should be walking away from this article with a few sure-fire strategies to prevent bullying before it happens or understand how you can stop it before it goes any further.
Remember, if you are being bullied at work, you’re not alone, and your feelings are valid—don’t let the bully make you doubt your reality.
For all of the policies that a company puts in place, there will still be some bullies that persist, and knowing how to deal with those situations—helplines, confrontation, documentation, formal reports, unions—is the best way to approach the situation.
We all deserve a safe space to work in. So, thank you for taking the time to read this article, and for being a positive contributor to the world of work.
We’ve got this.