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Workplace Bullying

  1. What is workplace bullying? 
  2. What does a respectful workplace environment look like?
  3. What is the difference between bullying and harassment?
  4. What is not considerred workplace Bullying?
  5. Is it illegal for my boss to bully or harass me?
  6. What are types of workplace bullying?
  7. Might general harassment or bullying be illegal in the future?
  8. How can an employer protect employees from bullying in the workplace?


1. What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying typically involves continuous or repeated malicious behavior such as deliberate insults, threats, demeaning comments, constant criticism, overbearing supervision, and profane outburst. It may also include blatant exclusion, being overworked, or simply not communicating with colleagues.

More subtle forms of bullying can include withholding or supplying incorrect work-related information, sabotaging projects, passive-aggressive behavior, blocking promotions, providing unclear or contradictory instructions, or requesting unnecessary or tedious work.

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2. What does a respectful workplace environment look like?

As an employee, you should be treated with dignity and respect. Employees must also contribute to creating a respectful workplace environment. 

In a respectful workplace, employees and employers communicate openly and fairly with one another, without harassment or discrimination, and attempt to prevent a hostile work environment. There is, however, a fine line between workplace bullying and tough management. Therefore, while evaluating your workplace environment, it is best to keep in mind that all unfavorable actions may not cross the line into workplace bullying. It is enough for your boss or other employers to simply be hard in you or unkind. 

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3. What is the difference between bullying and harassment?

Bullying and harassment are sometimes used as synonyms and treated was words that mean the same thing. It is true that both words are similar and involve intentional actions or words that harm another person, it is also true that there is an important difference is the definitions. 

When bullying is directed as a specific type of person or a protected class of people, then it is called harassment. Additionally, there also some violent acts of bullying that qualify as criminal harassment. 

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4. What is not considered workplace bullying?

Typically, bullying is not an isolated, one-time event. As previously mentioned in question 2, bullying is also not any form of reasonable management or means of managing that is practiced by tour employer. Examples of situations in which your employer may be reasonably harsh, without the employer’s conduct qualifying as bullying include:

  • Setting reasonable performance goals, whether they are easily reachable or not;
  • Transferring workers to different departments for valid reasons;
  • Giving employees negative performance reviews;
  • Calling out that negative performance in a meeting;
  • Informing employees of negative performance via email; 
  • Taking disciplinary action;
  • Delegating tasks based on who the employer believes can perform the better;
  • Micromanaging employees independent work; and 
  • A workplace conflict such as an argument, disagreement, or mere difference in opinion. 

5. Is it illegal for my boss to bully or harass me? 

Generally, no. It is not illegal for your boss to harass you unless it is done for an illegal reason. The law does not require that your boss be nice, kind or fair, only that your boss does not treat you differently because of your age, sex, race, religion, national origin, or disability.

So, for example, say there is a workplace comprised of mostly men, with one lone female employee, she alleges that her manager abuses, belittles, and harasses her, but then admits that the manager also treats all of the other male employees the same way, can she legally sue for harassment?

Generally no, because her manager is an equal-opportunity abuser, she cannot sue for harassment. A court examining this very issue comments that there was generally no evidence to suggest the conduct, although rude and obnoxious, was motivated by gender Personality conflicts, even if severe, do not currently equate to hostile work environment claims simply because the conflict is between a male and a female employee.

However, if bullying starts as retaliation against an employee who has reported ethical concerns about the company, the employee may be protected under whistleblower statutes. To learn more, check out our pages under whistleblowing and retaliation

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6. What are the types of workplace bullying?

Despite most of the things we think we know about workplace bullying, one’s boss does not always have to be the bully. The relevant categories of workplace bullying are: 

Upwards workplace bullying occurs when your employer or upper level is bullying and employee by using his or her power to threaten or control an employee.

Downwards workplace bullying occurs in the revers and is seen when an employee is bullying his or her employer, manager, or any other upper level employee.

Sidewards workplace bullying occurs when one employee bullies another.

All of these categories of bullying can happen in one or more of the following types:

Conflict escalation is a type of bullying that begins with a conflict. When the conflict cannot be resolved it escalates, and one person begins to target, intimidate, or bully the other.

Retaliatory Acts are a type of bullying that happen in retaliation for whistleblowing or filing a claim for discrimination. In these cases, your employer, manager, or other employees, may target and intimidate you because you reported inappropriate behavior. Also, in cases like this, the behavior of your colleagues collectively could result in another type of bullying, sometimes referred to as mobbing. This occurs when the bullying is being bullied by a group of people, and often presents itself when person being bullies has violated group norms by reporting discrimination or blowing the whistle on illegal or hazardous employment practices, for example. 

Predatory behavior is a type of bullying that occurs when a predatory person singles out someone in an attempt to make them miserable or otherwise hurt them. This type of behavior is typically focused on a particular type or class of person and, as a result, can involve unlawful discrimination and turn into harassment.  

The typical bully does his or her bullying through aggressive communication. They often do so through making a scene in public and using the language to create fear. This goes hand-in-hand with another type of bully; one who constantly criticizes you in an effort to humiliate you. This type of bullying also occurs in public for the most part, or through mass emails or group settings.

Another type of bully may withhold resources, making it hard for you to do your job or do it correctly. This type of bully uses a manipulation tactic that sets you up to fail or prevents you from achieving performance goals. 

Sometimes, however, bullying is accepted as normal behavior. In these instances, mistreatment can be ignored, and targets of this behavior can be considered “sensitive,” if they take offense. This can often be the case when the workplace bully does his or her bullying behind the scenes. In cases like this they are hard to spot, much less catch, and their behavior is easy to deny.

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7. Might general harassment or bullying be illegal in the future?

Possibly. There is currently a movement hoping to make bullying in the workplace illegal. This may be in part due to some startling statistics, according to one survey:

  • Almost 72 percent of employees report being bullied themselves or have witnessed other employees being bullied
  • Some 65 million U.S employees report being affected by workplace bullying
  • 93 percent of adult Americans support a law outlawing generalized bullying in the workplace

Workplace bullying can have severe effects on a victim, and is claimed to cause stress symptoms more generally associated with domestic violence. Bullying decreases morale and interferes with good job performance. It can weaken quality control, discourage team building, increase turnover and absenteeism, and in the most extreme case, bullying can even result in workplace violence. You might be wondering if a law could be written, or if it is better to direct people to alter their personalities; however, given management's unwillingness or inability to limit abusive behavior in their workplace, the legislature might very well choose to respond. 

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8. How can an employer protect employees from bullying in the workplace?

To discourage and eliminate bullying, it is necessary that direction comes from the top. The most effective strategy employers can pursue is to treat bullying as though it is already illegal. Create a workplace culture wherein bullying is not tolerated. The following is a list of actions you might consider taking to create a harmonious work environment:

  • Include bullying in your anti-harassment or other workplace conduct policies
  • Explain to your employees that you do not tolerate bullying and instruct them on what to do if a bullying incident occurs
  • When an employee complains about bullying, do not ignore it, investigate it and implement discipline commensurate with the severity of the conduct
  • Be prepared to address any retaliation that may result from disciplinary action
  • The selection of managers and supervisors should consider an individual's ability to communicate well and treat employees with respect

If you believe that you are being harassed for one of the above reasons, you should contact your nearest Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or log onto www.eeoc.gov to find your nearest office.

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Terry A. Venneberg Weekly Weekly

Topic of the Week

Workplace Bullying

Read more...

Blog of the Week

Overcoming Inequality in Unemployment Benefit Access and Utilization

Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic but much less likely to receive UI. Law, policy, and practice may be the problems, but the solution begins with mobilization.

Thought for the Week

"It really is very damaging. It creates a place where you're just always afraid and you can't be yourself. People are angry and confused and they're concerned about their job all day every day—is today the day I'm going to be fired? That's just no way to live"

–Catherine Mattice Zundel | CEO of Civility Partners

List of the Week

from Workplace Bullying Institute

  • 19% of adults said they’d personally been bullied at work, while another 19% said they’d seen it happen to someone else.
  • Being bullied at work can harm both your mental and your physical health—with potential effects including major stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, and more.
  • Workplace bullying goes far beyond a minor disruption or small annoyance. Rather, it creates a psychological power imbalance between the person doing the bullying and their target or targets to a point where that person at the receiving end develops [a] feeling of helplessness.

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