How to Spot and Prevent a Workplace Bully

3 min read
Thu, Aug 10, 2017

Toxic co-workers can infect a workplace, especially if your co-worker becomes abusive, belittling or violent. Perhaps the behavior started with snarky comments or gossip and has slowly escalated to a level of discomfort or avoidance of the person altogether. Even if the behavior is only affecting you or someone you know, it should be reported to the human resources department. Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe and comfortable working environment for employees. 

Employers take note: Here's how to spot and prevent a workplace bully.

Toxic Behavior in the Workplace

Everyone has a bad day here and there. Unfortunately, there are those people who seem to feel this way every day.  When the bad attitude begins to affect everyone like a virus or even worse, someone loses their job or gets hurt, something should be done. Some of the signs of toxic behavior in the workplace are:

  • Not listening to others speaking, interrupting, or eye-rolling
  • Condescending comments in meetings
  • Spreading gossip or lies about another co-worker
  • Purposeful creation of "cliques" or a way to leave someone out of company or team activities

This behavior can seem especially harmful if the toxic employee is well-liked by managers or is, in fact, a manager or other company executive. Often, this behavior is only shown to peers and not leadership and therefore, the employee seems to be contributing all the while causing undue harm to co-workers. Unfortunately, unless the employee meets with their team upon hiring, management may be unaware of the potential for hiring someone with bad behavior.

Managers as Bullies

Most often, the workplace bullying that goes unreported are when managers are bullies. If an employee has already been made aware that their job may be at stake by the offending party, reporting their manager's bad behavior is especially unnerving. Some examples of managerial bullying include:

  • Regularly assigning duties or tasks that are impossible to complete within the allotted period of time
  • Retaliation against an employee after they've lodged a complaint, asked for a raise, resisted sexual advances and other activities protected from retaliation by the EEOC
  • Picking on or dismissing employees who may be ill or suffering from stress
  • Removing duties and/or demoting an employee without a valid reason

If a manager's team seems to suffer high turnover, repeated absences due to illness, inability to accomplish team-oriented tasks, or uneven staff performance, there may be the possibility of a manager who is displaying bully behavior.

See also: Workplace Violence Prevention

Who is likely to be the Bully or the Victim?

The organization Workplace Bullying reports on the statistics of bullying behavior in the workplace. The 2014 WBI US Workplace Bullying Survey reports that 37 million U.S. workers have been subject to abusive conduct, with over 28 million workers who have witnessed it. Other statistics include bullying with regards to race, gender, rank, and these facts:

  • 69% of bullies are men
  • 60% of targets are women
  • Women bullies tend to bully other women 68% of the time
  • Men tend to report bullying more when their bully is male
  • Victims tend to lose their jobs more often than the perpetrators, unless the perpetrator is a woman. If the woman is a bully, she loses her job 89% of the time. 

How to Prevent Bullying in the Workplace

One of the best ways to prevent bullying is to allow a safe process for reporting it. Those being bullied due to their sexual identity or orientation, disability, race, gender, or religion are protected under the EEOC. While workplace violence may be obviously harmful, toxic behavior and bullying may be more subtle. 

Victims of workplace bullying should:

  • Keep a record of all behavior from the perpetrator
  • Find witnesses to the behavior
  • Report the behavior to Human Resources

Your HR department also has tools for preventing, or at the very least, stopping bullying behavior:

  • Discuss workplace bullying and describe examples of the offending behavior
  • Openly share consequences of such behavior within your organization
  • Offer a process for reporting bully behavior as well as the commitment to safety in the workplace
  • Create and document concise workplace policies for preventing and enforcing against the behavior
  • Pre-screen employees before hiring to identify prior criminal history or previous workplace infractions
  • Include behavioral interviews and allow the new employee to meet with their team before hiring

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During the hiring process, managers may notice some examples of bullying behavior including documented high turnover during the employee's tenure at a previous organization, disciplinary action taken against the employee, or if the behavioral interview reveals unseemly attitudes or personality disorders that don't match with your company culture. 

Include anti-bullying discussions throughout your hiring process, from the job listing, to the interview, to the background check. If employers speak out against workplace bullying and present a simple and safe process for reporting it, the offending employee may seek other employment. Bringing the examples of bullying to the light will help remove any shame for the targets of workplace bullying as well. Creating a safe and pleasant company culture will attract those who wish to treat others the way they wish to be treated.


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