Bullying at work – how to deal with bullying in the workplace

bullies in the workplace

Bullying at work is a serious topic that needs to be handled delicately and in an unbiased way so as to ensure that those involved do not feel discriminated against or not heard when putting forward their side of the story.  There are many forms of bullying that occur in the workplace, from cyber bullying to face-to-face, individually or by a group, the impact is always the same. The target peer feels alone, desolate and upset at being bullied in their own workplace.

However, not everything is classed as ‘bullying in the workplace’. The term banter has pushed the boundaries on what could be considered as being bullied at work. The term ‘banter’ lets us toe very close to the line and can often blur the line on what bullying is and isn’t. It is due to this that we have to take a very careful and thoughtful approach to addressing potential bullying situations at work. Additionally, as colleagues, we must also understand what is a bit of fun and what isn’t, and more importantly, we must understand other people’s perceptions of fun.

examples of bullying at work

The definition of bullying varies dependent on the personality of the person who feels aggrieved. There are obvious examples of bullying and they should be made clear to the workplace whenever a complaint or grievance is made regarding employee welfare.

aggression in the workplace

The workplace has the ability to anger us. That doesn’t mean that taking that anger out on those around you is the right thing to do. Shouting or using an aggressive communication style can often intimidate others into doing as you wish, and some use this tactic to ensure they get what they want when they want. The problem with this is employee morale gets lost and staff turnover soars through the roof. We all have our moments but being consistently and systematically aggressive to individuals is a form of bullying.

passive aggressiveness in the workplace

Similarly to aggression, the more subtle tone of passive aggression can be used by some to intimidate those around them. Sarcastic remarks, condescending tones of voice and leveraging your role to bully others into agreeing with, doing things your way may work to get things done, but do they achieve great results? The likelihood is that the work is being done for you because the colleague had to, not because they wanted to.

There is nothing wrong with showing assertiveness, especially when involved in wider discussions. You may wish to get your idea across and believe in its quality, and that’s great. But the moment you condescend, manipulate or go beyond assertiveness, you become passive aggressive and alienate yourself.

favouring others

We all have working relationships. Creating social connections at work is a natural occurrence. But showing favouritism to others, especially when in a leadership role is borderline bullying. You cannot get on with everyone in the workplace, but everyone’s talents and value to the business should be respected. At any time, there should be no favouritism, regardless of relationships or talent.

poking fun at others

This is where banter blurs the lines. As more and more of the younger generations enter our workforce, their brash banter culture joins us too and this could be classed as office bullying. There are obvious instances where groups of people are targeting individuals and this is classed as bullying at work, but for the most part, whilst sensitivity levels are different for each person, the likelihood that there is malice in the ‘joke’ is low. However, poking fun at others should only take place if both know each other’s line and how to ‘banter’ with them. It’s important to really get to know and understand your colleagues before joking around with them as this may result in upsetting people and some conversations with your HR department.

forming cliques

It is nice to feel included and be part of a group of colleagues. This shouldn’t be to the exclusion of certain individuals and certainly not involve gossiping about them. Should this be happening within your workplace, it should be addressed and stopped immediately.

how to deal with bullying in the workplace

Dealing with workplace bullying follows both a formal and informal process depending on the severity of the grievance and how the aggrieved person wishes to pursue their complaint. Companies often look to find a quick resolution that doesn’t involve formal processes but keeps everyone happy with the result. You should look at doing the following when complaining about workplace bullying:

ask the bullying to stop

Depending on the action, sometimes the first port-of-call should be speaking to the ‘bully’ face-to-face. Always ensure that you’re assertive, but also understanding. There are two sides to every story and it’s important that you give them the chance to explain themselves. It might transpire that they didn’t realise what they were doing and apologise. This could be a case of talking through, and a stronger relationship with a colleague moving forward.

Additionally, consider documenting the bullies actions whenever you feel you’re being bullied.

speak to a colleague

If you don’t feel ready to speak to your manager or HR yet, then speak to a trusted friend. Bottling feelings up is not good for you and talking things through can often give perspective. You can then approach the situation with a clear head.

formally complain to your line manager

If you’ve asked the bully to stop and they haven’t you can speak to your line manager. The likelihood here is that the line manager will listen to your complaint, draw on any experience they may have, whilst also explaining the proper procedures. From this, they will ask you whether you’d like to make a formal complaint or whether something can be done to resolve the issue sooner and more informally.

Your line manager may speak to their manager to understand any background issues and discuss how this may be resolved. In addition, a conversation may take place between you all to discuss the problem and find a solution.

speaking to HR

You can speak to your HR team who will be impartial and look to find a solution. Depending on how far you wish to take the grievance this formal approach can be recorded. Alternatively, you can seek some informal advice on the matter to determine how you should proceed.

speak to the union

Seek advice from a union rep if you’re part of a union and feel that your grievance is beyond repair. They will review your case; give you sound advice relative to the laws regarding bullying at work and discuss your case in a more formal detail. This will give you ample information to help you decide on how to proceed.


  1. This is a subject that I think is very hard to write about and truly capture all the subtleties, challenges, egos, personalities, similarities, differences and so…not to mention HR issues and legalities…..
    in effect this, like most other articles on bullying cannot do the matter justice, not hope to solve it.
    What I think is valuable, in this article, is the demonstration of how complex the subject is and what a minefield it is in terms of solving…..
    whilst I agree that often the answer lies in good quality communication between the two parties, or perhaps a third party, such as a manager, the challenge is that most people, and the vast majority of managers have neither the skill or desire to have such challenging conversations effectively. And until we develop soft skills, emotional intelligence and culture to solve such matters, they are unlikely to be solved and replaced by new better behaviours.
    In addition , I have found that good genuine company values and purpose help ‘solve’ bullying matters efficiently if used correctly as challenging bullying behaviours against the purpose and values can turn the conversation from ‘me against you’ mentality… us against the problem….
    it’s also interesting to look at the leaders and their behaviours in the business….. example if billionaire Mike Ashley gets drunk and allegedly throws up in a pub fire place in front of members of his management team, who cheer… can that culture deal with a football team manager who tries to head butt a premiership player ‘on tele’ , which we might call bullying …? I’m sure sone would say that manager must be fired, but he wasn’t, so what message does that send out?
    Bullying is often must more subtle, as pointed pout in the article…..from ignoring people, favouring others, undermining team members etc. I have even heard a manager go back through old paperwork of a successful project to remove some positive references to a team member who led the change – why?
    Bullying is an important topic as it can not only damage individuals, but the company culture, credibility and value.

    1. PJ, very good points made. Thank you!

      Workplace culture definitely has a role to play. If there is a gossip culture within the business, this spreads throughout the team and so on.

      Empathetic leadership should be used in all instances to understand why bullying is taking place. There are two sides to every story and a good leader will listen to and empathise with both before making a clear and unbiased judgement.

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