Who are the workplace bullies and their targets, what’s the impact of their behaviour, and how can you mitigate it?

What comes to mind for you when you think of bullying? Do you automatically think of the schoolyard, playground, or other places where kids and youth hang out? Or do you tend to think more of places where adults interact, such as the workplace? While there are underlying similarities, there are significant differences between schoolyard bullying and bullying in the workplace. In the schoolyard, for example, the bully’s target is often viewed as a loner, weak, weird, different, or an easy target. In the workplace, however, the target often poses a threat to the bully. Targets are often more technically skilled, better liked, have more social skills, and possess a higher emotional intelligence than the bully. In other words, the people being bullied can be some of your best employees.

Who are the workplace bullies?

According to 2021 research by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 65% of bullies in the workplace are managers or supervisors. These numbers are consistent with several North American studies indicating that between 51% and 75% of bullies are bosses. While they may show up with an image of arrogance or bravado, these are often individuals who feel insecure or inadequate, are unable/unwilling to share credit and recognition, and will often stop at nothing to steal credit away from their more skilled or higher-performing targets. Attacking and lashing out is often a way to make bullies feel more powerful and in control, despite their insecurities – and, in some cases, may not be intentionally malicious.

Bullying also occurs between co-workers and, less frequently, from subordinates towards their superiors, or from a customer, client, partner. While bullies can be any gender, the majority (65%) are men.

Who are the targets of bullying in the workplace?

While numbers vary significantly by study, research has found that up to 90% of employees feel they’ve been bullied at work at some point. Targets are more often women, but many bullies also target men. They are often well liked among the team, non-confrontational, highly skilled, top performers, and tend to exhibit integrity and ethics. They are also often physically different from the bully (e.g., race, disability, weight, size). Age also plays a part, with younger (early 20s) or older (55+) being more likely to be bullied.

How are targets bullied in the workplace?

Bullying and harassment in the workplace includes any inappropriate conduct or comment by a person towards an employee that the person knew, or reasonably ought to have known, would cause that employee to be humiliated, intimidated, offended, or degraded. While bullying shows up in workplaces in varying ways depending upon industry and nature of work, some of the more general examples include:

  • Threats, humiliation, intimidation, being yelled or sworn at, or other verbal abuse
  • Excessive, non-justified performance monitoring and overly harsh or unjust criticism
  • Having work discounted and accomplishments denied; not getting credit for work
  • Being the target of practical jokes, negative gossip, or rumours
  • Being purposely misled about work responsibilities, directions, deadlines

In addition to the above, some increasingly common ways bullying is cited include aggressive email tones (up to 25%) and recent research has shown that it tends to happen more often in virtual meetings than in in-person ones.

Accountability for bullying in the workplace

When bullied, targets don’t typically respond to aggression with aggression because they’re generally non-confrontational in nature – and may have a higher level of integrity (i.e., above that kind of behaviour). Accordingly, many choose not to report it at all for fear of losing their jobs or other forms of retaliation. However, the cost of not addressing it in some way is that the bully can and does continue to act with impunity. According to the WBI, sadly, more than half (60%) of employers rationalize, defend, or discount it, and may even unintentionally encourage bullying behaviour. The inequitable and unethical end result is that the targets quit, are transferred to another department, or even dismissed. Thus, the bullying stops until the bully inevitably finds someone new to target.

With the ever-increasing level of knowledge and experience related to employee rights, as well as the importance employees put on integrity of culture and alignment of values, an organization without an intentional focus in this area runs a significant risk of losing some of their best employees, while retaining unproductive, insecure bullies.

Impact of bullying in the workplace

There are countless ways that bullying and/or harassment can show up and negatively impact not only the target, but also the workplace overall. Depending on the circumstances, the direct impact on the target can range from annoying to life-impacting and downright devastating. Generally speaking, some of the toxic effects of bullying in the workplace include:

  • Decreased morale and engagement
  • Higher absenteeism (from sick days to extended leaves)
  • Increased disability and WCB claims
  • Employee turnover
  • Reduced performance and productivity
  • Reduced efficiency and time lost managing bullying and harassment
  • Impact on customer service, profitability, and reputation
  • Potential WorkSafe claims/fines, and legal costs associated with Human Rights claims and other lawsuits

How can you mitigate bullying in the workplace?

One of the most important places to start to help prevent and mitigate bullying in your workplace is to be clear that it could happen, that it might actually be happening, and it could be right under your nose. Undoubtedly, there are employers who understand this and aren’t concerned, so long as they continue to be productive and profitable – but this is typically the exception. As an employer who genuinely wants to support a safe, engaged, and productive workforce, you can:

  • Immediately address any bullying and/or harassment in your workplace, including anyone you’ve always made exceptions for (e.g., “oh, that’s just the way he is… he’s harmless”)
  • Get clear and intentional on what it means to have a respectful and inclusive workplace and how that aligns with your culture
  • Define with your leadership team how they and their teams are expected to show up in line with your principles of respect and inclusivity
  • Provide training for yourself and your leaders/managers and hold yourself/them accountable
  • Develop a respectful workplace program/policy with associated anti-bullying and harassment principles and procedures
  • Once you feel confident there’s no active, unaddressed bullying and/or harassment, roll out the program/policy to your teams and provide associated training
  • Provide ongoing training, support, and hold people accountable
  • Listen to and check in with your employees regularly  

We can help you address bullying in your workplace, as well as develop programs and training that will give employees confidence that you care and have their backs.