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Once & For All: Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work

Telltale Signs of a Workplace Bully

What is a workplace bully? Perhaps you’ve been the victim of bullying in the workplace, or maybe you suspect you’ve been targeted by a bully but you’re not quite sure what workplace bullying is. Many scholars have sought to define workplace bullying over the years, but a clear-cut definition has not been accepted to date. Workplace bullying is difficult to define because it comprises many types of repetitive behavior.

The problem of terminology: Many workers have never heard of workplace bullying, even if they have experienced it themselves. Unlike sexual harassment, which has already established itself as socially unacceptable and is illegal in the workplace, workplace bullying is not illegal and is not directly addressed in many companies’ policies. Employers need to start talking about workplace bullying and familiarize their workers with the terminology in order to begin addressing or preventing bullying behavior. Bullying is a form of abuse, and in this respect, it is illegal.

Aggression and Abuse

Whether it happens on the playground or at work, bullying is a form of aggression and abuse. Workplace bullying happens when a person or group acts physically or verbally aggressive toward a coworker or subordinate. Bullying may include insults, humiliation, threats, physical abuse, spatial invasion, hazing, or any other form of intimidation or aggression that is performed with malintent.

Proving a person’s malintent is often impossible, but sometimes it helps to understand why bullies do what they do. Bullies may bully for many reasons.

  • A bully may seek to cause a coworker to fail in order to make themselves look better or be more likely to receive praise or a promotion.
  • A superior who feels threatened by a subordinate’s job performance may use bullying as a tactic to make them feel threatened in return.
  • A bully may be taking their own stresses and frustrations—whether from home, work, or otherwise—out on their coworkers.
  • A bully may simply be prone to aggression or have unresolved anger issues.

While it is often very difficult to determine what motivates a bully’s behavior, aggression targeted at a coworker is never acceptable for any reason.

Here are some typical bullying behaviors that may be a sign that you’ve been a victim of bullying in the workplace.

Sign #1: Repetition

Bullying is different from one-time incidents and normal workplace stress. Bullying is a persistent, repetitive behavior, except in certain extreme cases of aggression. But this does not mean that if a coworker has acted aggressively toward you only once that you have not been bullied. If bullying is not curbed immediately at the time of bullying, the bully will strike again sooner or later. Repetition is the first telltale sign of a bully.

Sign #2: Singling out a target.


A bully may single out a specific target or may bully more than one coworker, but bullies who act aggressively toward a majority of coworkers don’t usually get very far because groups have power in numbers. That’s why a bully is more likely to target an individual than multiple people or a group. In some cases, however, a supervisor, manager, or boss may use bullying tactics regularly against some or all employees.

There are a number of ways a bully can single-out a person as the recipient of their aggressive or abusive behavior. Some of these tactics include criticizing the target person in front of a group, praising all other team members except the target person, physically isolating the target person, and attempting to turn others against the target person.


Sign #3: Intimidation


Ultimately, a bully is trying to intimidate his target, regardless of his reasons and motivations. Intimidation tactics take many forms, but can be any action that results in making the target feel intimidated. Constant criticism, name calling, and direct threats will certainly make a person feel intimidated, but don’t discount more subtle behaviors such as intentionally failing to forward an email or provide a coworker with information necessary to perform his job as forms of intimidation too.

Sign #4: Criticism


Criticism is an easy way to intimidate a person. Constructive criticism is necessary in the workplace, but criticism that’s delivered with the intention of making a person feel threatened and intimidated is uncalled for. Sometimes people are very defensive by nature and don’t take criticism well, but criticism as a form of bullying is distinguishable by two characteristics: it is either repetitive or constant and it is seldom or never counterbalanced with praise and approval.

Sign #5: Threats


Bullying certainly makes the target feel threatened and that’s exactly what the bully wants, but sometimes a bully will resort to direct threats to get their point across. For example, a manager might threaten to demote or withhold pay from a subordinate if they don’t meet an impossible deadline or perform some other impractical request. Direct threats can be very intimidating, but they can also be the easiest type of bullying to identify and document. A bully may use any number of direct threats against their target to make them feel intimidated.

Chances are, if you’ve been bullied in the workplace you know it already. It’s important to address the issue in a professional manner, whether that is confronting the bully in a private area to let them know their behavior is unacceptable, or letting someone else in your company know like the HR department or your boss. The most important reminder: a bully can only continue their behavior if you let them.

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