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A guide to workplace bullying in 2021 (with statistics)

a man with yellow hair is pointing his finger to a coworker which is considered as a workplace bullying action

Bullying is an all-too-common workplace issue. And if reports are correct, it seems to be on the rise.

Workplace bullying is one of the most damaging issues for any organization, as it can affect employee productivity, financial performance, and brand strength. On top of that, there's no moral justification for letting it happen.

Employees deserve to work in comfortable environments of psychological safety. They should be able to relax, be themselves, and collaborate with others without fear or emotional upset.

Below, we'll explore different types of bullying in the workplace and consider the state of workplace bullying in 2021 and beyond. We'll explain what you can do about it, too - whether you're a victim of bullying yourself, or you're a manager trying to deal with it.

Table of contents
1.
Intimidation
2.
Microaggressions
3.
Sexual harassment
4.
Gossiping
5.
Power plays
6.
Incivility
7.
Exclusion and ostracism
8.
Offensive or degrading jokes
9.
Cyberbullying
10.
Final thoughts

Workplace bullying statistics 2021

  • 1 in 4 UK workers have been bullied at work. The same amount also reported feeling left out in the workplace too.
  • One survey of 3,000 American adults found that workers across the age, gender, and education spectrum experience high levels of hostile behaviors at work.
  • 37% of Australian workers report having been cursed or yelled at in the workplace.
  • 1 in 5 American workers have been subjected to some form of verbal abuse, unwanted sexual attention, threats, or humiliating behavior at work.
  • 1 in 8 American workers have experienced direct verbal abuse or threats.
  • 8% of women aged 25-34 report having had unwanted sexual attention in the workplace during the last month.
  • Men aged 25-34 without a college degree report the highest levels of bullying, with 35% having experienced bullying at least once recently.
  • 1 out of 5 students in the US report being bullied, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
  • Workplace bullying is estimated to cost Australian businesses more than $6bn per year.

Why is it important to deal with workplace bullying?

It's fairly easy to understand why this is important. Bullying is a workplace issue that can have tons of negative impacts on employees, management, company culture, and overall productivity.

If bullying becomes widespread enough, stories can leak out to the public and damage your brand - nobody wants to do business with a company of bullies, and not many people want to work in a place where bullies can get away with it.

Workplace bullying can have mild to severe impacts on victims, including:

  • low morale/loss of motivation
  • inability to concentrate or complete tasks
  • lowered productivity
  • social anxiety and avoiding people
  • anxiety and depression
  • stress, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and other mental health issues
  • reduced confidence and self-esteem
  • sleep problems
  • other consequences of stress like digestive issues and a weakened immune system
  • more frequent absences from work because of the above issues

If it's obvious that one person is a bully, others might alter their behavior to avoid their attention. They might be reluctant to do anything distinctive that makes them stand out, or they could shy away in situations that require collaborative creativity. And even when bullies are dealt with by management, there's a loss of productivity while they have to go through disciplinary procedures, maybe even getting suspended too.

Bullying can cause trust issues within your teams, too; not just directly between the bully and the bullied employee, but across the organization, fostering a culture of secrecy, gossip, and paranoia if left unchecked.

There's also a measurable financial cost to bullying. If staff leave due to being bullied, there are the obvious costs of replacing them and training new staff. But there's also the possibility of dealing with costly legal action if things get to a certain point, too. And higher incidences of sick leave and lower productivity will have a financial impact, as well.

No matter how competitive and high-pressure your work culture is, when positive aggression tips over into harmful bullying, you have to act quickly and decisively to stamp it out.

What are the different types of workplace bullying?

Here are some workplace bullying examples that show you the different ways in which it can manifest.

Intimidation

This is the first thing that comes to mind when most people hear the word 'bully'. Intimidation takes the form of abusive conduct through verbal aggression or an act of violence. It might involve pushing someone up against a wall and yelling their face, but it's more likely to consist of name-calling, insults, aggressive language, or threats.

Microaggressions

A microaggression is a term that's used to describe the casual degradation of an individual through offhand comments or seemingly innocent questions. It's a type of workplace discrimination that's disguised in polite conversation and isn't always intentional, but it certainly can be harmful.

Comments might focus on ethnicity (eg. saying "you speak English very well" to someone who was born in the US with a non-caucasian background), sexuality, gender, social status, physical attributes, and more. Essentially, they subtly imply that the target is different than the rest of the group, which is upsetting, especially if it happens frequently.

Sexual harassment

This can consist of actual physical assault (unwanted touching or exposure), or inappropriate sexual comments directed towards someone. Sexual harassment can take place between coworkers, but it also occurs when there's a power dynamic, which might manifest as unwanted sexual advances from a higher-up.

Times are changing, and people have different views on what's appropriate in the workplace and what isn't. While some teams have a slightly higher tolerance for bawdy jokes and flirtatious comments, there's a thin line between fun and harm.

This form of workplace bullying is a serious issue, with potential legal ramifications and severe consequences. It's crucial for every company to understand what constitutes sexual harassment, and to have a process for dealing with it fairly.

Gossiping

Spreading rumors about someone (whether true or false) is an intentional attempt to undermine someone in the eyes of their colleagues. When someone spreads gossip about you, it means they're trying to both make you look bad, but also ingratiate themselves with others. It creates a noticeable divide in the workplace: damaged relationships are hard to repair, and it's hard to correct a lie once everyone's started to believe it.

Gossiping is a cruel and cowardly form of bullying because it's easy to get away with and hard to trace when you need to find out who started it.

Power plays

Related to intimidation, these are occasional displays of excessive dominance and aggression that go over and above what's expected within your organization's culture.

A bully might make a power play by trying to take credit for someone else's work, or swooping in to take opportunities that should really be given to someone else.

Incivility

This is a wide range of behaviors that include general rudeness, discourteous behavior, talking too loudly, being messy, or having inappropriate conversations.

For example, if someone isn't comfortable with conversations around a certain topic, a bully might deliberately talk about those things within earshot of the targeted person.

Incivility in the workplace isn't always the same as bullying, but it does sometimes overlap. It's also not always targeted specifically at a single person, so you might not define it as bullying, but it can upset people and distract them from their work. So it's worth looking out for and addressing, just like the other types.

Exclusion and ostracism

This tactic means a workplace bully will ignore the person they're targeting while continuing to engage socially with other co-workers at lunchtime, during meetings, and so on.

They might exclude a coworker from gatherings by not inviting them even though they've got just as much a right to attend as anyone else. If questioned about it, they might brush it off as a simple error.

This can also be done as a refusal to cooperate. Giving someone the silent treatment is a particularly childish way to make them feel excluded, but it can also be done in more subtle ways. 'Accidentally' removing someone from the group's casual Slack channel would be one way to do it. Another would be leaving it too late to let them know about an event which needs to be booked, so they aren't able to attend.

These underhand tactics are a cruel and effective way of making people feel outcast.

Offensive or degrading jokes

This includes practical jokes - it's so easy to say "it's just a joke, why are you so upset?"

This also goes for playing practical jokes on someone. While it can be a fun bonding experience for those that are really good friends, it becomes bullying when the recipient of the joke isn't laughing. For a practical joke to be a good one, both parties have to find it funny. Otherwise, it's just mean. Tread carefully with office practical jokes: they have to be very well-calibrated and can easily have pretty terrible consequences.

Cyberbullying

This is worth a mention because it's a potential channel for all the other types of bullying to go through. Essentially, it's bullying done through digital channels, which means a bully might send messages outside of work through social media -something which is harder for their employer to monitor. It could involve direct messages, or spreading someone's private information, or misrepresenting them online to tarnish their reputation.

What should I do if I'm being bullied at work?

The first thing to do if you're wondering how to deal with bullying at work is to tell someone about it.

It's not always easy to do, of course. You might have a more reserved personality type, or you could have had a bad experience in the past when trusting someone with a personal problem.

But talking is almost always your best starting point, whether it's with your line manager, a colleague, a close friend, or a family member. Getting it out of your head means you're under less of a mental burden keeping it a secret, and talking it through will make you feel better. What's more, you might end up getting some great advice on how to deal with the situation.

It's also important to keep records of everything. Bullies can spread their deeds out into multiple small-scale transgressions, which individually, don't seem much. It's hard to complain about little things without feeling a bit silly - which is the reaction they're looking for.

But if you note down details of each occurrence, you can build up a timeline that clearly illustrates a campaign of workplace harassment over time. You can take a report like this to management, presenting irrefutable evidence that you're being victimized. If it's noticeably affecting your job performance, any competent manager will want to intervene straight away.

Another option is to be proactive and confront the bully yourself - fight your corner.

You might think back to a parent telling you to "stand up for yourself" in the school playground when someone was bullying you - it's easier said than done. Or how about "just ignore them" - well-meaning advice that's nigh on impossible to follow when somebody really has it out for you. But if management isn't being especially helpful, it might turn out to be the most effective strategy.

Instead of going in all guns blazing, you could take a less confrontational route.

You could try letting the bully know how their words or actions made you feel. They'll already have a good idea, of course, if their actions are intentional, but by putting it all out there, it might cause a wave of guilt causing them to stop.

Try to figure out why they have a problem with you. Offer to lay it all out on the table, apologize for anything you might have done to upset them, and clear the air. This strategy won't work for every situation and does take a bit of bravery, but it might be the quickest, most effective way to solve your bully problem. You might even end up becoming friends with them.

What are the signs that someone is being bullied at work?

There's a bunch of different bullying at work signs that you should look out for. When coworkers are having problems with a bully, they might be reluctant to bring attention to it. So here are some of the signs to look out for:

  • They're absent from work more often
  • They seem dissatisfied, downbeat, and unmotivated
  • They're not performing so well at their job
  • They make excuses for avoiding work-related social events
  • You hear others gossiping about them

You might see one of these signs on its own, which doesn't necessarily mean they're being bullied. There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation.

But if you start noticing a couple of these signs together, something is probably going wrong for your coworker behind the scenes. Reach out, talk to them, and offer to help.

How do I help a coworker who's getting bullied?

If you do spot some of the signs above, try to talk to your coworker in private - it's not something to bring up in a shared setting like over lunch.

Make sure you focus on their wellbeing, rather than blaming them or being accusatory. So instead of saying something like "I noticed your performance dropping recently, is there a reason?" - which will put them on the defensive - be compassionate. Say that you noticed them being a little bit withdrawn and you wanted to see if there was any way you could help.

It might take a bit of time for them to open up, but be patient.

If you think you know who the culprit might be, try something like "Are you having trouble with [person]?" Don't dig too deep, but give them the opportunity to share as much or as little as they're comfortable with.

It's important to support your coworkers, too. Stand up for them if you're a witness to them being bullied, and offer to accompany them to adjudication meetings so they don't have to face them alone.

What should I do if my boss is bullying me?

There is a possibility that the person you report into is a bully - it's not entirely uncommon for people in leadership positions. They might continually question your commitment, overload you with unnecessary work, or question you inappropriately about your private life. This is a tricky one to deal with, and you'll have to be careful what you say to keep the peace in your work environment. But some general strategies can help:

  • Continue to document everything. If you need to take further action, you'll need as much supporting evidence as possible.
  • Set boundaries. If you're uncomfortable being questioned about your private life, be polite but firm, and say you'd rather keep things professional.
  • Be professional. If you've got a boss who's prone to emotional outbursts, maintain your poker face and don't let them rile you up. They might have the authority to behave badly, but you probably don't - it'll just get you in trouble.
  • Consult a legal professional outside of the company for more advice. If your manager targets you because of your ethnicity, gender, physical ability, or sexual orientation, this is considered unlawful discrimination and you might have a legal basis for taking action.
  • Start looking elsewhere. Life's too short to have your career held back by a boss being a jerk. It's not always easy, but the best solution might be to find another job somewhere that you're appreciated.

How can managers address bullying in the workplace?

If you're a manager, it's your responsibility to address workplace bullying. Here's how you should do it:

  • Address it quickly, fairly, and professionally. This means not exacerbating the situation by being overly critical of either party; instead, you want to take a measured approach, and follow the official steps for disciplinary action You can't always stop workplace bullying overnight, but by letting someone know that you're aware of what's going on, it might make them think twice next time.
  • Don't forgive high performers. You might find the culprit to be an otherwise effective worker. They might be a brilliant strategist who's arrogant and aggressive towards others. Based on the results they achieve, you might not want to confront them or risk losing them. But the downstream effects of their bullying behavior can cost you way more in the long run.
  • Take bullying claims seriously. It doesn't matter if the bullied worker tends towards the dramatic sometimes, or if you know the perpetrator means well with their jokes. If someone reports that they're being bullied, they need to be listened to, and it needs to go through a proper investigation procedure.
  • Have a proper anti bullying policy in place. This will ensure that everyone knows what workplace bullying is, how they can report it, and what the potential consequences are.

Final thoughts

What kind of workplace culture are you trying to build? Are you comfortable being a leader within a hostile work environment?

Bullying and harassment in the workplace is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Certain social movements from the 2010s onwards have given more people the confidence to speak up when they witness injustice in their organization, but there's still a long way to go.

Tackling bullying takes a combined effort from coworkers and management. Workers need to be supported both with the presence of official procedures and the confidence that their complaints will be taken seriously.

If workplace bullying goes unchecked, the negative effects on employees, management, and the public reputation of the company can be enormous - so it's something to deal with swiftly and judiciously.

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