Sexism is Alive and Well in the Workplace
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Identifying the Signs of Workplace and Corporate Bullying

What you can do about Bullying in the Workplace

If have blogged many times before including what is and what is not workplace bullying. In this blog I revisit the issue and focus on what employees and employers can do to educate employees about bullying and develop effective programs to reduce or eliminate bullying incidents.

Workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which is intended to intimidate and creates a risk to the health and safety of the employee(s). Workplace bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying includes behavior that intimidates, degrades, offends, or humiliates a worker, often in front of others. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness in the target and undermines an individual’s right to dignity at work. Workplace Bullying has been explored in many arenas including Forbes online, a publication that oftentimes creates a level of awareness that helps to understand why and how bullying occurs and what can be done about it.

One study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that a quarter of the 516 private and public companies studied reported some occurrence of bullying in the preceding year.

Examples of bullying include:

  • Unwarranted or invalid criticism.
  • Blame without factual justification.
  • Being treated differently than the rest of your work group.
  • Being sworn at.
  • Exclusion or social isolation.
  • Being shouted at or being humiliated.
  • Being the target of practical jokes.
  • Excessive monitoring

According to David Maxfield, coauthor of the book Crucial Conversations and Influencer, 96% of American employees experience bullying in the workplace, and the nature of that bullying is changing. In a recent study, researchers looked at the responses of 2,283 people, and the results surprised even Maxfield: “96% of respondents say they have experienced workplace bullying.” “89% of those bullies have been at it for more than a year.” “54% have been bullying for more than five years.” “80% of bullies affect five or more people.” One of the statistics that was most shocking to Maxfield was the multiple forms bullying took.

The study looked at three categories: sabotaging of others’ work or reputations; browbeating, threats, or intimidation; and physical intimidation or assault. The study makes clear that certain types of bullying can persist for years in some workplaces. The findings suggest that, particularly with passive-aggressive bullying, many industries are so conducive to the behavior that a bully might actually enjoy increased job security as a result of it.

If you believe you have been the target of a bully, you’re not the only one. Roughly one-fourth of employed Americans have reported bullying at work. That’s over 30 million people. Unfortunately, most targets of bullying lack the knowledge and skills to effectively respond. Either they don’t understand the cause of their problems, or they don’t realize that it’s possible to fight back. That's over 30 million easy targets. No wonder that bullies act with such smug confidence in their ability to dominate others.

Corporate/institutional bullying occurs when bullying is entrenched in an organization and becomes accepted as part of the workplace culture. It can manifest itself in a variety of ways including:

  • Placing unreasonable expectations on employees, where failure to meet those expectations means making life unpleasant (or dismissing) anyone who objects.
  • Dismissing employees suffering from stress as “weak” while completely ignoring or denying potential work-related causes of the stress. And/or
  • Encouraging employees to fabricate complaints about colleagues with promises of promotion or threats of discipline.

Signs of corporate and institutional bullying include:

  • Failure to meet organizational goals.
  • Increased frequencies of grievances, resignations, and requests for transfers.
  • Increased absence due to sickness.
  • Increased disciplinary actions.

If you are aware of bullying in the workplace and do not take action, then you are accepting a share of the responsibility for any future abuses. This means that witnesses of bullying behavior should be encouraged to report any such incidences. Individuals are less likely to engage in antisocial behavior when it is understood that the organization does not tolerate such behavior and that the perpetrator is likely to be punished.

If you are the target of bullying, here is what you can do about it:


Regain control by:

  • Recognizing that you are being bullied
  • Realizing that you are not the source of the problem
  • Recognizing that bullying is about control, and therefore has nothing to do with your performance.

Take action by:

  • Keeping a diary detailing the nature of the bullying (e.g., dates, times, places, what was said or done and who was present)
  • Obtaining copies of harassing / bullying paper trails; hold onto copies of documents that contradict the bully’s accusations against you (e.g., time sheets, audit reports, etc.)


  • Create a zero tolerance anti-bullying policy. This policy should be part of the wider commitment to a safe and healthful working environment and should involve the appropriate Human Resources representative.
  • When witnessed or reported, the bullying behavior should be addressed immediately
  • If bullying is entrenched in the organization, complaints need to be taken seriously and investigated promptly. Reassignment of those involved may be necessary (with an “innocent until proven guilty” approach).
  • Structure the work environment to incorporate a sense of autonomy, individual challenge/mastery, and clarity of task expectations for employees – Include employees in decision-making processes.
  • Hold sensitivity programs to identify the signs of bullying and encourage reporting.
  • Ensure management has an active part in the staff they supervise, rather than being far removed from them.
  • Encourage open door policies.
  • Investigate the extent and nature of the problem. Conduct attitude surveys.
  • Improve management’s ability and sensitivity towards dealing with and responding to conflicts.
  • Establish an independent contact for employees (e.g., HR contact). And
  • Have a demonstrated commitment “from the top” about what is and is not acceptable behavior.

According to the American Psychological Association, severe bullying can lead to depression, anxiety and a variety of other health issues. Not only does it force out a perfectly good employee who is the victim, but it can harm the company’s bottom line because other people see it and it destroys their motivation to work in a place where they treat each other like that.

When confronted with a bully, the Workplace Bullying Institute suggests that the most effective action an employee can take is to make an unemotional pitch to the highest level supervisor he or she can. I agree someone who feels bullied must speak up whether while an employee of a company or after deciding to leave the organization. Workers that have been bullied have an ethical obligation to report it so that the company has an opportunity to take corrective action. Moreover, reporting may save others from the degrading nature of being bullied in the workplace.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 17, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Professor Mintz also blogs at: