What workplace bullying is

The basics

“[Workplace bullying is] the unwanted, unwelcome abuse of any source of power that has the effect of or intent to intimidate, control or otherwise strip a target of their right to esteem, growth, dignity, voice or other human rights in the workplace.”  
National Workplace Bullying Coalition President Jerry Carbo, Esq.

Proposed definition for anti-bullying legislation:

“Abusive conduct” means conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace that a reasonable person would find hostile. Abusive conduct includes, but is not limited to: verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance; attempts to exploit an employee’s known psychological or physical vulnerability; or repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets. The determination of whether abusive conduct is present shall include the severity, nature and frequency of the conduct, and, where applicable, the continuation of the conduct after the employee requests that it cease or demonstrates outward signs of emotional or physical distress in the face of the conduct. A single act shall not constitute abusive conduct unless it is especially severe. Conduct shall not be regarded as abusive conduct if an employer provides clear and convincing proof that the conduct is necessary for the furtherance of the employer’s legitimate and lawful business interest.

Is there someone at your workplace who makes you feel anxious, frustrated, or angry?

Does that person constantly belittle you, your ideas, or your work?

Does that person only focus on your shortcomings or weaknesses?

Do you spend your workday walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting that person?

What do you do when your boss has outbursts at meetings?

What do you do when your boss humiliates you in front of your co-workers?

What do you do when your boss makes an unreasonable request that requires you to work long hours, and no matter how hard you work or how fast you work, you never even come close to getting everything done?

You’ve seen it in the workplace: the boss who shouts at staffers and scolds them at every turn. Or the co-worker who badmouths you and turns everyone against you.

Your boss or co-worker may have two very different sides: one moment, he or she could be the picture of professionalism. He or she might lead a team or a company and garner success. But at the same time, he or she is controlling, mean, manipulative, or even violent. It might even reach the point where you dread coming into work each day and become physically ill from the stress.

You might remember bullying from childhood. Remember the biggest kid on the playground who wanted to play with a ball, so he just took it from a smaller kid? Or maybe you can recall the cool kids in school who would ignore you and never let you be part of their group? Today, adolescence might feel like ancient history. It might be years since you’ve graduated school and witnessed someone get pushed in the hallway or be given the silent treatment.

While we would hope bullying would end in childhood, the reality is that bullying in the workplace is more common than many of us realize.

Bullying can, and does, continue into adulthood

In the workplace, bullying often involves a person in power, such as a manager or supervisor, taking advantage of a less powerful employee (though it can also involve a co-worker). By definition, bullying is an abuse of power by someone who is stronger — physically, verbally, mentally, socially, electronically, politically, or financially — towards someone who can’t defend themselves against the bully’s games or cruel behaviors. Most bullying involves isolating and putting the victim down and can involve many different forms.

Abuse of power is too often a symptom of implicit bias — a problem discrimination law stopped helping since the 1980s when courts moved from focusing on impact to intent. Intent is a high threshold that makes the law mostly ineffective at addressing bias and disrupting hierarchies at work that create haves and have-nots when those in power “other” people.

The examples are not exhaustive. Bullies are creative and constantly come up with new ways to torment their targets. The lists here are forms of bullying that have been consistently identified in the literature and research on workplace bullying.  

Interpersonal or relationship behaviors

The abuse may take the form of public ridicule, disrespect, overwork, and overcontrol, including (but not limited to):

  • Teasing, sarcasm, name-calling, slandering, and ridiculing a person
  • Put-downs and insults
  • Getting in someone’s personal space
  • Sending nasty emails
  • Angry outbursts, such as screaming or swearing
  • Persistent abusive phone calls, voicemails, emails, or postings to or about another person
  • Excessive criticism, reprimands, and repeated reminders of errors or mistakes
  • Hints or signals from others that someone should quit his or her job without cause
  • Destructive gossip, rumors, or innuendo
  • Offensive jokes or inappropriate statements
  • Making up accusations against an employee
  • Unfairly denying personal leave or job training
  • Intimidating behavior such as finger-pointing, physical pushing, shoving, slamming doors, or throwing things
  • Non-verbal threatening gestures
Organizational or task-related behaviors

Furthermore, abuse doesn’t have to be obvious and belligerent; in fact, it can be quite subtle. Just as destructive as overt bullying behavior is the intentional sabotage of another’s work, including (but not limited to):

  • Assigning impossible deadlines and giving unreasonable workloads
  • Micromanaging and unnecessarily controlling an employee’s work
  • Having key areas of responsibility removed or replaced with more trivial or unpleasant tasks
  • Undermining an employee’s reputation behind his or her back
  • Unrealistic work demands
  • Removing tasks crucial for one’s job with no explanation
  • Purposely giving inconsistent instructions
  • Changing hours or schedules to make life more difficult
  • Deliberately withholding information needed to be effective at work
  • Blowing off accomplishments
  • Excluding an employee from important emails, meetings, or social functions
  • Pressuring others to not take advantage of benefits to which they are entitled
  • Taking credit for others’ work
  • Engaging in office politics in a manner that is hurtful, manipulative, and unethical
  • Going into personal belongings and supplies
  • Giving bogus performance reviews to convince the target he or she is a problem


Management often joins in to avoid liability:

  • Collusion to ignore valid complaints including bogus complaint processes
  • Covert campaign of harassment to ice out employees

Bullying can be repetitive or one-off events.

Why workplace bullying is a problem

Workplace bullying is a severe and pervasive phenomenon in the US involving a violation of the basic human right to dignity. Bullying tactics can result in a host of stress-related symptoms including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicide ideation.

Simply put, workplace bullying is killing people. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in September 2015 revealed that bullied targets are “twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who were never bullied” — and it can happen to any of us. We abandon hope over time when bullies ruin our image. Abandonment by coworkers who don’t want to become the next target can lead to loneliness and despair. This response from abuse that won’t let up is part of the natural human stress response. Luckily, stopping it can lead to recovery and healing of the brain.

Here’s who workplace bullying impacts:

  • Anywhere from 30-90% of US workers as either targets or bystanders. Targets suffer mental, emotional, and physical health harm. There’s also a ripple effect on witnesses and families. But here’s what’s worse: targets of workplace bullying are often women, Black workers, Latinx workers, workers over 40, workers in the LGBTQ community, and workers with disabilities. When discrimination law moved from a focus on impact to intent in the 1980s, the law became much less effective in dismantling the social hierarchies at work that keep white men in the vast majority of power positions in the US workforce, according to University of Chicago researchers in a 2017 study. Right now, we simply don’t have adequate protections from bias that manifests itself in abuse of power that prevents women, Black workers, Latinx workers, workers over 40, workers in the LGBTQ community, and workers with disabilities from getting ahead. This bill would give more protections to all workers, especially those who suffer from legal discrimination (the kind they can’t prove).
  • Organizations. Workplace bullying costs employers billions of dollars annually in lower productivity and morale, increased absenteeism and turnover, training costs, and higher employee benefits costs. To avoid liability, higher-ups most often ignore complaints or retaliate, including pushing targets out of their jobs. Yet managers who get rid of bullies benefit financially. One study shows that “companies who focus on effective internal functioning and communication enjoy a 57 percent higher total return, are more than 4.5 times more likely to have highly engaged employees, and are 20 percent more likely to report reduced turnover when compared to competitors who demonstrate ineffective communication practices” (Civility Partners LLC, 2009).
  • Society. When employers ignore employee well-being internally and push targets out, they externalize health care and basic needs costs onto taxpayers. Abused targets who leave unhealthy work environments are frequently uninsured. When they get sick, they turn to ERs for care, where delivering primary care is not cost efficient. By the time they get there, their health has already deteriorated to a point where treatment expenses are far greater than earlier intervention would have been. This bill would incentivize employers to address employee well-being internally and not make it a public problem.

It’s not a target problem. Research shows there’s ZERO evidence to support targets brought on the abuse through weakness. In fact, evidence shows the opposite. Targets are often high performing, highly ethical employees whose competence poses a threat to their low performing, low ethical bosses. The bully’s motivation is to keep the upper hand — an ego-driven control move that’s about abuse of power. Bullied are often deceptive managers who trick others into thinking the target is the problem, setting the stage for mobbing.

Prevention is both less expensive and more effective than remediation. Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says US employers causing workplace stress may be responsible for “120,000 excess deaths per year,” which would make workplaces “the fifth leading cause of death,” and account for about “$180 billion in additional healthcare costs.” About “half of the deaths and 1/3 of the excess costs could be prevented,” meaning they resulted from not tending to well-being.

We have environmental regulations to limit environmental risks, but we don’t mention the human impact of abuse. We don’t leave environmental pollution to the discretion of CEOs. So why do we leave employee health up to CEOs — when CEOs too often lead in ways that serve neither the employees nor the public nor themselves when you include the hidden costs of turnover and absenteeism?​
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