Confronting Workplace Bullying: What Every Manager Should Know

Posted on December 30, 2012 by VITAL WorkLife

In a 2012 survey of more than 400 randomly selected member organizations of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), slightly more than half (51%) reported incidents of bullying in their workplace—and 18% reported an increase in the frequency of bullying over the last two years.

Defined for that survey as: "persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behavior or unfair actions directed at another individual, causing the recipient to feel threatened, abused, humiliated or vulnerable," bullying is becoming an increasing source of concern.

While sexual harassment and discrimination based on sex, race and physical disability are clearly illegal, workplace bullying is not yet illegal in many states.

That doesn't mean bullies can bully with impunity. Under current law, employees enjoy protection from hostile work environments and intentional infliction of emotional distress—and organizations or managers who don't take action when made aware of workplace bullying can be held liable.

Researchers at DePaul University analyzed 45 random court cases from 2010 where workplace bullying had played a role and found that:

  • Nearly three-fourths (73.3%) of the cases involved persistent, repeated negative acts toward one or more individuals.
  • Manager- and supervisor-level employees were the perpetrator in more than half (55.6%) of the cases.
  • In nearly four out of ten (37.8%) of the cases, there was no employer response.

Though employers prevailed as defendants in 73.3% of those cases, juries have awarded staggering amounts in cases where workplace bullying has been proven:

  • Earlier this year, a Kansas City woman who converted from Christianity to Islam was awarded $5 million in punitive damages by a jury who found the telecommunications giant AT&T created a "hostile work environment" after her conversion.
  • In 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a $325,000 verdict against a cardiovascular surgeon, noting that workplace bullying could "be considered a form of intentional infliction of emotional distress."

Harassment vs Bullying: Do You Know the Difference?

The definitions of harassment and workplace bullying vary—but there are lots of similarities. Here are the essential differences between harassment and workplace bullying:


Workplace Bullying

Has a strong physical component, e.g., contact and touch in all its forms, intrusion into personal space and possessions, damage to possessions including a person's work, etc. Almost exclusively psychological (e.g., criticism), may become physical later, especially with male bullies, but almost never with female bullies
Tends to focus on the individual because of what they are (e.g., female, black, disabled, etc.) Anyone will do, especially if they are competent, popular and vulnerable
Usually linked to sex, race, prejudice, discrimination, etc Although bullies are deeply prejudiced, sex, race and gender play little part; it's usually discrimination on the basis of competence
Harassment may consist of a single incident, a few incidents or many incidents Bullying is rarely a single incident and tends to be an accumulation of many small incidents, each of which, when take in isolation and out of context, may seem trivial
The person who is being harassed knows almost straight away they are being harassed The person being bullied may not realize they are being bullied for weeks or months—until there's a moment of enlightenment
Everyone can recognize harassment, especially if there's an assault, indecent assault or sexual assault Few people recognize bullying—at least, initially
Harassment often reveals itself through use of recognized offensive vocabulary Workplace bullying tends to fixate on trivial criticisms and false allegations of underperformance; offensive words rarely appear, although swear words may be used when there are no witnesses
There's often an element of possession, much like as in stalking Phase 1 of bullying is control and subjugation; when this fails, phase 2 is elimination of the target
The harassment almost always has a strong, clear focus (sex, race, disability) The focus is on competence (envy) and popularity (jealousy)
Often the harassment is for peer approval, bravado, macho image, etc. Tends to be secret, behind closed doors with no witnesses
Harassment takes place both in and out of work The bullying takes place mostly at work
Harassers often perceive their targets as easy, albeit sometimes a challenge The target is seen as a threat who must first be controlled and subjugated, and if that doesn't work, eliminated
Harassment is often domination for superiority Bullying is for control of threat (of exposure of the bully's own inadequacy)
The harasser often lacks self-discipline The bully is driven by envy (of abilities) and jealousy (of relationships)
The harasser often has specific inadequacies (e.g., sexual) The bully is inadequate in all areas of interpersonal and behavioral skills


Bullying Statistics by Gender

While both men and women bully, 58% of all bullies are women and 80% of the people being bullied are women.

  • Female bullies tend to use covert techniques, such as spreading rumors, providing conflicting instructions, making negative statements to others and being emotionally intrusive.
  • Male bullies tend to use more overt strategies, such as yelling, public criticism, mocking and direct disparagement.

Bullying Statistics by Rank

According to the SHRM study, the vast majority of reported bullying is "horizontal," with an employee bullying another employee at the same or a similar level. Within the organizations that reported bullying:

  • 82% of the bullying was peers being bullied by peers
  • 56% was employees being bullied by supervisors
  • 37% was supervisors being bullied by employees

"The problem of supervisors being bullied by employees doesn't get a lot of attention," says Deb Wood, senior EAP consultant for VITAL WorkLife. "Many managers are reluctant to admit they've been unable to correct the situation on their own or that it took them a while to recognize what was going on."

Bullying That Gets Willfully Ignored

Outrageous behavior by top-performing surgeons, lawyers and sales people is often minimized or ignored—because no organization wants to cook its golden goose. In many instances, victims of bullying who make complaints are themselves blamed, told "to grow a thicker skin," transferred or let go.

Senior managers are also willing to give managers the benefit of the doubt in instances where the manager insists that the employee complaining about him or her is a performance issue or someone who can't accept constructive criticism.

"One way to tell the difference between a tough boss and a bully is to look at how he or she handles performance issues," notes Wood. "Does the manager give objective feedback, provide clear expectations in writing and identify available support, training and resources? Or, does the manager simply assign blame and assassinate the employee's character?"

Organizational Cost of Bullying

How does bullying affect organizations? According the SHRM study, the most common outcomes experienced were:

  • Decreased morale (68%)
  • Complaints about increased stress and/or depression levels (48%)
  • Complaints about decreased trust among coworkers (45%)
  • Decreased productivity (42%)
  • Increased turnover (38%)
  • Complaints about decreased trust in management (37%)
  • Increased absenteeism (23%)

"When a manager starts seeing increased use of sick time, high staff turnover or low morale, bullying may be playing a role," says Wood. "If a manager hears anything or sees anything, it's probably worth investigating. If bullying is occurring, early intervention is essential."

Organizational & Managerial Steps for Confronting Bullying

Organizations should have a stated company policy in regard to mutual respect, expectations of civil behavior and a zero acceptance policy on bullying. Ideally, senior management will model that behavior for the rest of the organization and provide regular training about incivility and bullying for both administrators and staff members.

As a manager or supervisor, you should:

  • Speak up when you observe bullying behaviors. Saying, "That's not acceptable," the first time you see a bullying behavior happen may prevent a problem from escalating.
  • Respond promptly when complaints are made.
  • Investigate in a neutral and impartial manner.
  • Make the bully accountable for changes in behavior.
  • Provide resources and coaching for the target of bullying.

Confronting a Workplace Bully: We Can Help

Confidential counseling, coaching and support are free to you as part of your EAP benefit. If you aren't sure how to confront a workplace bully, don't hesitate to call 800.383.1908 and ask to speak to an EAP counselor. Click here to learn more about manager/supervisor consultations!

"As a manager, you may be just as intimidated by the bully his or her co-workers are, but it's up to you to take the lead," explains Wood. "Most bullies won't stop bullying until they're held accountable for their behavior. We can talk you through the process every step of the way."

This free, unlimited telephone consultation—available 24/7—is not just for you but also for every member of your family as well as your employees and their families. Your benefit also includes free face-to-face counseling with master's- and doctorate-level professionals. All you have to do is ask.

Helpful Online Resources

Your Member Website offers helpful tools and information designed to help managers and supervisors deal with problem employees, including:

  • Cost of Workplace Incivility Can Be A Rude Awakening
  • Challenging a Resistant Employee
  • Difficult Employees
  • Surviving Office Politics
  • Anticipating Conflicts Likely To Arise in The Workplace
  1. To find these articles, go to, click on member login and enter your user name and password.
  2. On the page that comes up, in the left hand column, click on the "Your Work & Life Resources" button.
  3. In the shaded area at the top of the screen, click on the pull down menu that says "Working," pull down to "Effective Manager" and explore the articles in the categories "Leadership Skills" and "Dealing with Difficult Employees."

Pathways to Well Being Call VITAL WorkLife at 800.383.1908 or access resources through your VITAL WorkLife App. 

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