How to Diffuse a Workplace Bully

Posted on October 18, 2018 by Marsha Molinari, MSW, LICSW

Workplace Bullying

We have all heard stories about workplace bullying, and many have experienced some type of bullying in their lifetime. In a 2017 study from the Workplace Bullying Institute, 60.3 million workers have been affected by bullying.

Workplace-BullyThe Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, sabotages or interferes with work, or verbal abuse. Bullying exists in many forms, such as being singled out or treated differently, being shouted at, or being excessively monitored. Bullying means being persistently and deliberately criticized, nitpicked and micromanaged.

What is the difference between a tough boss and a bully?

Bosses have often been found to be the main reason why individuals choose to leave a position, and 61 percent of identified bullies are bosses. In a study interviewing HR professionals, Teresa A. Daniel, JD, PhD found these differences between a tough boss and a bully.

Managers/leaders who bully:

  • Frequently misuse power and authority
  • Focus on personal self-interest, as opposed to the good of the organization
  • Are prone to emotional outbursts
  • Are often inconsistent and unfair in their treatment of employees

In contrast, “tough bosses” might exhibit these characteristics:

  • Objective, fair and professional
  • Self-controlled and unemotional
  • Performance-focused
  • Organizationally oriented – consistently operating to achieve the best interest of their company

How to diffuse the workplace bully

Workplace bullying occurs in environments where for a variety of reasons individuals are not held accountable for their actions or the impacts they have on others. Below are six tips for you to take care of yourself and take power away from bullies both inside and outside of the workplace.

  1. Always put your safety first. If you are in an office, don’t allow the bully to sit between you and the door. Consider meeting with them in a public place or “neutral territory” and always have a third person in the room or nearby.
  2. Don’t take bullying personally. It is important to remember if you’re being bullied, it’s not your fault. It isn’t helpful to think that you deserve to be bullied.
  3. Keep your distance and keep your options open. Regardless of who the bully is you should try to keep a healthy distance and avoid engagement unless you absolutely must.
  4. Keep your cool and avoid being reactive. One of the most important things you can do is to keep your cool. The less reactive you are, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the situation. A bully thrives on reactions.
  5. Proactively deal with the problem early on and formalize your communication. Whenever possible, formalize your communication by either putting things in writing, or having a third-party present as a witness. Keep a paper trail of facts, issues, agreements, disagreements and timelines.
  6. Talk about your experience. No matter how difficult the circumstance, seek out trustworthy individuals to confide in, whether they are friends, family, workplace confidants, counselors or operators on a crisis hotline. Bullies like when their targets feel alone and isolated.

Profile of a Workplace Bully Target

Bullies like to target people who, in some way, pose a threat to them. Most bullies target workers from a place of jealousy and insecurity. Bullies want to elevate their status by pushing others down or sabotaging their work. Common targets for bullies include:

Those who seem vulnerable: The bully seeks out people who are vulnerable and who are not likely to retaliate, challenge or report them. Bullies focus on coworkers who are:

  • Non-confrontational
  • Passive and submissive
  • Shy, meek or quiet
  • New to the workplace
  • Inexperienced, older, and/or handicapped individuals

Women: A survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 70% of bullies were men with 65% of targets were women. The survey also revealed female bullies were also more likely to target women as well.

Racial minorities: Research findings from the Workplace Bullying Institute survey also show race can have an effect on the experience of workplace bullying. Hispanics report the highest rates of workplace bullying, African-Americans second highest and Asians the lowest.

LGBTQ+: Individuals whose sexual identity is non-heterosexual or whose gender is non-binary are often the targets of discrimination and bullying. Bullying is also perpetuated by the fact that bystanders are less likely to intervene to support LBGTQ+ individuals, due to their own biases.

We Can Help

Bullying is a difficult and complex issue that can affect us at any age and we can help! If your organization has concerns about bullying, we can provide a well being training on the topic of bullying in the workplace. In addition, our robust EAP offers in-the-moment telephonic support and counseling for our members.

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Contact us if you are interested in learning more about our Well Being solutions for organizations.


The Workplace Bullying Institute.

Franklin, Charles. August 2017. How to Create the Bully-Proof Workplace.

Kane, Sally. August 16, 2018. Traits and Characteristics of Workplace Bully Target.

Ni, Preston. November 2016. 8 Ways to Handle Adult Bullies. Psychology Today.

White, Martha C. August 31, 2015. 8 Tips for Coping with an Angry Coworker.

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