How to Diffuse a Workplace Bully

Workplace Bullying

Workplace-BullyWe 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.

The 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 VITAL WorkLife 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 face-to-face counseling for our members. Contact us online or call 800.383.1908 if you are interested in learning more about VITAL WorkLife 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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Marsha Molinari, MSW, LICSW

Marsha Molinari is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who began her career in Behavioral Health in 1975. She began working in the field as a nurse and went on to get her undergraduate degree in Psychology. Ms. Molinari completed her Master’s Degree in Social Work from College of St. Catherine’s. In 1995, after a twenty year career working in a variety of behavioral health settings, Ms. Molinari began her private practice while still working for Hennepin County Day Treatment Program and Pre admission Screening. In 2000, she took ownership of Changing Lifestyle Counseling Center which was initially an outpatient substance use program with a small behavioral health division. Ms. Molinari assisted in facilitating groups, supervised staff and interns and began building a larger behavioral health component to the program. Eventually, she realized her passion was doing individual and couples therapy, and she began to close the substance use program and became solely invested in her private practice. Ms. Molinari now sees individual and couples for counseling in her private practice in Minnetonka. She has been working with VITAL WorkLife for several years and also provides crisis assessments with a crisis team in a rural area outside of Minneapolis. Ms. Molinari has also established herself with several attorneys, probation officers and outpatient programs as a thorough and reliable assessor for people who have substance abuse issues and/or legal issues related to their substance use. Ms. Molinari believes the therapy process is a joint venture between herself and the client, and every individual has the capacity to change if that is their desire. Her goal is to provide a safe and supportive environment for those who wish to enhance their lives. Marsha Molinari is a consultant with VITAL WorkLife, a national behavioral consulting company with providers in every major city and wide-ranging expertise in every aspect of behavioral health. For over 30 years, we have offered industry leading Employee Assistance Programs, specialized support, training and consulting for a wide variety of industries. We also have deep experience in healthcare, especially assisting physicians and providers in dealing with the challenges facing their profession. This approach of helping employees and their families, while also guiding teams, builds healthy sustainable behaviors and productive organizations.