Signs of bullying in the workplace and how to stop it

A quick summary:

  • What is bullying in the workplace?
  • How to prevent workplace bullying
  • Is bullying illegal?
  • How to deal with a bully at work
  • Signs of workplace bullying
  • Final note on bullying in the workplace

Bullying in the workplace is a horrible experience. It can leave employees feeling miserable and resenting their time at work. Nobody deserves to be a victim of workplace bullying, which is why we’re writing this post. 

Sometimes, without formal training, it can be hard to deal with a bully at work or any form of conflict. That’s because it isn’t as straightforward as simply punishing a bully. Leaders need to go a level deeper and understand how they have let their company develop a culture of bullying and harassment. 

Through our ultimate guide, we’re diving into key learnings when it comes to workplace bullying. We want to give you all the tools and knowledge you need to identify, prevent and stamp out bullying in the workplace. 

A male employee working at a desk with his hands on his head looking angry
What is workplace bullying?

What is workplace bullying?

Let’s start with a simple definition — what is workplace bullying? According to the Gov website, bullying is described as behaviour that “makes people feel intimidated or offended”. As with discrimination in the workplace, bullying is similar in that it makes others feel unwanted, or as though they are treated differently.

Workplace bullying comes in various forms, but most noticeably in the shape of rumours, unequal treatment, regularly picking on a certain person or denying opportunities to progress employees. 

It’s not always clear why bullying takes place, but it could be due to jealousy, a disagreement that’s happened or a general dislike for someone at work. Unfortunately, poor workplace culture will fail to minimise bullying from becoming a problem, eventually damaging the social wellbeing of your employees.

Think about it, if leaders don’t create a culture that brings people together, the chances are, teams will fall apart and people won’t collaborate with one another effectively. We’re now encroaching on our next discussion point; how to prevent workplace bullying — let’s dive right in. 

How to prevent workplace bullying

Preventing workplace bullying is something leadership teams should actively do. Not because it’s an existing problem, but because it can become one in just about any workplace. Thinking that it is not possible in your workplace is the first mistake. 

Ultimately, your workplace culture dictates the likeliness of workplace bullying. If treating others with disrespect, being rude and having a generally bad attitude towards one another is acceptable, then bullying in the workplace will occur. 

While we will go into the various ways to deal with a bully at work and the signs of workplace bullying when preventing it, it’s important we dig into the company culture. If leaders can create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable and can communicate with each other, colleague relationships can flourish. 

It’s through your encouragement to bond great working relationships that bullying in the workplace can be prevented. What strategies do you have in place to bring people together?

Is workplace bullying illegal?

Strictly speaking, workplace bullying isn’t legal, but that doesn’t make it alright. While the Gov website says “bullying isn’t against the law” it does go on to describe how harassment is an unlawful act — one protected by the Equality Act 2010

This is when bullying, such as unfair treatment, occurs to any of the protected characteristics within the act mentioned above. This includes age, disability, sex, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity.  

When bullying and harassment takes place against protected characteristics, it does become illegal. Generally speaking, leaders should take any form of harassment and bullying in the workplace very seriously, whether it be illegal or not.

Leadership teams should make their best judgement when dealing with harassment  and bullying in the workplace. This means hearing both sides of the story and understanding what went wrong between two colleagues. 

Four employees looking at one laptop
How to deal with a bully at work

How to deal with a bully at work

Now that we’ve looked at what workplace bullying is, including how to prevent it and whether it’s legal or not, let’s look at how to deal with workplace bullies. The techniques laid out below should help you, as a leader, to combat workplace bullying. 

Similar read: How to encourage work-life balance for employees

Speak up against bullying and harassment

To begin with, it’s recommended that leadership teams speak openly and against bullying in the workplace. This links back to the idea of creating a healthier, happier culture. Leaders must lead by example. Talking openly about workplace bullying (and the problems it can create) can dissuade bullying in the workplace.

People learn from people, and that applies to the right and wrongs of life — be it in our personal lives or professional ones. When leaders step up and remind their workforce that workplace bullying isn’t acceptable, employees will learn. 

Sometimes, we all need the help of others to become the best version of ourselves. It may hurt to hear the truth, but it is especially important if we are making others feel unhappy. It’s about becoming comfortable with uncomfortable conversations as a leader. 

Speak with employees who appear to cross the mark between a joke and being rude or even bullying. While many may see their behaviour or attitude as humour, it could offend the wider team – this is exactly where speaking up against bullying in the workplace can help.

Make sure disciplinary procedures are known

Most workplaces have procedures and other reading materials that outline the workings of the business; think employee benefits booklets and health and safety information. When it comes to bullying and harassment, leaders should ensure employees have all the necessary information on disciplinary procedures.

When employees have access to this information, they should be held responsible and accountable. Going back to our previous point, some employees need to be educated or informed on what’s right and wrong, and it’s with written procedures that employers can prevent bullying in the workplace. 

It shows not only that it is unacceptable, but that it will be met with discipline. This is one of the best ways to deal with workplace bullying. Procedures are put in place to prevent things from happening or getting worse. 

Although your company might not necessarily need them right now for workplace bullying, it will help prevent bullying and make it easier to deal with, as everyone will be singing from the same hymn sheet.


Similar read: How to tackle loneliness at work for employees

Document all bullying and harassment behaviour

Finally, let’s discuss the importance of documenting bullying in the workplace. While we have touched on this point above, it’s important to elaborate on it. Whether you’re a manager or not, documenting unacceptable behaviour like workplace bullying makes it much easier to deal with. 

Without formal documentation, leadership teams may not take allegations seriously. However, if bullying in the workplace is documented, including times, dates and specific details, it can be fought against much more effectively.

We recommend that leadership teams encourage their employees to document anything out of the ordinary that is bothering them. Then, during one-to-one meetings, employees can address these concerns.

Bullying in the workplace with an employee looking worried as others point at him
Signs of bullying at work

Signs of bullying at work

Now that we’ve discussed a few ways leaders can deal with a bully at work, it’s time to look at some of the signs of bullying in the workplace. These signs mentioned below are what leaders should look out for on a regular basis. 

Some may go unnoticed, especially if you aren’t aware. Make an active effort to assess your workforce by these signs. It will help you stamp out bullying in the workplace before it becomes an issue.

Your retention rate starts to slip

It’s no secret that when employees are unhappy, they leave. Well, bullying in the workplace can drive employees to reconsider their job. You might have guessed it, but people generally won’t stick around in a job where they are bullied or harassed. 

However, it isn’t just employee wellbeing that is impacted, it’s also your company’s overall retention. Think about it, by letting workplace bullying occur, you are negatively affecting your retention rate. 

The more people leave your organisation, the likelihood the business will suffer financially. So, in a sense, workplace bullying doesn’t come without a cost, literally! Investopedia does a great job of detailing the costs of workplace bullying, covering everything from healthcare costs to absenteeism, loss of productivity and more.

Company-wide disrespect towards management

In organisations that suffer from workplace bullying, it’s often the case that employees don’t have respect for one another, but also management teams. Once a company loses respect for leadership, problems like bullying in the workplace, poor performance and weak productivity explode. 

It’s your job to get people on your side. The more respect you can achieve, the better suited you are as a leader to deal with workplace bullying. Unfortunately, disrespect is often a sign of bullying. That’s because relationships are typically broken between managers and employees through mistreatment or unfairness. 

Try to identify the relationship your leadership team has with the workforce. Bringing people together more frequently, especially in different departments and positions can help. As we’ve said, company-wide disrespect isn’t just a sign of bullying but it can be the means to allow bullying in the workplace to increase. 

Poor collaboration and communication

To wrap things up, we’re going to look at collaboration and communication, two elements that help a workforce thrive. When collaboration and communication isn’t encouraged by leaderships, relationships cannot work. 

It’s important to create an environment that pushes these two qualities to their potential. Unfortunately, many businesses believe the work environment is strictly for working. They will create an office filled with wall dividers and ensure communication is kept to a minimum. 

This is a poor way of working and will only develop a lack of togetherness in the workplace. When we don’t communicate with one another, we can’t assess situations clearly, and may not have the best judgement. Not only is collaboration and communication important for your company goals, but also the social wellbeing of your workforce.

In fact, we’re all guilty of overthinking or misjudging someone’s message, especially if it’s via communication tools like Slack and Gmail. As a leader, it’s your duty to bring people together, make them feel involved and empower them to develop meaningful relationships. 

This is achieved through the work environment; everything from office layout to the projects that require collaboration. How are you bringing people together?

Five employees looking stressed around some paperwork
Our final thoughts on bullying at work

Final note on bullying in the workplace

As we’ve very clearly established, workplace bullying is a serious issue for some organisations. One that demands the immediate attention of leaders. Bullying in the workplace can spiral into much deeper problems for an organisation. These problems should be quashed if a business wants to maintain its talent and great a healthier, happier workplace.

Bullying, in any capacity, in any setting and for any reason, just shouldn’t happen. It is  outright ignorance to allow bullying in the workplace to occur. If bullying is a problem in your workplace, it’s likely not the only problems. However, hopefully, with our guide, you can begin to stamp out workplace bullying once and for all.