In addition to the demands typically expected in the workplace, some people also experience hostile behavior from colleagues or supervisors. This work place bullying can be a tremendous source of stress, leading to lowered job performance and worsened health. Bullied workers can suffer from anxiety, depression, musculoskeletal problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and insomnia, and often require greater amounts of sick leave than their non-bullied colleagues. Even the workers who are not targeted, but are only observing the bullying, report greater levels of stress than workers who are in a cooperative environment. The negativity fostered by bullying leads to reduced job satisfaction, higher employee turnover and absenteeism, and higher employer costs associated with training and employee assistance. It is vital, therefore, to identify the causes of workplace bullying and take steps to address and prevent it.

Why Bully?

In the workplace, bullies are often highly competitive individuals who are likely to be controlling, selfish, and lack empathy. In fact, seeing their victim display signs of mental anguish activates the pleasure centers of their brains. Although one might think that bullies would target insecure or incompetent individuals, often they focus on those they consider to be a threat to their own success — workers who are more skilled or better liked. By destroying the morale and harming the performance of others, the bullies hope to be more likely to rise themselves.


It is estimated that about 54 million Americans are the victims of workplace bullying. The bullies are predominantly people in supervisory positions, and bullying tends to occur within the same gender. Despite the high prevalence, almost half of victims never report the harassment to employers, and when they do, most employers ignore or worsen the issue. Many forms of bullying are difficult to detect: the bully may take credit for a colleague’s efforts, attempt to overrule or silence the victim, harm the victim’s reputation by misrepresenting their ideas, shift workload either to overwhelm the victim or to trivialize their contribution, and deny quality-of-life requests like vacation leave or enrichment opportunities. Though subtle, these types of aggressive behaviors can have a profoundly destructive effect on the workplace’s environment.

Steps to Take

Being able to recognize bullying is the first step toward mitigating it, but management must have a clearly spoken and enforced anti-bullying policy. It is also helpful to establish a plan of action to be followed both by victims of bullying and those observing it to make them more likely to report harassment. Documentation of bullying necessitates thorough follow-up, and employers can take preventative measures like training, relationship-strengthening activities, and employee counseling. Recruiters can also be trained to screen for potential bullies as they interview candidates. In general, workplaces that emphasize mutual respect, clear communication, and demonstrate recognition and empathy for workers are less likely to foster a bullying attitude.

Bullying in the workplace can be a damaging and costly occurrence, and it is important to recognize potential bullying behaviors, establish a process that victims can follow, and respond to reports of harassment promptly. Everyone bears responsibility for preventing bullying, just as everyone will benefit from the advantages that a harmonious workplace offers.