Need to know
Coworkers would roll their eyes or cross their arms when Don spoke in virtual meetings. They criticised his contributions and described his ideas as stupid. They even made fun of the music he liked. Don was also excluded from a lunch that team members organised to talk about how their meetings were going. He felt anxious about how his coworkers treated him and had trouble sleeping, but he wanted to be accepted as a team member. He agonised for months before going to his manager for help.
Beth, an experienced nurse who moved to a new clinic, was criticised constantly by her manager in front of her peers and was ignored when she asked for help. Her manager repeatedly told her, ‘I could fire you.’ She was given a massive workload and placed on a learning plan that involved eight hours of sitting and reading without a washroom break. Then it got worse: her manager made false allegations about her, and she lost her nursing licence. Her licence was eventually reinstated, but Beth suffered severely.
These two cases (based on the experiences of my clients) are both examples of workplace bullying, which can involve many different behaviours of varying degrees of severity. As a therapist, organisational consultant and researcher, I have worked with targets of workplace bullying for 25 years. The terms that many of my clients use to describe bullying reflect the heavy toll it can take: ‘There was a monster in my workplace’, ‘I was so excluded’, ‘I felt stripped of humanity’, or ‘I lost me’.
Workplace bullying is recognised across the world as a pervasive and damaging phenomenon. A recent review of its prevalence indicates that up to 20 per cent of people have experienced it in the course of their career. If you think – or know – that you have been bullied at work, I’ve written this Guide to help you take stock of the bullying and to provide strategies for responding and seeking help.
What is workplace bullying?
People are sometimes hurtful or insulting without intending to be; I’m sure you have offended someone at some point in your life. Occasional insensitivity can hurt but is not bullying. Neither is conflict the same as bullying: typically, when there is conflict at work, both you and another party hold some power and disagree on ideas, and no personal attack is involved. But when one person lacks (or loses) power, and there are personal attacks, the dynamic is better described as bullying. A bully may hold formal power over you (eg, as a supervisor); their behaviour may threaten you to the extent that you can’t think properly about how to confront them; or there may be multiple people ganging up on you.
Although labels and definitions of workplace bullying vary across regions and contexts, there are a number of common factors in these definitions. Here are some important ones:
- Unwanted behaviour from a person or group. For example, while sometimes workplace nicknames are welcomed and build camaraderie, at other times they are unwelcome and derogatory. The latter constitutes bullying. Gossip can also be a form of bullying, whether it happens in office conversations, through emails, or in other ways. I’ve had clients whose qualifications have been misrepresented, whose accent has been mocked, and whose personal information has been shared. One person’s private medical information was released to a broad employee base, causing extreme embarrassment.
- The behaviour is offensive, intimidating or malicious. An employee might be diminished by their boss in front of coworkers, or called lazy or incompetent. My clients have been spoken to as if they were children, and have had small mistakes get constantly reported to their superiors. Some have discovered emails between other employees complaining about their work and putting them down. Another common form of bullying happens when a coworker falsely and purposely claims credit for someone’s work.
- There is an abuse of power. For example, a supervisor puts someone on probation without telling them why, without feedback or support, or takes their work away without reason. I had a client who was a trader, and his desk was taken away from him – he was made to sit on a chair at the end of the trading desks with no work. This lasted for six months before he finally came to see me. In another case, a group of employees was taken to a shed and told that the new manager would watch their every move to intimidate them and get them to quit, as a way to cut staff without severance pay.
- The behaviour is repeated. When behaviours such as eyerolls or insensitive comments are infrequent, they might not rise to the level of bullying (though they should be addressed to ensure they do not become more frequent). But when offensive or demeaning behaviour is repeated (eg, monthly, weekly or daily) it may be appropriately called bullying.
- The behaviour is unreasonable. It is reasonable for a supervisor to give feedback, assign work, restrict access to work and meetings (where there is an occupational requirement), have high standards, enact discipline with good reason, implement budget restraints, and make mistakes. And it is not bullying when people express conflicting opinions (as long as there is no personal attack) or simply don’t like each other (as long as they remain professional), or when someone has a bad day. The cases of bullying I’ve described above do not fit these descriptions.
- The behaviour is intentional (according to some definitions of bullying). Someone’s intention can be a complex thing to prove, but a reasonable person should know what constitutes inappropriate behaviour.
- Someone is harmed. Harm can be psychological, in that you feel anxious, can’t focus, or are offended or embarrassed. It can also manifest as poor sleep, irritability or hypervigilance, and the impact of bullying can ultimately contribute to poorer physical health. A critical aspect of understanding whether behaviour constitutes workplace bullying is how the target experiences it.
There are various reasons (but no excuses) for bullying
Why might you, and not others, be targeted by bullying at work? Most of my clients who have been bullied are conscientious, competent and uninvolved in organisational politics, and strongly believe in justice. In some cases, they report to a person who is narcissistic or abrasive, and they may somehow threaten that person’s ego, so the bully will ‘defend themselves’ by acting out. Sometimes, there is what’s called a poor person-organisation fit. A typical example is when a conscientious person is placed in a group that takes a more laissez-faire approach to work, and that person is seen as threatening the group’s norms. Human beings will often conform to be part of the group – and will punish those who are perceived as not doing the same.
In some cases, however, the factors behind bullying behaviour might not be apparent. No matter what the causes are, the responsibility for bullying lies with the perpetrator, not the target.
Workplace bullying often violates basic psychological needs: the need to feel part of a group that values you; the need to develop self-esteem within your group; the need to have control over your life; and the need to seek pleasure and avoid distress. When these needs are violated, stress builds, and over time it can potentially have a serious impact on your mental and physical wellbeing.
To prevent this, it is important to both recognise that what you are experiencing is harmful and to take action to address the behaviours and get help. Increasingly, organisations are realising the impact of bullying, both on employees and the bottom line. Many organisations offer helpful avenues such as confidential report lines, informal interventions, or formal investigations. Even doing your best to address bullying can help give you back a sense of power. The next section covers a range of actions that you might take.
What to do
Recognise and document bullying behaviour
Determining whether someone’s behaviour could be considered bullying is your first step. Bullying experiences at work can sometimes be challenging to identify, and you may be inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt when they say or do offensive things. You also might not realise the impact the behaviour has on you until it has continued for a while.
So, start by reflecting on what you have experienced and how frequently you have been exposed to the behaviour (eg, occasionally, monthly, weekly, daily). Take some time to think about how this behaviour has impacted you. Then, describe some of your experiences in writing. Note who has been involved, what has happened, and how you feel as a result. Consider the features of bullying that I described in the Need to Know section. Has the behaviour been unwanted? Has it been repeated? Has it caused you emotional distress or other forms of harm? Does it seem to involve an abuse of one or more people’s power? Does it strike you as unreasonable? If your answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then you have likely experienced workplace bullying.
If you suspect you have been bullied, I’d encourage you to keep a record of further bullying behaviours as well. Privately document each instance that you experience, noting:
- the date;
- where the incident happened;
- who was involved;
- whether anyone witnessed it, and what they said or did;
- what you did; and
- the impact the incident had on you.
Keep this record at home; I have been told of cases where private records in locked drawers at work have gone missing. Documentation can feel overwhelming, but it is necessary for several reasons. You’ll need examples of bullying interactions and behaviours in order to report them and ask for help. I find that many people who are exposed to bullying have a hard time describing their experiences, so writing them down soon after they occur can be useful. Most organisational policies ask for documentation if you seek an intervention. Similarly, if all else fails and you decide to take legal action, you will need a detailed record of what you experienced.
Consider approaching the person who has bullied you
As you assess your situation, think about whether the person whose behaviour has harmed you has been under stress and has perhaps acted with less emotional control than they normally would. If this is the case – and they now seem calmer and more in control – then a clear, direct conversation about what you have experienced and how it has impacted you might be enough to make that person more aware of their actions. The same kind of candid conversation may be helpful if the person is a new leader. That being said, if the person has been unrelenting in their offensive or demeaning behaviour, your best strategy may be to lie low and (as much as possible) to avoid them for the time being. Or, you might have other good reasons to avoid a direct conversation with a bully about their behaviour, such as if you are concerned about your safety.
People who are abrasive and challenging in the workplace instil fear, which can rob you of your personal power. Seeking out a counselling professional can be valuable in these cases, as they can help you assess how a bully would react to a conversation and guide you in selecting a course of action based on your specific situation.
If you do decide to talk to the bully about their behaviour, ask for a private conversation. You can start by saying something like: ‘I want to share how your behaviour has impacted me. I am not sure if you know how much you roll your eyes at me in meetings [behaviour]. I find that this affects my ability to participate and concentrate [impact]. I want to be able to participate well. I would appreciate more respect.’ You can use this as a template by including the behaviour and impact that are relevant to your circumstances.
If a person registers that their behaviour has impacted you negatively, they will typically respond with an apology, asking for clarification and committing to work on their behaviour. They may also be defensive and say they didn’t mean to hurt you. You can respond to a defensive statement by saying: ‘Although you might not have been aware that your behaviour was hurtful, I trust this conversation makes you aware that you can manage this going forward.’ Check how you feel about the person’s response. Does it feel sincere? Did the person make eye contact with you, show some empathy and understanding, or express regret? If you get responses such as ‘I was just having fun’, ‘You are being too sensitive’, or outright dismissal, or if it is threatened that if you bring this up again it will be held against you, then your best course of action is likely to ask someone else in your organisation for help.
Share the experience with others – carefully
If your organisation has a stated policy on workplace bullying, it should specify who to approach for support. A human resources advisor (if you have one) might be able to coach you on what to do next. If you’re comfortable doing so, you can also report the behaviour to a senior manager. Some organisations have in-house ombud or ‘safe listener’ personnel who can hear your experiences and provide support and information.
When you approach a person whose job it is to hear your concerns, it is important to have a record of what you have experienced, so remember your documentation. You can start the conversation by saying something like this: ‘I am experiencing negative dynamics with [coworker] at work. I want to review what I’ve experienced with you and to understand how you might help me.’ The person you are speaking with should outline their role, note the confidentiality of your conversation, and indicate a willingness to listen. At this point, you can say: ‘I have written down a record of my experiences and I would like to share these with you. I have experienced [behaviour]. Being exposed to these behaviours has impacted me in the following ways…’ Then, you can state what you want, for example: ‘I want help dealing with this, so I’m asking how you can help me’, or ‘I request a formal investigation of this situation’. (In some cases, depending on the behaviour, the organisation may proceed with an investigation whether you want them to or not.)
You may also want to speak with anyone who has witnessed the bullying about their willingness to support you and come forward about it. Sometimes, a witness or bystander can intervene most effectively by speaking up directly when bullying behaviour occurs, or by going to the perpetrator afterwards and discussing the appropriateness and impact of their behaviour. A bystander might also agree to go with you to a human resources professional in your organisation to assist you with describing your experiences.
A note of caution: many people who have experienced workplace bullying want to share it with uninvolved coworkers in order to validate their experiences, and sometimes as a form of revenge. Be careful about who you share your experiences with. If you choose to talk to someone who is removed from the events, first ask yourself what you hope to gain. If this person is a trusted colleague whom you admire or someone you know who went through something similar, talking to them could be helpful for gaining insight or compassion. It might also be possible to ask someone to speak to a bully on your behalf, especially if they have a good relationship with the person. But if your motivation is to hurt a bully’s reputation or ‘pay them back’, talking to uninvolved people is likely not the action to take.
If you do approach an uninvolved person, ask them if they would be comfortable talking to you about a difficult workplace situation. Tell them what you want, for example: ‘You shared with me a while ago that you have dealt with workplace bullying. I’m hoping to get some ideas about what to do in a situation I’m dealing with.’ If they say they are uncomfortable, respect that. If they listen, make sure that they know the conversation will be confidential. And if they offer support, be mindful of how often and much you lean on them.
Explore ways your organisation can intervene
Organisational policies often provide informal and formal options for dealing with bullying behaviour. Informal options can include a supervisor approaching a bully with feedback on their behaviour, individual coaching for the bully, or group training.
A facilitated discussion is a relatively informal response, in which the workplace employs a person with expertise in helping people talk constructively to each other. The first step would usually be for that expert to talk to you and the person who has bullied you to gain each person’s perspective. After that, there is a discussion to help you understand each other’s perspective, to give the bully the opportunity to truly understand the impact of their behaviour, and to ask them for behaviour change. You might be asked for some behaviour changes, too, so that the relationship can be improved. I have conducted many of these discussions and find that they are effective. If this seems like it might be helpful for you, it’s usually a human resources professional who has the power to set one up, either with an independent third party or with someone in the organisation whose job it is to conduct such interventions.
Mediation is a similar intervention that might be offered by your organisation. The role of a mediator is to help the people involved to restore a working relationship through understanding each other’s perspective – not to determine who is right or wrong. With mediation, an organisation might want the process to conclude with a formal agreement about behaviour going forward. If you pursue this intervention, your mediator should have expertise in workplace bullying and have trauma-informed training. If there is a significant, formal power imbalance between you and the offending party (for example, if the bully is your boss), I would be cautious about mediation, because you may feel that you can’t truly share your perspective, and the bully may consciously or unconsciously use their influence to intimidate you.
Ideally, you will also have the option of asking for a formal investigation. A workplace bullying policy (if you have one) should specify how to request such an investigation. Usually, the process is initiated through discussion with human resources or a manager and is formalised by completing and signing a form that states that you wish to proceed. A formal investigation is best implemented when other, informal actions have not stopped the bullying or when bullying has been very serious (eg, a false performance review or threat of dismissal). In a situation where the bullying behaviour is severe, where you report to the bully, or where the bullying has been visible to those who might conduct the investigation, you should push for the involvement of an external, third-party investigator.
The decision to ask for a formal investigation should be weighed carefully. I have found that the process is highly stressful to most involved. If you have a lot of documentation and witnesses you believe will truthfully come forward, that is the best scenario for a formal complaint.
It is important to be reasonable with what you request as the outcome of a formal investigation. Asking to have someone fired is not a request that will likely be honoured, but asking to not have contact with that person might be. If you move to a formal complaint, many policies will allow you to have a support person present – such as a union representative, family member, friend or counsellor – so consider asking for this. Your support person will not be able to participate directly; they are there to comfort you and help you request a break from the proceedings. You should be allowed to take a break if emotions overwhelm you or you get tired.
After a formal investigation is completed, you should receive a copy of the report and any recommendations that are provided. If you are unhappy with how the investigation was conducted or the outcome, you might be able to challenge it; however, in my experience, doing so successfully is difficult. Ultimately, if you feel the organisation has not responded with fairness and a proper process, there might be ways to address the issues legally, depending on your jurisdiction. If you proceed with a legal route, you will require a lawyer. You must consider the costs, not only financially but emotionally. These processes can be complex, expensive and draining, and frequently, the evidence does not meet the requirements of civil law. Nonetheless, I have had clients who successfully sued their organisations for wrongful dismissal or infliction of harm. In some countries, such as France, bullying reaches the criminal court level.
If you are a member of a union, you might need to follow specified grievance procedures. In this case, it is best that you connect with a union representative early, as soon as you feel you are experiencing bullying.
Take care of yourself
Exposure to workplace bullying can cause serious stress and might contribute to mental and physical health conditions. To help reduce its negative impact, be conscious of your lifestyle choices. One important goal is to ensure that you are getting enough sleep; if you aren’t, see your doctor about how to improve your sleep routine. Physical activity is also a significant stress reducer and could include anything from routine activities, such as walking your dog or gardening, to running, swimming or other sports. Quiet reflection time, breathing exercises, meditation and yoga can be equally helpful.
It’s also worth seeking support from friends and family. Ask someone you trust if they can listen to what you’ve been struggling with at work. Tell them that they don’t need to resolve it for you, that you just need some support. (The aim here is to open up about your bullying experiences, not to rehash the same experiences repeatedly – that can overwhelm your support network without doing much to improve your situation.)
If you find yourself disturbed by negative thoughts related to the bullying you have experienced, there are multiple steps you can take:
- Start with loving kindness. Try practising loving-kindness meditation, a form of mindfulness-based meditation, and see how it makes you feel. This script can be helpful. You can also find guided loving-kindness exercises on apps such as Calm and Headspace.
- Identify your negative thoughts and assess whether they are rational. Many targets of workplace bullying second-guess themselves, having thoughts such as: I’m too sensitive, or I am weak because I couldn’t cope. These thoughts are usually not true. You have coped the best you could in a hurtful situation. Every person is sensitive to rejection and abuse – it is a normal human reaction. You might wonder about why you were targeted. But it was probably because of your competence and conscientiousness, not anything bad about you. Here’s something you can remind yourself of when dealing with difficult thoughts related to bullying: I am a good and conscientious person. I can heal from this and care for myself. I might have activated someone’s own negative stuff, but that is their responsibility to manage.
- Pivot your focus. If you continue to have the same sort of negative thought repeatedly, let yourself do so one more time. And if no new information emerges, make the decision to focus on something else. Consciously turn toward an activity that engages your mind, such as a puzzle, or a game, podcast or TV show with a positive focus. Or, practise healthy forms of coping such as going for a walk. Limit the time you spend on social media and talking to others about what has happened.
Finally, speaking with a counsellor or therapist can be a vital way to look after your wellbeing when you’ve been bullied at work. Since a common effect of bullying is diminished trust in others, it might take some time to develop trust in your therapist, so keep that in mind as you give it a chance.
Therapists use a variety of strategies to help people recover from the effects of bullying. In my own practice, I tailor the treatment approach to the individual and their experiences and goals. I might use techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness exercises to help clients identify any negative thoughts they have developed about themselves. I also work with approaches that help calm the nervous system, such as breath work, meditation and hypnosis, and have used eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) to help clients process trauma-related memories. When appropriate, I will provide a diagnosis for a mental health condition if one has developed. I also support clients through investigations, mediation, or legal processes. If you do seek a therapist for help, I suggest you look for someone who has experience in treating targets of workplace bullying.
Remember that you have options even if bullying continues
The possibility of having to leave a job can be a complex and painful thing to face. Most people do not want to make this decision. I am not suggesting that you necessarily up and quit if bullying persists. Nonetheless, if your workplace is hurting you to the extent that you cannot function well in your day-to-day life, and attempts to address the bullying have not solved the problem, you may need to explore other options.
In some cases, the bullying continues and the target of bullying feels that they cannot quit. The next step may be trying to cope with the bullying behaviour as best as possible. If this is the situation for you, it does not mean that you are weak, but that the goal is to get by until you can get out. You might watch how others treat the bully and see if you can mimic their behaviour. You might need to ‘play the game’ and show behaviour that the bully likes, such as by complimenting them in a meeting. Tell yourself why you are doing this: to support your family, perhaps, or for other reasons. Find a way to let go of anger in the moment – count to six, breathe, take a walk – and tell yourself that there are wounded and challenging people in the world, but you will survive this one way or another. Again, working with a skilled therapist can be valuable in this situation (and can guide your decision-making at this stage more generally). Seek meaning and purpose outside of work, too, such as through volunteering. Keep searching for another position or place of work that is a better fit for you.
For some people, it is helpful to take a period of leave from work to detach from the situation and the stress. It can be difficult to make this choice, but time away from work could help you reset your nervous system, which will likely be running at high speed. Some of my clients have taken extended holidays to healing or adventurous places, while others have remained at home. If you do take time off, you may need to ‘rest and digest’ at first – which might include sleeping, allowing yourself to grieve what you have experienced, engaging in restorative activities such as breathing exercises, yoga or meditation, and perhaps speaking with a therapist. Ideally, this time provides the space to reflect on the situation more freely and to explore how to move forward. That might mean returning to work, but with more insight, assertiveness and health.
You might ultimately make the decision to leave your workplace. I have seen many clients eventually find more fulfilling work and a new path in life after leaving a job where they were bullied. Some of them thank the bullying situation for moving them off a path that was not right for them. Many have moved to companies with a more positive environment. Other people targeted by bullying (including me) have started their own businesses. And others have gone back to school, or written books and papers about their experiences. They have let go of the pain but kept the lessons, have made meaningful contributions, and built a legacy.
Key points – How to deal with being bullied at work
1. Workplace bullying is a common experience that takes many forms. If you are repeatedly targeted by unwanted, unreasonable and harmful behaviour at work that seems to involve an abuse of power, it likely rises to the level of bullying.
2. There are various reasons (but no excuses) for bullying. Whether bullying stems from a supervisor’s fragile ego, differences between coworkers, or something else, it’s not your fault. But there are steps you can take to address it.
3. Recognise and document bullying behaviour. Describe what you’ve experienced in writing, including who was involved and how you feel. If the behaviour has the features of bullying, keep a detailed record of any incidents going forward.
4. Consider approaching the person who has bullied you. If it seems likely that they have been acting rashly as a result of stress, a private conversation could make them more aware of how their behaviour has affected you. But this might be best avoided if the behaviour has been unrelenting.
5. Share the experience with others – carefully. A human resources advisor, senior manager or person designated by your organisation could be key points of contact for reporting bullying. You might also ask any witnesses if they will support you. Be cautious about sharing with coworkers who were not directly involved.
6. Explore ways your organisation can intervene. The options can range in formality, from a supervisor talking to the bully, to a facilitated conversation between you and them, to a formal investigation of the situation.
7. Take care of yourself. Workplace bullying can be very stressful. Try to ensure that you support yourself with adequate sleep and physical activity, take steps to address any repetitive negative thoughts, and consider speaking with a therapist.
8. Remember that you have options even if bullying continues. Look for small ways to more easily coexist with the bully until you can leave your position. Some time off, if possible, could provide a chance to reset. Many targets of bullying do leave their workplace and find a better path elsewhere.
Stories of success
Workplace bullying is a serious problem, and many organisations still have a long way to go to adequately address it. But my work with targets of bullying has shown me the potential for recovery even in severe cases. I want to share a couple of additional stories about real people who experienced bullying on the job and, after a very challenging period, emerged into more peaceful and fulfilling lives. (Their names and identifying information have been changed here, and some cases have been combined.)
Sheila, a teacher, was placed in a classroom with so many students that it was beyond her capacity to manage the situation on her own. She and others were kicked and bitten. After asking for help from her principal, she was told that she was the problem. Among other indignities, she was mocked in meetings with administrative staff, and coworkers would stop talking when she entered the staff room. Sheila became so stressed that she took time off. During this time, she went to yoga, did meditation at home, took some courses that she was interested in, and reflected on her career and her capabilities as a teacher. Eventually, she was able to return to teaching – at a different school, with a supportive principal – and she became excited about her work again.
Calvin, who does maintenance work in a civic building, was bullied by his supervisor. The supervisor yelled and scolded him in front of the public and criticised him when he took extra care in carrying out a task. He reported this behaviour, and the supervisor was disciplined and asked to apologise. But Calvin had a hard time accepting the apology and continued to find it stressful to work with the supervisor. The organisation arranged for a facilitated discussion with an external expert. With the help of the facilitator, Calvin was able to express his emotions and experiences to his supervisor, who was coached on listening, gave a meaningful apology, and constructed, with Calvin, a mutually agreeable way of working together. The organisation also conducted training in respectful workplace behaviour for all staff. Calvin has been able to work without the stress since then.
Links & books
My website provides resources, blog posts and videos that can help you further understand the impact of bullying and adopt strategies for addressing and healing from bullying experiences.
The psychologist Evelyn Field has written two books that offer her own guidelines for responding to workplace bullying, including guidance on addressing a bully and asking for help from your organisation. These easy-to-read books are Bully Blocking at Work: A Self-Help Guide for Employers and Managers (2010) and Strategies for Surviving Bullying at Work (2011). Field’s website is full of practical insights.
If you are interested in understanding and addressing the impact of bullying on your brain, the educator Jennifer Fraser has written a book on the subject called The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health (2022).
The psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Marie-France Hirigoyen has written the insightful book Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity (English ed, 2004), in which she compares workplace bullying to domestic abuse and explores the pain and damage associated with it.
The book The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (2nd ed, 2009) by the psychologists Ruth and Gary Namie is a classic overview of practical strategies you can use to heal from workplace bullying. Their website contains videos, tutorials, research and advice.