<< Return

How to Spot Bullying at Work


February 20, 2020  |  John Wiese


In 2017, the Workplace Bullying Institute conducted a National Survey on bullying at work. The study found that 19% of American’s have experienced workplace bullying and another 19% have witnessed it.

Picture this: You are just getting settled with that second cup of coffee, today it’s breakroom coffee because you didn’t have a chance to stop at Starbucks. You’re skimming through the emails that came in over the weekend and putting together some notes for your 10 a.m. meeting. The digital clock on your desk ticks to 9:32 when Jeff saunters into the office. “Good morning, everyone!” Jeff exclaims. He’s met by the typical symphony of lethargic “Hi Jeff,” “hey,” “g’ morning,” etc. A few people roll their eyes as they glance at their wrist watches. Jeff is a 30 something bachelor who tends to recount his weekend with slightly too much detail, and he has a flare for the dramatic. He may seem a bit arrogant but he gets his work done on time and is the office’s designated excel wiz. You wave your hello and get back to work.

A few minutes behind Jeff, Odette blows into the office. Odette’s had better days. She’s balancing a stack of files, an overflowing purse, and a computer bag with one strap desperately clinging from her shoulder. It’s precarious at best. She stops by your desk to say hi, clearly frazzled, and looks longingly at the still steaming coffee in your hand. “You’ll never believe my morning…” she starts. “My little guy has the flu and my mother-in-law was supposed to be at the house at 7 am, but she got a flat tire a block away. And my AAA has expired–apparently, so I had to–” she gets cut off by Heather, your team manager who’s peeling away from a chat with Jeff.

“Odette! Where have you been? It’s nearly 10 o’clock! I was expecting last month’s numbers on my desk this morning! I hope you’re not still expecting to present them in this meeting…”

“Oh, I’m sorry Heather, Odette replies. I just–”

“You’re expected here by 9 a.m., not around 9 a.m. Forget it just give me those” Heather snaches the stack of papers from Odette and slams them down on your desk. “Erica are you okay to share the numbers in this morning’s meeting?”

“Oh, I, um..” you try to find the words but you’re in full-on stammer mode. This was Odette’s project, and while you helped, she did the bulk of the leg work and even took it home with her over the weekend.

“Great!” Heather confirms and walks away.

You give Odette a look that says I’m sorry! as she sulks off, ready to pull her hair out. In the meeting, you’re forced to brush over the findings from Odette’s report and the executives, sizing you up, are clearly not impressed. You and Odette are both fairly junior at the company and this presentation was an opportunity for the both of you to show-off a little bit. Instead the meeting reflects badly on the whole team, and you’re certain this is going to come up during your performance review.

Familiar? We hope not.

This is a quintessential example of workplace bullying. The manager’s behavior is both unfair and hostile. Both Jeff and Odette arrived late to work, but Odette was publicly chastised and punished without a second thought. Workplace bullying can take on a lot of different forms, and it can be very difficult to deal with a bully at work, especially when they are your manager. But at the end of the day, workplace bullying affects everyone, not just those who are bullied. When someone has to pick up the pieces and put them back together, a picture may be skewed. In this example, Odette was bullied, but Erica was the one who looked bad in the meeting, and it reflects poorly on their entire team. The next day, when Heather is chided for the poor presentation, who do you think she is going to take it out on.

Bullying is not confined to the middle school playground or your highschool locker rooms, it happens everywhere and can follow us into adulthood. As adults, the most common place for us to encounter a bully is at the office. Here are some insights into how to spot a workplace bully.

Types of Workplace Bullies

There are a few different types of workplace bullies you might encounter at the office. There is the banshee, the critic, the bridge troll, and the saboteur.

The Banshee

The screaming banshee is the office bully who terrorizes employees with high volume tirades and bouts of public humiliation. Yelling at work is never acceptable, people’s guards go up and the banshee is unlikely to convey any amount of useful criticism or feedback when emotions are so high. The banshee is one of the most dangerous types of bullies for your entire workforce, because they not only instill fear and humiliation into their recipient, but into the surrounding office as well. Yelling at work creates a culture of fear and competition. Verbal bullying work is not confined to a manger’s high volume tantrums, it can come across in emails, meetings, body language, and any form of communication that includes hostile, threatening, or unduly aggressive language.

The Critic

The critic will take any excuse to berate or belittle the work that their victim completes. One day a report will be too brief or vague, then the next iteration will be painstakingly thorough, “far too much information for any one person to comb through.” The critic’s tactics effectively wear down the confidence and work ethic of their victim, until they are equally convinced that they have no business being in this line of work. Unrelenting negative feedback may initially result in a boost of productivity and overcompensation on the part of the victim, but it will ultimately lead to a crash-and-burn. The constant critic may not have the reverberating effects of the banshee, but you know what they say about one bad apple. If one member of your team is convinced that they are not contributing, it is likely to affect the team’s bottom line and collective morale.

The Bridge Troll

The bridge troll is the crossing guard, the gatekeeper, the guardian and protector of all crucial resources. This is someone who, consciously or not, withholds budget, passwords, software licenses, or any other resources that an employee may find necessary for success. The bridge troll’s bullying is subtle, and may not come into light for some time.
This bully may cancel a vital training session for a software that requires expertise. “I’m sorry my day has really gotten away from me. Why don’t you try to click around and figure it out on your own and ping me if any questions pop up.” This may seem harmless and even inspire a certain level of confidence in the employee. Though, when the time comes for deliverables and the employee is still struggling to teach themselves the software, we have a problem. It is a manager’s job to set their employees up for success, and if they cannot provide the training, support, or resources necessary for that success, it is often their employees who face the consequences.

The Saboteur

The saboteur is a workplace bully who has mastered flying under the raider. These bullies can be difficult to spot and are equally difficult to deal with. Are you getting all of your deliverables in on time but not receiving any of the credit? Are you receiving negative performance reviews that are not in line with the work you have put forth? You may have a saboteur on your hands. This is a bully who actively manipulates co-workers’ perceptions and opinions of their victim. They may go behind your back complaining about how unreliable you are, or they may actively take credit for your best work, and impart blame on you when anything goes wrong.
Regardless of their method’s the saboteur’s work goes on behind the scenes, and they may present themselves outwardly as an ally. This type of workplace bully is why it is incredibly important to keep close records of the work that you do and the conversations you have.

The Difference Between Bullying and Harassment

It is important to differentiate between bullying and harassment. Companies often have a predetermined process for dealing with harassment at work, but bullying is another story. Legally speaking, harassment involves unwelcome, severe or pervasive, verbal or physical behavior that is based on race, color, religion, sex, gender/gender identity, nationality, age, physical or mental disability, or genetic information. Bullying is harassment that cannot be tied to any of these protected characteristics. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees; abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse.”

Harassment is illegal, bullying is not. The legality behind bullying is the very reason that companies should include specific clauses about workplace bullying in their codes of conduct or employee handbooks. Preventing workplace bullying will always be easier than putting a stop to it. This guide, The Manager’s Guide to Performance Management, has a suite of useful tips for providing constructive and healthy criticism.

For some more examples of workplace bullying, check out our YouTube channel:

If you think you have a bullying problem at your organization, check out our Online Coaching and Mentoring Training Course. And check back next week for insights into What To Do When You See a Workplace Bully.


bullyingharassmentmentorshipworkplace bully

The Shift from "New Normal" to Workplace Adaptability

Read More >>

Workplace Anxiety on Employees and Employers

Read More >>

Simple Ways to Maintain Culture During a Pandemic

Read More >>