How to Deal With a Workplace Bully

a woman sitting in a window sill.

Dealing With a Workplace Bully

According to the Human Rights Commission, bullying refers to when someone intentionally and repeatedly uses their words and actions to inflict stress on another human being. Typically, the ‘aggressor’ has power or some influence over the recipient.

At the same time, it’s crucial to mention the distinct disparity between bullying and conflict. While neither situation is ideal for peaceful coexistence, conflict refers to opposing opinions, beliefs, perceptions, styles, etc., leading to a positive or negative outcome. Fortunately, a mediator can easily handle the issue, resulting in conflict resolution.

On the other hand, bullying only causes distress and other short or long-term harmful effects on the recipient, often referred to as the victim. Workplace bullying, therefore, borrows heavily from this understanding. In most cases, it’s usually the employees who feel harassed or attacked by peers, immediate supervisors, or even senior management and company directors.

This article will discuss the tell-tale signs to watch out for and how to deal with a workplace bully.

What Is Considered Workplace Bullying?

Although employees are encouraged to handle disagreements peacefully, emotions can sometimes stand in the way of logic. Tension in the workplace often leads to verbal exchanges, physical altercations, and, in other cases, bullying.

A workplace bully strives to exercise dominance and superiority over the recipient. They desire to push the ‘victim’ to do what they (the aggressor) want. Research shows that bullies often respond this way thanks to personal insecurities or as a reaction to a mistake done by the recipient.

While some bullies may openly isolate or intimidate their ‘opponents,’ others will do so more subtly. That said, below are three common workplace bullying types to watch out for.

Direct Bullying

Also referred to as face-to-face bullying involves direct actions, such as name-calling or physical fights. As the name suggests, direct bullying leaves no room for guesswork or imagination. Even bystanders are likely to witness the mistreatment in action, making it one of the more straightforward bullying cases for management to catch and resolve.

However, if the blatant abuse comes from senior management, this is likely a repeat case.

Indirect Bullying

As the name suggests, this type of bullying is opposite to the one mentioned above. Unfortunately, it may not be easy for onlookers and the recipient to notice at first. This ambiguity often leaves room for further character assassination, exclusion, and oppression.

Also known as covert bullying, this kind is less obvious, making it challenging to report. On the other hand, thanks to its subtlety, victims of indirect bullying are rarely, if ever, believed. The aggressor’s polite demeanor and sweet lies can quickly sway the mediator’s mind when asked to defend themselves.


This type of bullying encompasses all sectors of life besides the workplace. It entails receiving threats or insults via ICT channels, e.g., text messages, emails, and social media platforms.

Cyberbullying can occur in two ways: directly or anonymously. The former entails receiving hurtful messages from a known sender and is often faster to identify. However, the latter is harder to address as the sender is anonymous, making it extremely challenging to resolve.

Workplace Bullying Examples

Workplace bullying continues to be a strategy used by individuals to push their colleagues or employees to resign from work. The aggressor could be a colleague striving to excel individually or an employer seeking to quiet down a vocal employee.

Even though the motivation behind each bully may vary. These individuals desire to progress at the expense of others. It’s also a way of making someone feel small, unworthy and lower their confidence.

Unbeknown to most, bullying takes different forms, depending on the abuser. It doesn’t have to be in the physical sense; it can also be emotionally or psychologically. So, this begs the question, what are the tell-tale signs of workplace bullying? Below are bullying indications to watch out for:

  • Harassing a colleague based on their gender, religion, race, and background. Some colleagues or supervisors may seclude people who seem unusual from the majority at work. This is a way of inciting hatred at work or getting someone to resign.
  • Spreading lies, rumors, or discrediting an individual. This behavior falls under direct and indirect bullying and can be difficult to oppose, especially from a trusted person or someone with authority.
  • Intentionally omitting crucial data or giving misleading information. There are numerous cases where employees are excluded from meetings then later persecuted for not being up-to-date with project progress.
  • Giving and making rude gestures or sounds when the targeted individual is around. Such gestures and sounds include sneers, clicks, eye rolls, etc.
  • Giving verbal or written insults to someone. Using curse words and offensive language is a way of belittling a colleague or employee. Thankfully, this falls under direct bullying and can be addressed early.
  • Stalking someone so they can’t work comfortably. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to prove that someone is stalking you, even with the help of witnesses.
  • Hitting or becoming physically aggressive with someone. These actions fall under the direct bullying category and are easier to point out.
  • Using your power or influence to affect their comfort and performance Such cases include giving subtle threats and conditions that aren’t elaborated in the company’s guidelines.

How Bullying Can Affect an Employee

As mentioned, some bullies are direct, while others may use subtle undertones that are confusing and often hard to catch in the presence of a bystander. Either way, all these tactics are cruel and unfair to the victims. In this section, we’ll use gender-based bullying as an excellent example of oppression at work.

Did you know that there’s an Equal Pay Day, and it’s marked March 24? That’s right! This day was created in 1996 by the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE). The goal was to symbolize how much more women have to work that year to earn what men earned in the previous year. Confusing, right?

According to a study done in 2020, women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. In the decade before, i.e., 2010, women earned 77% of their male colleagues’ wages. The gap is even wider for women from different races and ethnic backgrounds. Although this may seem like growth to some people, the disparity is still significant and shouldn’t exist in the first place.

That said, here are the overall harmful effects of bullying in the workplace and their respective symptoms:

  • Anxiety: The symptoms to watch out for are an increased heart rate, trembling, sweating, fatigue, restlessness, hyperventilation, etc.
  • High blood pressure: This comes with headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain, and the presence of blood in the urine.
  • Sleeping disorder: The signs include daytime fatigue, unusual breathing patterns, difficulty falling asleep, unintentional changes to your sleep schedule, etc.
  • Stress: Here, you should watch out for headaches, low energy levels, upset bowels, insomnia, low libido, chest and muscle pain, etc.
  • Ulcers: This comes with weight loss, nausea, vomiting, bloating, heartburn, frequent burping, pain in the stomach, etc.

Typically, the victims of workplace bullying must work twice as hard to get similar acknowledgments to their colleagues. Although the above-listed conditions result in shortcomings at work, most complaints fall on deaf ears.

Others have no choice but to remain silent and be grateful, hoping the situation doesn’t get “out of hand.” Worse still, some people end up resigning with the hopes of finding greener pastures.

How Can Bullying Affect the Workplace?

As previously mentioned, bullying generally has to do with the aggressor’s insecurities, which may also be related to the recipient’s successes. Often, the bully doesn’t like a colleague or employee due to fixed or unintentional differences like age, race, gender, religious practices, appearance, etc.

While liking someone isn’t mandatory in the workplace, being civil and respectful are simple requirements. If the work environment turns into a place of fear and ridicule, the victim will start to falter. Consequently, their productivity, self-esteem, and health become compromised.

With anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem playing a massive role in the employee’s life, here’s what will start happening:

  • The victim will find it challenging to stay alert at work.
  • Problems that they’d typically catch and solve quickly will start to seem impossible.
  • The victim will lose their voice, hence not raising work queries where necessary.
  • The individual will start making unusual or extreme decisions, whether knowingly or unintentionally.
  • The victim’s drive for work will decline, hence resulting in low productivity.
  • The targeted person will dread going to work and possibly skip work altogether.
  • The victim may resign.

Even if the victim is bold enough to call out the bully, their productivity will probably decline. Instead of focusing on work, victims will now focus their attention on:

  • Avoiding the bully,
  • Defending themselves,
  • Constantly worrying over the issue(s),
  • And rallying other colleagues for support.

While none of the actions mentioned above may seem detrimental at first, the victim often ends up feeling disoriented, helpless and even traumatized. Moreover, if some colleagues intervene without a resolution, the company will still be affected.

Below are the domino effects of workplace bullying for the employer:

  • The decline of enthusiasm and commitment at work.
  • Increase in demand for sick leave and other healthcare claims.
  • Eruption of legal suits against the employer.
  • Negative publicity of the company.
  • Additional costs to reassure the current employees, or to recruit new ones.

What to Do if My Boss Is Bullying Me at Work

Before getting started on how to resolve the issue, it’s crucial to have your facts right first. That said, what are the red flag signs that your boss is harassing you at work? While the answers may seem obvious to some, others may be unaware. Having this crucial information will help you figure out how to deal with a workplace bully.

  • Intimidates you: Your boss threatens to fire or hit you or even physically threatens you. A threatening stare or look is also another way to put you down.
  • Isolates you from your colleagues: You no longer receive work emails or get invitations to meetings. A good work environment should ensure their employees get equal opportunities.
  • Undermines your work: Your boss persistently diminishes your work without offering clarification or advice. They may also set unrealistic deadlines and withhold critical project information.
  • Verbally abuses you: Bad bosses are known to humiliate employees in the presence of their colleagues, whether passively or actively. They may also go as far as hurling outrageous insults.
  • Hinders Your Success: Your boss promotes your peers and juniors and excludes you without explanation. They’ll also find manipulative ways to promise you unattainable goals.

If you notice that your boss ticks most of these boxes, it’s best to figure out what you want to do about it. Standing up to an intimidating boss isn’t easy. There are uncountable ways that the situation could turn out. And one of those ways is losing your job.

With that in mind, it’s essential to make sound decisions to avoid irreparable damage. Do you want to confront the bully directly, indirectly, or figure out coping mechanisms? Whatever the case, there are two critical tactics you may want to consider.

Option 1 – Focus on Your Career

The first thing to do is to take care of your career. Having a terrible boss for a prolonged period may derail your career path. So, here are the options you have:

  • Wave the white flag: If you still love your job and prefer to continue working, that’s alright too. However, this path isn’t going to be easy. You’ll need to become more confident and avoid letting the bully’s opinions bring you down.
  • Continue working hard: The best way to get back at a toxic boss is to continue working as usual. By improving your productivity and working hard, your boss will have nothing to hold against you.
  • Resign: Polish up your CV and apply for jobs elsewhere. Use your networks and credentials to achieve the goals you’d set for yourself in the first place. Cutting down your costs will also help you deal with the tough financial times.

Option 2 – Focus on Your Well-Being

A study done in 2017 by the Workplace Bullying Institute revealed that over 60% of workplace bullies are bosses. In addition, 40% of the targeted staff suffer from mental health issues, thanks to workplace bullying, with 29% of the victims staying silent. To avoid getting any health issues, here’s what you can do.

  • Don’t blame yourself! Even though your boss makes you feel worthless and possibly incompetent, it’s crucial to remember that the problem lies with them. There’s nothing you can do to change their mind.
  • Detach yourself from the toxic environment. Most work bullies thrive in creating uncomfortable situations for people. Instead of letting them bring you down, take a practical route and rather see your job as a way to pay your bills.
  • Connect and share with someone trustworthy. Bullies enjoy isolating and secluding their victims from socializing with others. However, don’t be discouraged. Share your story with a close family member or a professional counselor. Sharing will help you feel better about yourself and build back your self-worth!

What Should I Avoid When Trying to Deal With a Workplace Bully?

Victims of bullying are discouraged from blaming themselves. Instead, they should stay positive and protect their well-being. Here are other ways to ensure workplace bullying prevention:

  • Avoid instigators at work. This advice encompasses anyone who’s encouraging you to become combative or disclosing your dilemma with colleagues. Doing this will prevent the spread of lies and discourage any misrepresentation.
  • Avoid giving vague information. It’s crucial to provide hard evidence should you choose to address the issue with the relevant authority. State the truth confidently and professionally, as this will help your case against the bully.
  • Avoid any nervous moments. Poor body posture, stammering and awkward body movements when around the bully often suggest low self-esteem. Push your chest forward and put your nose up in the air. Confidence is key!
  • Avoid skipping work. Absenteeism is a one-way ticket to getting sacked! If you need a break from the toxic environment, you can utilize your leave days.
  • Avoid aggressive confrontations. If the bully decides to taunt you or address the matter aggressively, it’s best to walk away. Doing this will protect you from any verbal or physical altercations on your part.
  • Avoid getting emotional. While the bully’s behavior is not within your control, your temper is. Articulate yourself clearly and directly without getting too emotional. Anytime they try to intimidate you, stay positive and professional.

Moving Forward

There isn’t a clear-cut solution on how to deal with a workplace bully. While staying quiet may work for some, others would prefer to tackle the issues head-on.

If you know a victim of workplace bullying, the best way to help them is to offer them a safe place to share their experience. You can also offer them helpful and cheerful advice, without imposing your opinion.

Whatever they decide to do, remember to encourage and build them up. After all, the ultimate decision rests with the person!