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Workplace Bullying: What to Do If It Happens to You

Picture this: you’ve been working in the same place for several years. You’re diligent, smart, and dedicated; you do good work. But recently, you’ve gotten a new supervisor, and she seems determined to bring you down. Nothing you do is right. You’re criticized unfairly—to the point of being yelled at—every day. You’ve tried to complain about it, but your boss said you were being too sensitive.

You don’t even want to go to work anymore. You’re uncomfortable being there, waiting for another attack, and now your work quality really is slipping. Your co-workers seem to be pulling away from you, perhaps to avoid the wrath of your supervisor, leaving you isolated. Lately, you’ve started calling in sick or trying to find ways to avoid work.

Does this sound like your job? If so, you’re not alone: workplace bullying is shockingly common. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 51% of organizations report that they have had instances of bullying. That means it’s more likely that you do have a bully in your workplace than that you don’t. But what exactly is workplace bullying, and what can you do if it happens to you?

What Is Workplace Bullying?

workplace bullyingBullying in the workplace is defined as repeated abusive conduct that harms another. It may include humiliation, intimidation, or other forms of verbal abuse. Sometimes bullies will threaten their victims or sabotage their work, affecting not just their emotions but also their work productivity. And bullies aren’t just bosses or supervisors; most bullying is among peers or equally ranked employees.

Statistics from the Workplace Bullying Institute show that 60 million Americans are affected by abusive workplace conduct, with 60% of the targets being women. Victims of bullying experience stress, anxiety, and poor work performance, all of which contribute to an increase in depression. Forty percent of bullying victims likely suffer physical health consequences as a result of their mental torment.

Bullying takes a tremendous financial toll not only on the individuals who are victimized but also on companies that harbor bullies, due in part to increased employee turnover. Well over half of all targets end up leaving their jobs due to the bullying and its aftereffects. Even before bullied employees quit their jobs, their rates of illness and absenteeism increase, hurting both them and their employers.

Does this sound like your situation at work? And if so, what do you do?

What to Do If It Happens to You

First, do an honest self-assessment. Are you in fact doing your job well, or are the criticisms against you fair, even if they’re unkindly phrased? Do you need to have slightly thicker skin to deal with a blunt or brusque co-worker who may not mean any harm? Are you being singled out for harsh treatment, or is the person who’s being a jerk to you pretty much a jerk to everyone?

If you determine that you are being bullied, start and maintain a detailed log of every bullying incident. Is there a pattern to when you’re mistreated? Is the bully’s behavior gradually escalating? Your records can help you prove your claim or back up your version of events if you have to file a workplace complaint or a legal claim.

You can also use your log to prepare yourself for attacks. Evaluate how you’ve handled past bullying incidents and brainstorm for better ways you could respond. Try being direct with your bully. Online resources like can help you map out a specific response. Be professional and persistent in standing up for yourself. Sometimes—but not always—it’s possible to shut down a bully by demonstrating that you won’t tolerate mistreatment. Unfortunately, some sophisticated, experienced bullies have made a career out of manipulating others. Even if they leave you alone, they’re likely to victimize someone else.

If you’re not getting anywhere on your own, consider going up the chain of command. Can you talk with your manager or your human resources department about what’s happening? Be calm and factual in explaining your situation. Refer to specific incidents that you’ve logged and explain how this pattern of bullying is harming your ability to be effective and productive. If your workplace has a no-bullying or no-gossip policy, point out that this conduct violates company policy.

What about a legal claim? Can you sue the bully or the company for failing to stop it? Unfortunately, the answer is probably no: most bullying is not illegal. The exception would be if you were being bullied because you belong to a protected class. For example, if you are being bullied because of your race, gender, age, or disability, you may have a case for unlawful discrimination.

Summing It Up

  • Workplace bullying occurs in more than half of all organizations.
  • Bullying is repeated abusive conduct such as threats or humiliation that has a negative effect on its victim. Those negative effects include anxiety, depression, absenteeism, and increased employee turnover.
  • If you believe you’re being bullied, keep a detailed log of bullying incidents and use it to prepare for future problems.
  • Try being direct with your bully, but if that doesn’t work, go to your manager or human resources department with specific, factual examples. Be sure to explain how the bullying is affecting both you and the company.
  • Generally speaking, bullying isn’t illegal, but if you’re being bullied due to a protected trait like race or age, you may have a discrimination claim.

Are you being bullied at work? Have you already tried addressing it internally and gotten nowhere? Are you wondering whether you have any legal recourse? Please contact our office so we can help you assess your situation and decide on a next step.

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