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Bullying in the workplace: What it is and how to stop it

Bullying and workplace incivility is not just wrong, it’s counter-productive

In 2010, the World Health Organization released a research bulletin that established bullying as a serious health issue. WHO defined bullying as “repeated exposure…to physical and/or emotional aggression, including teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, hazing, social exclusion, or rumors.” We have heard a lot about bullying in schools, but not as much about bullying in workplaces, although WHO specified both work and school as being the primary places where bullying occurs. Bullying, or workplace incivility, is not only a safety threat that can cause depression, physical health issues, and even suicide, it also results in loss of productivity, burnout, and turnover, according to several studies, including a recent one by Lachinger and Fida in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.

What is considered bullying behavior?

Lachinger and Fida, based on previous studies, specify three kinds of workplace incivility: work-related, personal, and physical. Before we get into the different types, I want to be clear that Lachinger and Fida also specify that bullying is a cultural, or organization-level issue, not an individual-level problem. This means that individuals who engage in bullying behavior are very often capable of change under the right leadership and circumstances. When it comes to organizational and cultural challenges, it’s important to create accountability for everybody, not find certain people to take the blame.


Have you ever been frustrated at work because you feel like your supervisor is imposing project deadlines that will force you to work long hours? Do you feel like valuable work-related information is being withheld from you without a clear reason? It may be hard to believe, because these situations are so common, but both of these behaviors fall into the category of work-related bullying. When an individual uses their formal authority to compel you to complete tasks in an unreasonable time frame or that are outside your job description, it’s bullying. When individuals use their formal position to keep information from you or purposefully delay decisions that affect your work, that is bullying. Work-related bullying is both the most common type, and also the type most strongly associated with burnout and turnover.


According to Lachinger and Fida, personal bullying consists of gossip, backbiting, or rumor-spreading. In his TedX talk, Glenn D. Rolfson defines backbiting as talking badly about a third person when they are not there. We have all done this – it is so common, and so normalized. When we are upset with somebody else, it is so much easier, and feels much safer, to talk about that person to somebody else. We get to blow off steam, and we also get to tell the story in a way that makes us look like the better person. Backbiting and gossiping promote a toxic work environment not only because these behaviors spread negativity and bias, but also because they actually increase, rather than directly address and resolve, conflict.


Physical bullying includes any kind of aggressive behavior, such as shouting or threat of physical violence. One of my first jobs was in the advertising department of a local newspaper. My supervisor, whom I will call Jen, was the head of personal and real estate advertising, and her boss, whom I will call John, was the head of the entire advertising department. Every couple of weeks, John would call in Jen and the other ad execs and we could hear him shouting his displeasure about ad sales throughout the entire department. The first time I heard it, I was worried – I asked my nearest coworker, “oh my god, are they ok in there? Should we go in and check?” And she responded “Oh no, that happens all the time. When John gets mad, he yells at the ad team.” I was shocked and later, disappointed when I found out how common physical bullying was in in organizations.

What can you do?

It takes a lot of intentional work, patience, and support to change a culture that allows bullying and workplace incivility, even if you are in a position of formal power. It can be done, however. The first step is to become aware of your own behavior. Dr. Rolfson suggests Socrates’ “triple filter test” when deciding whether to share information about a third party who is not present. Ask yourself three questions; if the answer is “no” to all three, don’t share.

1) Is what I’m about to say true?

2) Is what I’m about to say good or kind?

3) Is what I’m about to say useful?

You can also use the acronym “THINK”:

T – Is it thoughtful?

H – Is it helpful and honest?

I – Is it intelligent?

N – Is it necessary?

K – Is it kind?

The next step is to start conversations with other individuals in your company. In his TedX talk, Dr. Rolfson suggests a bold move – once you have verbal buy-in, have everybody sign a large poster that states that, by signing the poster, you agree not to engage in gossiping for the next six months; then check in every week and see how things are going. This is a great tool, but you will also need a plan to manage conflict (including teaching healthy conflict resolution skills), if you don’t have one already, as well as training, and an enforcement/accountability plan. A friend of mine, whom we will call Scott, told me that at a former workplace, when anybody started talking to him negatively about a third party, he was expected to say “what did they say when you talked to them about this?” If, as often was the case, the person said “I didn’t talk to them,” he would say “you have 24 hours before I talk to them.” This tactic is pretty hard-edged, and he admitted that not everybody was equally enthusiastic about enforcing this policy, but it worked.

A grassroots approach

The bottom line is that nobody wants to be bullied, and everybody wants to work in an organization with a positive, supportive culture. Depending on your position, you may have a lot of options, both formal and informal, to address bullying behavior; or you may feel you only have only two: grassroots approach, or an HR complaint. You are the best person to decide what the most effective approach, because you know your organization. The grassroots approach, or starting conversations about how you and other individuals in your organization would like to be treated, has several advantages: 1) you start building a support system of like-minded people with a common goal; 2) the more people collaborate on a solution, the more effective the solution will be; 3) you stand a better chance of reaching a critical mass of people who support a bullying intervention before any kind of formal or informal retaliation.

Learn More

This article is part of the Human Systems Organizational Health Leadership Principle series: 15 principles that relate to the overall health of your organization. Other Human Systems Leadership Principles are contained in the Change Management, Community Embedding, Mutual Empowerment, and Ethics categories.

HS Leadership Principle #15: Promotes a culture in which employees support each other emotionally, cognitively, and socially.

Contact Human Systems to discuss potential solutions to bullying or workplace incivility in your organization – we offer complimentary one-hour individual coaching sessions or 90-minute group consultations.

Resource Articles

How Every Organization in NZ Can Tackle Workplace Bullying by Jennifer Mahoney in Stuff (6/26/2019)

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