Human Resources Q&A: Fifteen signs of workplace bullying

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I've been reading a lot about workplace bullying in the news lately, but I'm a little confused at the difference between a personality conflict and actual bullying. Can you provide specific examples of what actually constitutes workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is a common issue with a high cost to your organization. Bullying can be a covert action, which can also make it difficult to detect. Many bullying tactics are often dismissed as "personality" or "established norms in the workplace" and is often carried out so expertly that it can be challenging to address.

According to statistics, more than 80% of bullies at work are bosses or individuals who have positions of power within an organization. The Canada Safety Council states that "the target chosen by an adult bully will very often be a capable, dedicated member, well-liked by co-workers. Bullies are most likely to pick on people with an ability to cooperate and a non-confrontational interpersonal style. The bully considers their capability a threat, and determines to cut them down."

Workplace bullying saps the energy of your workforce for both the person being bullied and those who witness the behaviour. Workplace bullying increases stress levels, decreases confidence and trust in the workplace. Bullying can turn an otherwise exceptional employee into a low performer.

For the witnesses of bullying in your workplace, it increases stress levels as they themselves do not want to be a target of the bully. This keeps them on guard as they go through their daily activities of the job. It also impacts their ability to fully participate as a team member, share their true thoughts and ideas in the workplace, and prevents them from assisting the one being bullied.

Workplace bullying impacts the work environment, undermines teamwork, and pits staff against one another. The impact stretches far and wide throughout the organization. For the organization, workplace bullying can lead to increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, increased workplace incidents and accidents, decreased customer service, and increased turnover, all of which impact the financials of the organization.

So what behaviour constitutes workplace bullying? These are just a few behaviours and some of the following 15 may surprise you. This is not an exhaustive list. However, it does give you some of the behavioural signs to watch for and the impact it has on individuals. As an isolated action, some may not be a concern. But unless they are addressed as unacceptable immediately, you may have an issue in your workplace.

Fifteen signs of workplace bullying

  1. Continually undervaluing effort. Recognition of effort is an important motivator for every employee. Without it, people tend to decrease effort, have little desire to be in to work on time, or perform their work to the best of their ability. By undervaluing an employee’s efforts, an exceptional employee can quickly become a problem employee.
  2. Refusing to delegate. Delegation is a tool for getting more done in less time and for developing employees. When an employee is not given the opportunity to develop, they will certainly look for the opportunity elsewhere.
  3. Frequently changing workplace rules. When the playing field is ever changing, how can the players play the game effectively? Changing the workplace guidelines on a regular basis sets employees up for failure, "keeps them on egg shells" because they never know what the "rules of the day" are. It also undermines trust amongst co-workers.
  4. Public humiliation. Reprimanding an employee in a meeting or in the presence of other employees, yelling at or swearing at an employee, or rolling of the eyes when an employee or co-worker is expressing an opinion are all examples of humiliation.
  5. Personal insults and name-calling. Whether in the presence of the individual or behind the individual’s back, this tends to alienate and lends to the forming of camps, further dividing your workforce.
  6. Over-monitoring with malicious intent. Micromanaging with the intent of finding problems undermines the ability of an individual to do their job and do it well. Over time this approach can increase the mistakes a person makes. Micromanaging can make someone feel as though their every move is being monitored and judged. It can make them nervous and take their mind off of their work, increasing stress levels and developing into health issues.
  7. Unfair applications of leave or promotion. This occurs when the rules for promotion are not applied consistently among the staff, when some have flexibility in scheduling, or some have the freedom to come and go as they please and others do not. When one individual is singled out and the rules of the workplace are not applied consistently it constitutes as bullying. This behaviour undermines trust, decreases motivation, and creates a negative attitude toward the supervisor and the organization. This will be reflected in the quality of work of the individual if the individual does not leave the organization first.
  8. Instigating complaints from others to make an individual appear incompetent. Not all staff complaints are genuine issues. The challenge for the supervisor is defining the difference. A well versed bully is able to manipulate others into believing that the person being bullied is incompetent and will manipulate others into joining their camp in ostracizing the one being bullied by filing complaints that are unfounded.
  9. Constant criticism. Feedback, whether positive or negative, is a useful tool for improvement, however some mistake criticism for feedback. Regular criticism that is judgemental in nature is destructive to the individual receiving it, undermines self confidence, impacts the spirit of the individual, and instils a sense of incompetence.
  10. Spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendo. Hard to catch, yet extremely destructive to the workplace, rumours are hurtful and demeaning; they pit staff against one another and undermine the ability to work as a team.
  11. Ignoring or excluding. The act of ostracizing someone in the workplace has the same effect as exiting someone from the community. Shunning creates a loss of identity and belonging. Every employee needs to feel a sense of belonging. One of the reasons people work is to experience a connection to others, as a sense of purpose is required for each individual to feel whole as a person.
  12. Withholding information. When information is required to do a job and the information is withheld, we are setting someone up for failure.
  13. Intimidating a person. Intimidation comes in many forms, and all instil a sense of fear in the person being bullied, whether it be fear of losing one’s job, fear of humiliation, fear of being ostracized, or fear of reprimand. All of these forms of control constitute intimidation.
  14. Removing areas of responsibility or promising projects and not following through. In particular when there is no reason or explanation. By taking away responsibility or not following through on a commitment to an employee, the employee looses trust, motivation and starts to question their own ability.
  15. Deliberately sabotaging or impeding work performance. This can happen in many forms, by not giving information required to perform the job, by not providing adequate workspace to complete the job, not giving the authority required to complete the job etc. This sets the employee up for failure; the result is that the work fails, the individual fails, and the organization looks incompetent in the end.

Bullies choose their targets, timing, location, and approach carefully; they know the rules and how to break them. Left unaddressed a workplace bully can influence your rate of turnover, the general health of your workplace, the productivity of your staff, and poison the overall culture of your organization.

By establishing strict guidelines on workplace bullying and training your staff about the topic, you are able to minimize bullying behaviour and its consequences in your organization.

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For more information about how your organization can develop a comprehensive prevention program and provide valuable learning for this topic to your staff contact Gailforce Resources at

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