Workplace bullying is a big issue, and if you’ve suffered from it, you are not alone. The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2021 study estimates that around 30% of American workers have directly experienced some form of bullying at work, with an additional 20% or so having witnessed it. This works out to an estimated staggering 79.3 million workers in the US being directly affected by workplace bullying.
While we often think of bullies as the screamers who throw things and aggressively name-call (and those do exist!) there are also lots of other forms of bullying, ranging from spreading rumors and subtly blaming to withholding information to outright gaslighting. And as you might guess, the vast majority of the bullies are supervisors or peers. (Bullying “up” does happen, but in my 15+ years in career counseling, I have never witnessed it, and I have only rarely heard stories of it happening.)
And the results are nothing to be sneezed at, either. People experiencing workplace bullying have higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, PTSD, and loss of confidence, which leads to less productivity at work, higher turnover, and absenteeism. On the personal side, people report loss of income, more difficult personal relationships (stress carries over, after all), and even suicidal ideation.
But what can you do if you’re the victim of a bully at work?
Start by documenting the behaviors. I recommend either a notebook (paper isn’t hackable!) or a personal device, something your workplace doesn’t own, and something that goes home with you at night. Specifically, note the date and time, the details of the interaction, and, as much as possible the word-for-word verbal exchange.
Next, find allies. You will need to exercise some caution here, since many bullies are seen as being powerful or are in high-status roles. It may be helpful to find someone external to your unit who has witnessed the behavior. But these allies are important because they will help normalize things and remind you that your bully’s behaviors aren’t your fault.
Many articles on workplace bullying advise the victim to have a discussion with the bully, and you can certainly choose that if you want. But in my experience, it both shifts the burden to the victim and doesn’t really make a difference. Same with HT—they may even want to help you, but their real role is to support the company, not the individual, so they may be of limited help. (If things are really bad, it’s often worth trying, of course, but be prepared to be disappointed.) So instead, I’d recommend looking up your workplace’s anti-bullying policies, if any. Also, look around to see if other people are being treated poorly, either by your bully or by someone else. (The problem is usually systemic.) If so, band together, and seek out others who can support you. Multiple complaints to HR will be far more powerful than single complaints, even if you all wind up saying the same things.
If your workplace has an anti-bullying policy, look it up. The good ones have clear instructions and reporting structures, as well as particular places to find help. But if there’s no policy, look for other resources like affinity groups or even leadership training units. Even if you don’t get help about your particular situation these places, you will find camaraderie and a stronger sense of your worth.
Unfortunately, most bullying cases work out in favor of the bully, so the other step you can take is to start looking. This stinks on many levels, of course, but you have value, and the work you do has value, and sometimes you need to choose to protect yourself so that you can keep doing valuable work.