Workplace Bullying Might Be More Common Than You Think

When you hear the word “bullying,” you probably think “kids.” You might be surprised that bullying is a problem for many adults in the workplace: 35 percent of workers reported in a recent survey that they’ve dealt with an office bully.


OfficeTeam developed the survey of workers and HR managers, which was conducted by an independent research firm. The survey includes responses from more than 300 U.S. workers 18 years or older and employed in office environments, and more than 300 HR managers at U.S. companies with 20 or more employees.

Management Disconnect

The survey showed a disconnect between how often employees think bullying occurs versus how often HR managers think it occurs. Although nearly one in three workers reported bullying behaviors, more than one in three HR Managers reported that it never happens.

When asked how often they think bullying occurs at their company, HR Managers responded as follows:

  • Very often: 6 percent
  • Somewhat often: 21 percent
  • Not very often: 35 percent
  • Never: 38 percent

Perhaps management doesn’t think bullying happens because employees often fail to report it. When asked how they responded to a bully, only 27 percent of employees stated that they reported the conduct to their manager.


Other employee responses:

  • 32 percent stated that they confronted the person;
  • 27 percent told their manager;
  • 13 percent said they quit their job; and
  • 17 percent did nothing.

“Workplace bullying often flies under the radar because employees tolerate or fail to report it,” said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam. “Managers and staff alike should be supported in addressing bullying issues. This includes not giving anyone a pass for negative behavior, no matter how valued that person may be.”

Bullying and Violence

Some studies have shown that bullying in the workplace can contribute to an environment of violence. Violence can mean more than just physical violence and can include threats, coercion and emotional abuse.


Consider the following definition:

  • Bullying: the repeated infliction of intentional, malicious, and abusive conduct which interferes with a person’s ability to do his/her work and is substantial enough to cause physical and/or psychological harm and a reasonable person would find hostile or offensive.

Bullying is not the occasional eye-roll or dismissive behavior, but repeated, targeted, harmful and abusive mistreatment.

California Takes on Bullying at Work

California has made some efforts to combat workplace bullying through a new training requirement.


As of January 1, 2015, employers subject to California’s mandatory sexual harassment prevention training requirement (employers with 50 or more employees, including part-time and temporary employees, employees hired through temporary staffing agencies and independent contractors) must also include prevention of “abusive conduct,” or bullying, as a component of the training and education.


This new law does not mean that an employee can sue for abusive conduct or bullying in the workplace, unless of course the behavior becomes discrimination or harassment against a protected class; the law merely requires training on prevention of abusive conduct.


Abusive conduct is defined as “conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.”


Abusive conduct may include:

  • Repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets;
  • Verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating; or
  • The gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.

Addressing Bullying Through Policies

Employers who are serious about addressing bullying incidents in the workplace may want to start with their written policies, making it clear to employees that bullying in the workplace will not be tolerated. This can be accomplished by discussing bullying in a written workplace violence policy.


For example, consider a proactive workplace violence policy that states that the organization will not tolerate violent behavior, threats of violence or any persistent malicious behavior that is known to have a high correlation to violent behavior, such as abusive conduct, intimidation, or conduct that demeans, degrades or humiliates other employees.


It is important for each employee to be made aware that it is his/her responsibility to report behavior (on the part of fellow employees, customers, visitors, etc.) that is inconsistent with the workplace violence prevention policy.


It is also helpful if the policy lists examples of unacceptable behaviors, and states very clearly that policy breaches will lead to discipline, up to and including termination.

Best Practices

The law requires employers to provide a safe working environment for all employees:

  • Assess whether your workplace is at an increased risk for bullying or workplace violence.
  • Develop written policies that address improper behaviors, including bullying, in the workplace.
  • Develop a violence prevention program — the extent of the program will depend on the risk factors in your particular workplace.
  • Be prepared to respond to bullying and violence in the workplace.

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