Prevent Workplace Bullying Before It Starts

by Oct 17, 2023

Did you know that every third week of October is Workplace Bullying Awareness Week? It is a week to be daring and bold. This week is all about breaking the silence and shame that often surround this problem.

In a perfect work setting, it should be a place where every employee feels safe, respected, and empowered to do their best. However, reality often falls short of this ideal.

Workplace bullying is a troubling and widespread issue that can seriously harm both the well-being of employees and the overall effectiveness of a business. 

Whether you’re an employer wanting to create a positive work environment or an employee who cares about their colleagues’ well-being, the first step toward achieving a healthy and productive workplace is to take a proactive approach. This means working to prevent workplace bullying before it even begins.


What is workplace bullying?

In the words of our CEO, Catherine Mattice, workplace bullying refers to toxic behaviors that occur within a professional or work-related environment. 

It involves actions or behaviors intended to intimidate, degrade, undermine, or harm a person emotionally, psychologically, or physically. Workplace bullying can take various forms, including verbal, non-verbal, psychological, and sometimes even physical abuse.

Workplace bullying refers to a pattern of persistent, harmful, and unwelcome behavior directed at an individual or a group of employees in a work setting. 

Fun fact: Catherine is a subject matter expert in workplace bullying, and has been researching, publishing, and speaking since 2005 when she began studying it in graduate school – due to her personal experience dealing with a person with bullying behaviors!


What does workplace bullying look like?

Workplace bullying takes various forms, and it’s crucial to recognize its diverse manifestations. This behavior can manifest as colleagues launching personal attacks on a coworker’s appearance, background, or personal life, hurling hurtful comments or jokes that are entirely unrelated to the task at hand.

Alternatively, a coworker may resort to aggressive body language, intense glares, or physical intimidation to create an atmosphere of fear and discomfort for their colleague.

In some cases, a manager might employ manipulative tactics, offering vague or conflicting instructions, purposefully setting employees up for failure, and then unjustly placing the blame on them.

Verbal threats or hostile gestures, such as yelling or aggressive body language during disagreements or conflicts, are also indicative of workplace bullying among colleagues.

In this digital age, workplace bullying can extend into the virtual realm. It includes sending offensive emails or messages, creating demeaning memes or posts, or harassing a coworker through social media platforms.

These are just some examples. Any behavior that causes harm is considered toxic, and it’s like the fuel that powers the engine of workplace bullying. Here’s a replay to the recent webinar we conducted on Dealing with Toxic People at Work.


Effects of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying and harassment can wreak havoc on so many levels – it’s not just about individuals, but also about the well-being of families, communities, and even entire organizations. The impact on organizations, in particular, makes a compelling case for employers to take action against workplace bullying.

Let’s take a closer look at what happens within organizations when bullying goes unchecked. You’ll see increased turnover, more employees calling in sick, higher healthcare costs, legal battles, accidents on the job, and even the scary prospect of workplace violence.

In fact, according to a literature review by SHRM in 2019, the cost of turnover linked to workplace culture issues reached a whopping $223 billion over the past 5 years. That’s a staggering number! And that’s not even the whole story; there are individual costs too.

For instance, research on “Psychological Medicine” revealed that workplace bullying is not just bad for your mental health, it can also increase your risk of developing cardiovascular problems and lead to extended sick leaves. 

Aside from psychological, emotional, and physical health effects, targets of workplace bullying can experience social and interpersonal effects, too.


Prevent Workplace Bullying Before It Starts

Here are some of the ways we can prevent workplace bullying before it starts

Promote a Culture of Respect and Inclusion

Creating a workplace that’s free from bullying really comes down to building a culture of respect and inclusion. And guess where it should start? Right at the top, with leaders and managers leading the way.

Encourage open communication, make active listening a priority, and foster empathy within the entire organization. When employees feel valued and respected, they are less likely to engage in bullying behavior.

Now, if you’re a leader, it’s always good to do a quick self-check. Ask yourself, “Does my management style inadvertently contribute to workplace bullying?” You can even take our assessment to get some insights. It’s all about continuous improvement and making sure your leadership style sets the right tone for a respectful workplace.


Establish Clear Policies and Procedures

You need a solid reporting system that’s safe and confidential. Employees should feel psychologically safe and know that they can report incidents without fear of retaliation.

Now, to really set the ground rules, you’ve got to have crystal-clear anti-bullying policies and procedures. Make sure they’re easy to access for everyone, and ensure that every employee knows what’s expected of them. This should include: 

  • What bullying behavior looks like
  • How to report it
  • Consequences for those who engage in it. This may include: disciplinary actions, retraining, or, in severe cases, termination.


Learning and Development

It’s important to understand that not every workplace conflict is necessarily bullying, but if you just let it simmer, things can get pretty ugly. So, what can you do? Encourage your team to deal with conflicts in a constructive way. Mediation and conflict resolution training programs can work wonders in these situations. 

You can organize training programs to help your employees recognize bullying when they see it, understand its impact, and teach them how to respond in the right way. Plus, it’s not just about preventing bullying, it’s also a fantastic way to nurture a healthier and more positive work culture!

Now, here’s a cool idea: encourage everyone to be “upstanders.” If you’re not quite sure what that means or how to become one, you should definitely check out Catherine’s TEDx talk about this topic. She’s got some fantastic tips on transitioning from a bystander to an upstander, and it can truly make a big impact.

Oh, and by the way, she’s also got a Bystander Training: From Bystander to Upstander course on LinkedIn Learning, which is worth looking into if you want to dive even deeper into this important topic.


Monitor and Evaluate

Keep an eye on your workplace environment regularly. Look for any signs or patterns of behavior that may lead to bullying. You could even get your employees involved by conducting climate assessments to see how they perceive the workplace culture and how well your anti-bullying measures are working.

This feedback is like gold. You can use it to make the necessary improvements and stay in tune with your employees’ sentiments. 

Remember that preventing bullying is not only ethically important but also essential for a healthy and productive work environment.

Let’s use this awareness week as a launchpad to encourage year-round awareness and action. Let’s work together to make this a reality, not just for one week, but for all 365 days of the year!


Written by: Jennifer Areola

Do you know how much money chronically bad behavior costs your company? Spoiler alert – it’s a LOT higher than you want it to be. Download our data and worksheet to see how it’s costing your organization and what you can do to fix it.


About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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