5 Workplace Behaviors That Really Are Bullying

By Deb Muller, on July 14, 2015

In a recent VitalSmarts survey, 96% of people polled said they had experienced workplace bullying. It is a behavior that is costing US companies billions in lost productivity and worker turnover. By some estimates, companies lose as much as $13 billion per year from the many repercussions of bullying which affect morale, productivity and engagement in the workplace. Not as easy to finger, it can also be behind chronic lateness, absenteeism, mental illness or even substance abuse by employees feeling targeted in the office.

Identifying bullying is tricky because it is often characterized by an accumulation of many small incidents over a long period of time. Bullying can be extremely subtle, so dealing with it effectively begins with an understanding of whether the behavior in question is genuinely out of bounds or just a product of a co-worker’s bad day.

In case you are in doubt, here are 5 workplace behaviors that really are bullying:


Excluding others is not just a mean-spirited childhood behavior that takes place on the playground or in school. It is all too often a bullying tactic used in the workplace. Consider the simple example of the employee break room. It can be a venue for employees to take a breather from the busy workday, but it may also be the place where an employee is excluded from office chitchat or sits alone, somehow not invited to participate in a lively conversation at the next table.

Behavior that persistently excludes a co-worker is bullying and a form of employee misconduct. In the extreme, it can be complete social ostracism with colleagues avoiding eye contact, conversations or just outright ignoring their target.


Whether publicly in a meeting with others or privately in conversation, a manager or co-worker that constantly criticizes and downgrades another colleague’s comments or ideas is engaging in bullying. Condescension is a powerful tool of manipulation. In Everyday Discrimination Impacts Mental Health, researchers from the University of Texas noted that in combination with persistent hostile, character based discrimination, condescension can contribute to mental illness and even substance abuse in some minority groups. They confirm that the “…type and frequency of discrimination matters,” a reminder that it is essential for human resources to be mindful of patterns of behavior.


When co-workers band together to target a colleague, they are engaging in mobbing. It is characterized by a coordinated campaign of humiliation, ridicule and criticism by more than one person, and remarkably, mobbing accounts for 30% of workplace bullying incidents. The target is made to feel isolated and inferior, and eventually many employees subjected to mobbing leave the company.

Mobbing can be compounded by a persistent campaign of gossip by co-workers. In combination, mobbing and gossip can take a huge toll on a person’s psyche. As Janice Harper, Ph.D, writes, the recovery process from workplace mobbing can actually mirror the stages of grief. The losses in this case are the person’s pride, professional stature and confidence.

Serial bullying

Another bullying behavior is serial bullying; it’s a hit and run operation of sorts. The term was invented by Tim Field who ran the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line for 8 years. He realized the similarity of many of the calls the agency was fielding and a common pattern of behavior, which he identified as serial bullying. The serial bully moves from one target to the next.

Bullyonline, a repository of works on bullying compiled by the Tim Field Foundation warns that serial bullies are very duplicitous and strive to appear decent to others around them while purposely using subtle forms of emotional aggression on their targets. Without adequate reporting to management or human resources by those that are bullied, it’s a form of bullying that could easily go unnoticed.

Cyberbullying on social media

Outside standard office communications lies the challenging area of social media. Employees’ personal social media accounts are a convenient platform to cyberbully a co-worker. Social media allows the uploading of pictures, settings set to private to keep out anyone looking to monitor activity, and recent case law has protected some forms of questionable employee activity on social media. If you think about it, all of the more common forms of bullying done in the workplace can be done online, including exclusion. Moreover, people think nothing of snapping a picture with a smartphone, and those pictures can be shared on social media.

In a recent survey by AVG, 1 in 10 participants said they became aware of secret conversations initiated about them on social media by colleagues. Even more shocking, 11 percent experienced a colleague uploading embarrassing photos of them onto social media sites.

On a personal note

It has been fascinating to read some of the many articles on workplace bullying, many of which encourage coping strategies by the target such as avoidance, empathy and excessive niceness towards the office bully. I could not disagree more. Bullying behavior in the workplace might be difficult to prove and confront, but it must be nonetheless.

Documenting the pattern of behavior is critical as is proper training so employees recognize the cues. In fact, in the HR Acuity® 5th Annual Employee Relations and Workplace Investigation Survey, we received feedback from participants that felt their organizations needed to offer more training to help employees recognize bullying behavior. In the case of behaviors such as serial bullying, without employees that recognize the abuse and have the courage to report it, the bullying may never crystallize as a systematic pattern of behavior in the eyes of the company management or human resources.

So, learn to recognize bullying behavior in all its forms, and if you have the misfortune of experiencing it, report it. When it comes to workplace bullying, every input counts – really.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller

Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.

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