Bullying at work

Bullying isn’t something  that just happens in school – workplaces can be a hotbed of aggression, intimidation and general meanness.

Business manBullying in the workplace is actually incredibly common, but can be hard to identify and even harder to know how to deal with it.

In certain work environments, it can feel like just part of the game, like everyone slags each other off and you have to be tough and keep up.

But working somewhere where you’re being intimidated or threatened is not on. It can have a really negative effect on both your performance and your confidence.

What is workplace bullying?

Bullying at work often takes the form of psychological or social intimidation, like:

  • verbal abuse, insulting your work or you (including your family, sex, sexuality, race or culture, education or economic background)
  • excluding or isolating you from people or situations
  • psychological harassment (playing mind games, ganging up on you)
  • giving you pointless tasks that have nothing to do with your job
  • giving you impossible jobs that can’t be done in the given time or with the resources provided
  • deliberately changing your work roster to make it difficult for you
  • deliberately holding back information you need to get your work done properly.

This sort of thing isn’t always obvious to everyone else, but over time, it can really affect you. That’s not to say that there can’t be more obvious, physical bullying in work too. These cases include:

  • pushing, tripping, grabbing or any other type of direct physical contact
  • attacking or threatening
  • any form of sexual harassment, such as flashing or groping
  • initiation or hazing – where you’re made to do humiliating things in order to be accepted as part of the team.

This can happen, and can get pretty serious. Remember, physical assault and threatening behaviour just isn’t on – for starters, it’s against the law.

How it can affect your work

If you’re being bullied at work, it can have a major effect on your work and your confidence. You might:

  • be less productive
  • be less confident in your work
  • feel scared, stressed, anxious or depressed
  • have your life outside of work affected, eg study, relationships
  • want to stay away from work
  • feel unable to trust your employer or the people you work with
  • lack confidence and self-esteem in yourself and your work
  • have physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, backaches, sleep problems.

See bullying for more about the other effects.

Why it happens

As with bullying at school or anywhere else, people who bully other people at work often have low self-esteem or have been a victim of violence themselves.

They use bullying as a way of exerting power to make themselves feel better.

If you’re dealing with bullying, remember whoever’s doing it is probably using it as a way of dealing with their own problems and it isn’t because of anything you’ve done.

They could be  motivated by jealousy, lack of knowledge, fear or misunderstanding. That doesn’t make it ok.

Your rights in the workplace

No one deserves or asks to be bullied, no matter what. Everyone has the right to work in an environment free from bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence. It’s not too much to ask.

Employers and employees have duties by law (Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 ) to comply with any measures in place to promote health and safety within the workplace and not to put themselves or their colleagues at risk.

It’s worth keeping in mind that bullying is not the same as conflict. Disagreement and conflict happens, and you have to deal with that. You shouldn’t have to deal with aggression or intimidation.

What you can do

When you’re being intimidated or bullied by someone at work, it can feel as if your options are pretty limited.

You might want to avoid making a fuss, or think people will assume you’re making a big deal out of nothing.

If it’s a really macho or competitive environment, you might be worried it’ll seem like you’re not tough enough to handle it. You might also be worried about keeping your job.

But it shouldn’t go unchallenged. There are things you can do and people who can help.

  • Respond to the person calmly and firmly. Stand up straight, look them in the eye and be confident.
  • Find out exactly what your job description is and what your contract says. That way if they’re getting you to do stuff that goes beyond your remit, you can point it out completely factually.
  • Make sure you’re informed. Find out what the organisation’s policies and procedures are for preventing and handling bullying.
  • Keep a diary documenting everything that happens, including what you’ve done to try stopping it. This can help if you make a complaint.
  • Get external information and advice from bodies such as the union representing your industry, the Health and Safety Authority or the Equality Tribunal. These organisations can give you advice on your options and your rights.
    You can also ask them to act on your behalf if you don’t feel comfortable doing it. They should respect your confidentiality, though if you are concerned about this, ask them what their responsibilities are.
  • Tell someone. The person to talk to might be a Human Resource Manager. If there isn’t one you should report it directly to your employer, a supervisor/manager or health and safety representative (if your work has one).
    This situation might be able to be resolved informally, without any official complaint being made.
  • If the situation continues or is serious, you might need to make a formal (written) complaint that follows company policy. The person doing the bullying might be officially warned, and required to have counselling. If the bullying continues, there might be a mediation process. If all else fails, the person bullying might be fired.
  • If the bully is your employer or they don’t do anything to stop it, it’s important you get outside support and advice.

In all situations, whether it’s work or school or wherever, you should make sure you aren’t intimidating people, or ignoring the fact that someone else is being bullied.

More information

For more information about bullying, see what to do if you’re being bullied.


Comments Show all comments

  1. Jason (admin) says:

    Hi Franco, I'm sorry to hear of the difficulty your partner is experiencing at work, and its effect on your family. We not only should be able, to have a respectful and safe environment at work, but we also have a legal right to it (Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 ) . The first step I would usually recommend is a calm but firm response to the bully. However, since you say that your partner has tried to confront this person (or these people?) already with no success, I would now recommend she goes to an authority, within or outside her workplace, that can help her. Speaking to a supervisor, manager or Human Resources person will bring her problem to light, assuming it is not already known of, and these people would then have a legal obligation to get the bullying to stop. If she feels that she can not, or does not want to, have it dealt with solely within her workplace, she can seek advice from organisations such as the union that represents her industry, the Health and Safety Authority or the Equality Tribunal.

    It often helps to have a record of the bullying written down, including times, dates, any bullying incidents that happened and then anything she might have done to try to put a stop to it. This will help your partner when trying to make a case, especially with her manager, HR person or with an agency outside her workplace. I suggest she starts this written record as soon as possible. The page above has lots of information on bullying in the workplace that may be of use to you.

    Your partner is lucky that she has you to talk with about this. Having your support will help her through this.
    I hope this situation reaches a swift and satisfactory ending. Please get in touch again if you want any more advice or information, good luck.

  2. Franco says:

    Hi, my partner is being constantly bullied at work, she has confronted it on numerous occasions without success, in fact it is just getting worse, and her feelings is just to leave is because she is scared of changing job and losing job stability. It is affecting her, our family. What can I do?

  3. Fenella (Admin) says:

    Hi Tracie,

    I'm really sorry to hear you are being bullied. We all have a right to live, work and play without fear of being bullied. If you are being bullied at work, there are some steps you can take to help stop the bullying and the first one is to report the bullying and let someone at work know that it is happening. This person could be your manager, your HR department (if your workplace has one) or your employer.

    There may be measures in place in your workplace to prevent bullying but your manager or employer will need to know the bullying is happening first so that they can try to stop it, so talking to your manager or employer should be your first step. Finding out what anti-bullying policies your workplace has should be your second step.

    Keeping a diary and a record including times, dates and details of bullying incidents can help you to make your case and I would recommend you start this record/diary as soon as possible.

    I think from your IP address that you are based in the US, is this right? We're based in Ireland, so we're not very familiar with anti bullying agencies in the USA. If you have a Union though, you can contact them for information and advice and you can also check out the Workplace Bullying Institute for information and advice.

    As well as reporting this to someone at work, I hope you have a trusted friend or family member you can talk about this with. It sounds like a stressful situation Tracie and it is worth opening up and sharing any thoughts or concerns you have with someone you trust. Having support from family and friends will help you through this. Remember to look after yourself during this time too. Make sure you make time to do the things you enjoy, that you get time to exercise and to get enough sleep as well. Try not to let this bullying take over and stop you from doing your usual activities.

    No one deserves to be bullied, so I do hope you report this bullying to your manager, HR department, employer or an outside agency like your Union as necessary to help put a stop to this. Things can get better Tracie.

    Take care,

  4. Tracie says:

    Please help I m being bullied

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