Bullying is described as acts or verbal comments that could "mentally" hurt or isolate someone. Often there is a repeated pattern of this type of behaviour. The roles of bully, target, and bystanders are all described in the research on schoolyard bullying, and these roles can exist in the workplace as well. The damage inflicted by bullying can be just as serious in the workplace. The question is: how do we manage these workplace situations in a psychologically safe way?

Most of us would never intend to bully someone, but it is always possible that an unintended consequence of our behaviour may make people feel intimidated or humiliated. Many accused of workplace bullying are unaware that anyone perceived their behaviour as harmful. As well, bullying from a leader in the workplace can be difficult to recognize because there may be a blurred line between what is perceived as strong, effective management and what is experienced as bullying.

Dealing with just the bully and target is not enough – a healthy workplace strives to create an environment where bystanders can intervene in a supportive and helpful way. Knowing how to intervene in a non-confrontational, respectful way may minimize the negative impact and help ensure harmful behaviours do not continue or worsen. Having agreed upon language to intervene respectfully is key to this working during times of heightened emotions. If the perceived bully recognizes that someone is trying to help them take back control of their emotions, rather than someone criticizing them, they are more likely to respond well.

Positive approaches to resolving conflict can also help ensure the person who is acting out emotionally is not blamed or shamed. Focusing on a solution to the concern rather than the personality or even the problem can help support a fair and equitable environment where everyone involved feels respected.

Some people who bully would say they are just passionate or frustrated, or think they are being directive. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the potential impact we can have on others. Some suggestions to understand this impact include:

  • Seek clarity about how others prefer to receive feedback and what may be interpreted as harsh or unfair.
  • Have conversations about what specific words or behaviours might make us feel targeted by another person.
  • Train everyone how to speak up in an effective way if they feel an interaction is not respectful.

When leaders can ensure that every member of their team has a shared understanding of how feedback will be communicated and how to speak up respectfully when interactions seem potentially harmful, it can reduce the chances of misinterpretation or unintended consequences. It may not eliminate all perceptions of bullying, but it might allow concerns to be resolved much more effectively.

The effects of bullying in the workplace may be lasting and severe. Some strategies that can help reduce or eliminate bullying in your workplace include:

  • Developing clear, measurable, and enforceable policies and guidelines around respectful workplace behaviour.
  • Role playing through examples of what bullying would look like.
  • Developing a consensus on a how to respectfully intervene.
  • Creating specific procedures for reporting incidents not resolved.
  • Discussing alternative approaches to managing frustration at work.

More information can be found at Harassment and Bullying Prevention.