Workplace bullying is extremely common and has a high financial impact on companies. Based on research by Dr. Judy Blando at the University of Phoenix, 47% of employees have been bullied at some point in their career, and 27% admitted to being a target of a bully in the last 12 months. Up to 75% of participants reported witnessing mistreatment of co-workers sometime throughout their careers. Bullying is becoming known as the “silent epidemic” in today’s workplaces.

Recently, there have been more news reports about incidents of bullying and mistreatment in the workplace. Last February, Wired exposed employee stories about bullying and mistreatment that allegedly took place at Revolut, a fintech unicorn startup.

What is Workplace Bullying?

But what exactly constitutes bullying? According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, “Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work-interference, i.e. sabotage, which prevents work from getting done.”

I asked Eitan Meiri, an expert psychologist in the field of Abuse & Bullying in the workplace, and one of Cassiopeia’s advisors, to identify employees who could be a potential target of workplace bullying.

Meiri said that there are a few common characteristics among employees who suffer from bullying. “Usually, they are people with very high morals, and they won’t ignore corruption or misconduct in the workplace. The targets are usually ‘we’ people rather than ‘me’ people—they prefer to drive results rather than promote themselves or steal the limelight. Also, these employees tend to share knowledge and often positively contribute to the social atmosphere of the team. Basically, everyone would be happy to work with these people.” It’s their very willingness to please that makes them targets.

Meiri went on to explain, “Targets of bullying are usually people that are eager to please—those who want to conform and ‘belong’ as well as avoid conflicts with others. It’s hard for them to set the red line and say—‘no more’.”

Bullying is a health hazard, and it takes a toll on the people being bullied. According to the workplace bullying institute, 41% of employees that experienced bullying were diagnosed with depression, and over 80% reported symptoms that prevented them from being productive at work (severe anxiety, lost concentration, insomnia, etc.), while 21-31% of employees who had been bullied suffered from symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Three Types of Workplace Bullies

How can we identify a potential offender? I asked Meiri if there are any common characteristics that workplace bullies share. “Bullying personalities are opportunistic, overly ambitious, powerful, and usually aggressive,” Meiri said. “The offender usually does not share the target’s positive characteristics, and often feels threatened by them. Furthermore, the target’s positive characteristics make them more vulnerable to being bullied.”

According to Meiri, there are three main types of people that tend to be bullies in the workplace.

The first type are managers who do not have the natural skills to manage other people and have not undergo the right training. These managers are usually very mission-driven, and they don’t realize how their behavior may be harming others.

The second type are employees who have been promoted, and as a result have an inflated sense of entitlement. These employees exploit their new status and the power that comes with it.

The last type are highly manipulative individuals. In the most severe cases, they often suffer from some sort of personality disorder and can be antisocial or narcissistic. Usually, they are very smart and excellent at handling the organization’s inner politics and making a good impression. Given this, it can often take time to identify the damage they are causing to other employees and to the company.

Meiri clarified that “The first two types can be guided, and with the right training and intervention, they can be good managers and employees. However, changing the behavioral pattern of the third type is far more challenging.”

While bullying can have a devastating impact on subjects, the impact of workplace bullying can also be detrimental to companies. Bullying can shatter morale, diminish productivity, lead to high turnover rates, and dent the company’s bottom line with high legal expenses.

Six Steps to Stop Workplace Bullying

The natural follow-up question is how companies can prevent bullying and diminish this silent epidemic.

According to Meiri’s experience working with companies in both the private and public sector, companies should pursue a few key steps in order to prevent bullying in the workplace.

  1. Set a no-tolerance company policy. The first step toward a bully-free workplace is to set a clear company policy that stipulates that bullying in any form will not be tolerated and creates severe consequences for any workplace bully.
  2. Socialize the policy. The policy should be presented inside the company as part of an organized process. Without proper communication about this new bullying policy, it won’t have any actual effects.  
  3. Promote anti-bullying training. The training process should be divided into two steps. The first stage needs to promote anti-bullying training for the company’s senior managers. The second stage should involve training the rest of the employees. Training helps to increase awareness about bullying behaviors inside the company, informs employees about how to recognize bullying, and makes clear what the organizational costs are.
  4. Nominate a professional contact. Make sure there is a professional, trained contact inside your company that employees can reach out to if they are bullied or if they see bullying.
  5. Prepare a process. Create a detailed process for dealing with any bullying incident. Make sure it aligns with the consequences set out in the company policy.
  6. Measure and track. Use tools or products that can help you to measure and track the company atmosphere and offensive behaviors. Don’t wait for employees to quit or for a lawsuit to materialize unexpectedly. By using the right tools to measure employees’ experiences, companies can detect offensive behaviors in the early stages, and deal with them.

The onus lies on employers to create a safe and healthy environment that promotes employee wellbeing and keeps morale high. May 4 is International Anti-Bullying Day. It’s a good time for executives and companies to reflect on what they can do in order to prevent this “silent epidemic.”

anti-bullying day, workplace bully

Shiran Yaroslavsky Shiran Yaroslavsky
Shiran Yaroslavsky is the CEO of Cassiopeia, a startup that fosters a healthier workplace by measuring, predicting, and preventing offensive behavior. An experienced product leader and a lawyer by training, Shiran holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in law (Cum Laude). Shiran was featured in the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list.