Strategies to Stop Workplace Bullying

January 13, 2014
Customer service hand holding older person's hand

The Baltimore Business Journal recently posted an article titled “Workplace Bullying Is Legal, but Here Are Four Ways You Can Stop It.” The concept of whether or not bullying is legal certainly draws intrigue. I believe that the intent of the article was to help employers and employees understand that there are few laws in the United States that speak clearly to the issue of workplace bullying. There have, however, been a number of successful civil lawsuits in the US relative to psychological harassment that have been upheld by the Supreme Court under Title VII. Other civil actions (sometimes successful, sometimes not) have instead invoked the fact that specific cases of psychological harassment have involved the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A Continuum of Behaviors

CPI believes that workplace bullying/psychological harassment is in fact workplace violence. Workplace violence is comprised of a continuum of behaviors ranging from discourtesy and disrespect, intimidation, harassment/bullying, retaliation, verbal assault, and physical aggression.

Workplace Violence Continuum graphic

Guidelines and Legislation

Depending on your employer and jurisdictions within which your organization operates, there may be guidelines or legislation in place. For example, if you are in the field of health care, your organization may be mandated by the Joint Commission [PDF] to provide training in regards to workplace bullying.

What Defines Workplace Bullying?

Here’s some practical information about workplace bullying.

First, I think it’s important to understand what bullying is and that anyone can be a target of a bully. CPI defines workplace bullying as persistent and ongoing acts of disrespect directed toward an individual or group. Some examples include:

  • Regularly withholding essential information
  • Repeatedly and intentionally failing to invite someone to meetings that are essential to their job
  • Ignoring a colleague every time they disagree with you
  • Making gestures or invading personal space deliberately to cause fear or concern for safety. 

My colleague Cassy touched on who can be a target in her recent post “Be a Man, for Crying Out Loud!” One of the myths that we discuss in our Workplace Bullying Topic Module is the misconception that most workplace bullying is inflicted by bosses. A target can in fact be a supervisor who’s bullied by an employee, or an employee who’s targeted by a supervisor. However, the majority of workplace bullying occurs on a lateral level; i.e., employees bullying coworkers.

Some of you may be thinking, “But wait, doesn’t bullying involve a difference in power and don’t bosses have all the power?” Bosses do have one form of power and bullying does involve a power difference. However, there are many forms of power. These include social power, seniority, intellectual power, job knowledge, and subject matter expertise. There is also power in gossip, lies, and secrets. Power doesn’t necessarily involve one’s position or rank. People who bully typically have either assumed, perceived, or real authority in relation to the target.

What Can YOU Do to Stop Bullying?

Here are several strategies that you can use whether you’re an organizational leader, a manager or supervisor, or any employee in your organization.

Organizational Leaders

  • Review current policies and procedures. Do your policies and procedures address respecting one another in the workplace? Have you provided clear expectations regarding interactions among coworkers? Is there a clear channel for reporting workplace incivility or bullying?
  • Provide easy access to communication channels and support systems. Implement a clear method—that doesn’t have recourse—for reporting incivility and bullying. Some organizations have toll-free hotlines that employees can call to report instances of incivility or feeling targeted. Also consider implementing employee and customer surveys.
  • Process complaints fairly. Implement a standard investigation process to evaluate every reported incident. Establish a universal disciplinary policy for instigators of bullying. Be cautious in making exceptions for any internal or external customer who has been accused of incivility or bullying, and ensure a thorough evaluation of the information gathered.
  • Implement training. Provide training for all employees in respectful communication protocols and the consequences of not adhering to them. Many organizations go a step further and train employees in skills to prevent, recognize, and respond to incidents of incivility, aggression, and bullying in their workplaces. 

Managers and Supervisors

  • Keep your ear to the ground. Listen to employee concerns both formally and informally. You are closer to the employees than the senior level, so be aware of sudden shifts and pattern changes in behavior.
  • Address concerns and all forms of aggression. Respectfully attend to employee concerns about incivility and disrespectful verbal aggression whenever it occurs. When necessary, follow through on progressive discipline.
  • Walk the talk. Treat your employees respectfully, and encourage respectful interactions at all times through all communication channels. Managers and supervisors set the overall tone for workplace behavior, and your employees are watching you for cues.
  • Arrange, support, and attend training. Provide ongoing training on respectful workplace interactions. Having employees acknowledge a policy during orientation isn’t enough. Employees need to know specific behaviors that are acceptable or unacceptable and be trained in how to handle incivility and bullying when it occurs.


  • Know that it starts with you. Take a look at yourself and your current work environment to understand how you’re being perceived and/or treated. If you feel you’re being treated differently than before, are there any factors or changes that could explain it such as changes in schedule, supervisors, or assignments? Could any of these be contributing to your own sense of dissatisfaction? If you’re being treated disrespectfully, have you brought it to the other person’s attention and asked them to stop (if it's safe to discuss it with the person)?
  • Model and support ethical, respectful behavior in your everyday interactions. In order to receive respect, you must give it. Are you treating others respectfully throughout all communication channels?
  • Communicate. If someone does something that you feel is disrespectful, have a conversation with them (if you feel it’s safe to do so). We can’t jump to the conclusion that an individual is a bully if we have not told them that their behavior is disrespectful, as we haven’t given them the opportunity to understand our perception—and the opportunity to change.
  • If you see something, say something. While you may not be the target of a bully, if you witness disrespectful or uncivil behavior, say something—either directly to the person if it’s safe to do so or to your supervisor, HR, or leadership team.
  • Attend and participate in training. Awareness training and skill building is essential for all employees and helps employees translate policies and procedures into everyday workplace behaviors.

It’s important to remember that we are all responsible for creating and maintaining safe and respectful workplaces. Bullying can exist only in environments and cultures that tolerate it. If you see it, say something about it, and remember that preventing and stopping workplace bullying starts with you.

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