Bullying at work is a serious issue that can harm employees and put a serious dent in workplace morale. Despite many employers taking steps to create safe and inclusive workplaces, instances of bullying still happen, more often than not going unnoticed or addressed.
According to HRAcuity’s 2023 Workplace Harassment & Employee Misconduct Insights report, more than half of employees have experienced or witnessed inappropriate, unethical, or illegal behaviours at work, the most prevalent of these being bullying.
To create a supportive and respectful workplace, it’s important to know and recognise the signs of bullying, and what can be done about it. In this article, we’ll look at various bullying at work examples and highlight key signs to watch out for. We’ll also explore what you can do if you’re experiencing bullying at work, including potential legal remedies.
What is bullying at work?
Despite bullying being one of the most common issues employees face, there’s no legal definition of bullying. However, generally, bullying refers to unwanted behaviours that can come in various forms including being offensive, intimidating, or hurtful.
Bullying at work often involves a misuse of power that undermines or causes harm to someone emotionally or physically.
Bullying can happen more than once, regularly, or just once, and it can take place in various settings like in face-to-face interactions, via social media, through email communications, or on calls.
One of the biggest difficulties in defining and identifying bullying at work is that it may not always be obvious to others in the workplace, or the person doing the bullying doesn’t realise they are causing harm through their behaviour.
Examples of bullying at work
Constantly criticising your work
Regular and unjust criticism of your work by supervisors, team leaders, or colleagues may constitute workplace bullying. While constructive feedback can boost performance, constant and unfair criticism can have the opposite effect, lowering morale and belittling accomplishments.
Some employees may attempt to outshine others by intentionally undermining their colleagues to make them appear incompetent in front of supervisors. This behavior not only harms relationships and unfairly distributes credit but also disrupts work processes.
Mohammed is a hard worker, always meeting deadlines and helping the team. But his colleague, Mark, seems to dislike him. Instead of offering helpful advice, Mark constantly criticizes Mohammed's work, finding fault with everything from his reports to how he speaks in meetings. This relentless criticism makes Mohammed feel demoralized and unappreciated.
Spreading malicious rumours about you
Talking behind someone's back and spreading rumors at work can be a form of bullying that's hard to notice but hurts. It can make the person being talked about feel anxious and cause problems between coworkers. This kind of gossip can happen in person or online, and the people doing it might be trying to benefit themselves or hurt others.
Alex, a valued member of her company, faces unwarranted criticism from a coworker named Emily. Emily casually spreads rumors about Alex's work ethic and reliability to other colleagues, embellishing the story to make it seem more credible. These rumors quickly spread throughout the office, causing doubt about Alex's abilities and leading some colleagues to distance themselves from her. Despite Alex's continued high-quality work, she begins to feel isolated and undervalued.
In this situation, Emily's baseless rumors undermine Alex's reputation and credibility, creating a hostile work environment that harms Alex's professional relationships and self-esteem.
Deliberately giving you a heavier workload than everyone else
If your manager consistently gives you a heavier workload than your colleagues, it might indicate bullying. However, it's important to consider factors like your efficiency or if they're trying to challenge you. Another form of bullying is when tasks assigned are too difficult or impossible to complete on time. The bully then uses your failure to punish you. This type of bullying can go unnoticed within the company's workflow processes.
On the other hand, some employees may bully others by refusing to assign them tasks or giving them unimportant projects that won’t earn recognition. The goal is usually to make the victim feel insignificant or hinder their success in their role.
James oversees the marketing team, including Maya, a hardworking Marketing Executive. Despite her equal capabilities, Maya is burdened with an overwhelming workload compared to her colleagues. Initially praised for her efficiency, Maya took on extra tasks willingly. However, over time, James continued to pile on responsibilities, leading Maya to work late nights and weekends to keep up. This imbalance has strained Maya's work-life balance and made her feel isolated.
James's deliberate overload of Maya could be seen as workplace bullying, creating a toxic environment that harms Maya's morale and career growth.
Excluding you from team social events or work occasions
Workplace exclusion is when individuals or groups are treated unfairly, often because of certain traits they have. This can happen in different ways, like not being included in meetings or social gatherings, being left out of important discussions or decisions, being ignored or interrupted in meetings, or receiving different treatment than others.
A common example is when managers consistently ignore an employee's ideas, don't promote them, or don't invite them to team activities or social events. This exclusion can hurt relationships and create a negative atmosphere at work.
Employers should make sure everyone has the chance to join in social events and be included at work. Workplace exclusion is harmful and can involve discrimination, bias, or harassment.
Ralph works in an office where socializing outside of work is common, but he often finds himself left out of these gatherings. Despite being friendly, he notices that he's consistently excluded from team lunches, after-work drinks, and other social events. It's not that he hasn't shown interest or tried to join; rather, his coworkers seem to deliberately overlook him when making plans. For instance, he overhears his colleagues planning post-work drinks but receives no invitation, leaving him feeling awkward and excluded. This isn't a one-time occurrence for Ralph; it's a recurring pattern that makes him feel isolated from his team.
This exclusion of Ralph from team social events could be seen as a form of workplace bullying. While it may seem subtle, it still undermines his sense of belonging and affects his psychological well-being.
Colleagues bad-mouthing or mocking you on social media
Cyberbullying at work can include offensive emails, texts, or social media posts targeting someone's race, gender, or other personal traits. These messages directly affect the person they're aimed at. For instance, forwarding a personal email to embarrass someone is a form of cyberbullying. It can also involve serious threats of violence or stalking, which should be reported right away.
Tom and Sarah work together in the same office. However, Tom decides to create a fake social media account using a different name. He uses this account to post mean and embarrassing comments and photos about Sarah. These posts make fun of Sarah's looks and how she does her job. For example, Tom shares a photo of Sarah from a team event without asking her, and he writes a mean comment about how she looks. He also leaves hurtful comments on Sarah's posts. These posts quickly spread, and lots of people see them, even people who don't work with Tom and Sarah. Sarah feels upset and unsafe because of what Tom is doing. She can't even feel safe at home because the bullying continues online.
In this situation, what Tom is doing is a type of bullying called cyberbullying. By targeting Sarah with mean and embarrassing posts, Tom is making her feel scared and unhappy.
Acting aggressively toward you
Some bullies are upfront and aggressive, aiming to publicly embarrass their targets. Workplace aggression can be either direct or subtle. Direct aggression involves obvious actions like yelling, while subtle aggression, like ignoring someone, is less noticeable. Both types are harmful and can lead to power imbalances, stress, and communication problems among coworkers.
Leonard often shows aggressive behavior toward his colleagues, especially when stressed or things don't go his way. For instance, during a team meeting about a project deadline extension, he becomes visibly upset, shouting at his colleagues and blaming them for delays. His tone and body language are confrontational, making everyone uncomfortable. Outside of meetings, Leonard's aggression continues through shouting, swearing, and even physical intimidation, aiming to dominate his coworkers.
In this situation, Leonard's aggressive behavior may be considered workplace bullying, as he uses intimidation and hostility to assert power and control over his colleagues.
Not being kept informed of important information
Manipulative bullies sometimes withhold important information from others, like details about tasks or meetings. This can lead to mistakes, and the victim usually gets punished by their manager.
Andy and Mike are working on a project together. Andy is responsible for coordinating the project, but he deliberately neglects to share information with Mike, like changes to deadlines or client requirements. As a result, Mike is constantly playing catch up and struggles to meet expectations, despite his best efforts. When he raises this with Andy, he brushes Mike off, leaving him feeling frustrated and marginalised.
In this scenario, Andy’s behaviour could be seen as bullying, as he uses his position to control and manipulate the flow of information to his advantage.
Telling offensive or sexual jokes
Teasing and inappropriate jokes can be used to belittle coworkers. And using humour to hide prejudices or personal animosity is not uncommon in the workplace. While some people are oblivious to the impact of their words, others might use humour to express feelings they’re uncomfortable sharing directly or make pointed jokes to show off. In some circumstances, some people just enjoy getting a reaction, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative.
Regardless, off-colour offensive or inappropriate jokes can be very problematic in the workplace and, in some cases, considered actionable harassment.
Alex and Lisa work together, but Alex often makes offensive jokes targeting Lisa's gender and ethnicity. For example, during team meetings, Alex uses sexist language and racial stereotypes to belittle Lisa. This behavior creates a hostile environment for Lisa, which is a form of workplace bullying.
Upward bullying happens when employees target someone in a higher position, like a manager, also known as 'subordinate bullying.' Examples include disrespect, refusal of tasks, spreading rumors, undermining authority, or intentionally making someone appear incompetent.
This type of bullying can often go unnoticed because it goes against the traditional idea of bullying. However, upward bullying is equally harmful to the victim as any other form of bullying.
Frank, a junior employee, frequently interrupts, dismisses ideas, and openly challenges his manager, Max, during team meetings. He uses a condescending tone and body language, making Max feel belittled and undermined as a leader. Outside of meetings, Frank spreads rumors about Max, undermining his confidence and creating dysfunction within the team.
When is bullying at work classified as harassment?
Bullying at work might fall under harassment according to the Equality Act 2010. Harassment involves unwanted behavior that violates your dignity or creates a hostile environment, especially related to protected characteristics like race, gender, or disability.
Examples of bullying that could be considered harassment include:
Verbal abuse from a colleague;
Personal questions that make you uncomfortable, such as about your gender, disability, or religion;
Uncomfortable posters or literature at work;
Rude gestures or expressions;
Sexual jokes made by a colleague;
Offensive comments, whether in person or online
If you're unsure whether the bullying you're experiencing qualifies as harassment, it's wise to talk to your manager or consult an employment law solicitor for advice on your potential harassment claim.
Tips for dealing with bullying at work
As an employee, you have the right to a safe working environment. If you are facing bullying at work, here are a few quick tips to help you tackle the problem like an employment lawyer:
Report it: Tell someone in charge as soon as possible. They must investigate and stop bullying.
Speak up: If you feel safe, tell the bully how their actions affect you. Sometimes they don't realize the harm they're causing.
Keep a record: Write down what happens, including dates and any witnesses. It helps when reporting the bullying.
Stay away if you can: If it's possible, try to avoid the bully while the issue is being sorted out. Your manager or HR can help with this.
Bullying at work and the law
In the UK, there's no exact legal definition of bullying. However, all employers are responsible for keeping the workplace safe. If they fail in this duty, employees who experience bullying may have grounds to claim a breach of employment contract.
How should an employer deal with bullying at work?
Employees deserve a workplace free from bullying, while employers have the right to expect respectful behavior among colleagues and compliance with reasonable instructions from managers.
In addressing bullying, employers also have a legal duty to safeguard their employees from harm, which includes addressing any instances of bullying promptly and thoroughly. This entails taking proactive steps to prevent bullying and promptly investigating any complaints raised in the workplace.
Get help from Lawhive
Dealing with bullying at work can be tough, especially if it crosses into harassment or discrimination. In serious cases, it might even force you to leave your job, which can have both emotional and financial consequences.
If you're facing bullying at work, our team of employment law solicitors is ready to offer fast, affordable advice with fixed fees. They can help you understand your rights, evaluate your case, and guide you on taking the necessary steps to address and stop the bullying. For more details, reach out to our legal assessment team for a free case evaluation today.