The media and lawmakers have been abuzz with talk of bullying in schools; but bullying doesn't end when you graduate. It is alive and well in the workplace, too.

According to research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 25 percent of workplaces contain some degree of bullying. Recent CareerBuilder research reported that one in four of 6,500 survey respondents say they are bullied at work. A study by the Employment Law Alliance (a group of 3,000 attorneys worldwide) found that 44 percent of employees report being bullied.

What is it?

By definition, bullying is systematic and repeated aggressive behavior that creates an unhealthy power imbalance and causes severe psychological trauma for targets and witnesses. Bullying behaviors are often covert, making it difficult for targets to describe and for managers to identify. Behaviors include the following:

  • aggressive communication: social isolation, yelling, intimidation, making threats, aggressive body language, and invasion of personal space
  • humiliation: public scathing, gossip, and persistent criticism
  • manipulation of work: excessive micromanagement, erratic punishment, assigning work far above the targets competency level, perpetually changing assignments without reason, and assigning unmanageable workloads and deadlines.

Many of us have probably experienced these tactics at some point during our careers. But when one person targets another and harasses him regularly for an extended period of time, these behaviors take a toll on the employees self-esteem and performance, as well as the workplace culture overall.

Effects of such bullying for the individual include increased depression, anxiety, and absenteeism, as well as decreased motivation, quality of work, job satisfaction, and ability to meet goals. The organization suffers when communication ceases, problems can't be solved, people can't learn, gossip abounds, and stress prevents effective decision making. Employees who witness the behaviors—even if they don't feel victimized by bullying themselves—lose faith in management, and their work suffers, too. These consequences ultimately hurt the bottom line.

For workplace learning and performance professionals who are being asked to demonstrate return-on-investment and return-on-expectation (ROE), bullying is a significant problem. An individual cannot learn or perform well in a negative environment where she suffers fear and anxiety. Employees must feel safe to disagree with one another, ask questions, make mistakes, share ideas, and take risks.

What can you do?

The solution to workplace bullying requires a concerted effort by the entire organization, with senior leadership driving the initiative, but don't wait for the C-suite to make the first move. The following are some practical steps that you can begin to implement today.

Set an example. As a person responsible for spurring learning in your organization, it is important that others can learn from your everyday communication style. You will not be a successful trainer if people are afraid of you, and you can't hold employees responsible for respectful workplace behavior if you're not practicing the same. Always remember that your word choice, tone of voice, and body language are vital to building a civil workplace.

Address the issue with decision makers. Workplace bullying doesn't exist in a vacuum. Bullying is a result of organizational norms and culture. While it can happen anywhere, it tends to be more active in workplaces that have high levels of competition and bureaucracy, make frequent changes through downsizing or workgroup transformation, employ numerous tenured individuals, and have managers who demonstrate or ignore bullying behaviors.

Ignoring bullying is fairly common, unfortunately. CareerBuilder found that 62 percent of employers did nothing when receiving complaints about bullying. A 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International study found that 53 percent of bullying targets filed a formal complaint, but in 44 percent of the cases, the employer did nothing. In 18 percent of the cases, the employer made the problem worse by providing the wrong solution.

If you are being pressured to demonstrate ROI and ROE, but the culture is damaging your chances of progress, talk to decision makers about bullying being an obstacle to learning effectiveness. Use training success as a business case for eradicating bullying.

Talk about bullying in pre-existing training programs. Bullying is not harassment, but you can include it in your harassment training if you're not ready to create a comprehensive anti-bullying program. Also, be sure to incorporate anti-bullying curriculum in your management training and leadership development programs. Talk to leaders about eliminating bullying from their own behavior, and teach them how to identify bullying among employees and handle grievances successfully.


Develop ground rules. Ask employees to develop a list of desirable and undesirable workplace behaviors and incorporate the list into a healthy-workplace company policy. Employees respond well to lists that tell them what they should do (as opposed to focusing on what they shouldn't do). You also can turn the identified behaviors into corporate values.

Include positive workplace practices in rewards systems. Along with workplace bullying awareness training, consider training programs that teach a variety of supporting topics, including conflict management, positive thinking, negotiation, assertiveness, empathy, self-examination, resilience, perception, positive language, gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness.

Of course, simply providing the training is not enough. Attach these interpersonal relationship competencies to goals and rewards within your performance management system.

Charge each department with developing positive workplace action plans. Sponsor a program that asks each department to develop action plans to create a healthy workplace culture. Attach the program's success to the department manager's performance measurements and possibly the employees, too.

Review your performance management processes. Many HR managers believe that bullying is an excuse used by poor performers who simply don't like being told that their performance is below standard. However, research shows that this scenario is rare in comparison to the prevalence of actual workplace bullying.

To avoid this trap, review your performance management process. Does it require that managers set specific goals for low performers? What resources are given to under-performers to help them improve? What follow-up is required from management? In essence, don't allow such false assumptions to flourish. If your performance management processes are effective, you will know if a problem is the result of bullying or poor performance.

Avoid traditional conflict management as a resolution strategy. Over time, a bully's aggressive behavior becomes more frequent and belligerent, pushing targets into a state of helplessness. Bullying should not be confused with conflict; conflict is disagreement, and bullying is psychological abuse. Tread lightly if considering mediation, conflict management coaching, or traditional communication skills training.

Enroll aggressive employees in coaching or mentoring programs. If an employee is identified as a bully through a 360-degree review, informal complaint, or formal investigation, offer her a chance to learn from a high-performing leader who can set her straight. Recruiting external consultants who specialize in aggressive employee behavior is also a viable option.

The bottom line

As with any culture change initiative, eradicating bullying and replacing it with a civil work environment requires systematic action plans. While training alone cannot end this problem, it is a good place to start.

Regulatory agencies and lawmakers are beginning to pay greater attention to workplace bullying. To date, the Healthy Workplace Bill has gained more than 200 legislative sponsors in 23 states since 2003.

Moreover, the benefits of a healthy, safe, positive, and supportive working environment are endless. This type of workplace facilitates a desire to learn, motivates quality performance, inspires progressive ideas, decreases turnover, minimizes workplace politics, improves internal communication and relationships with customers, reduces stress, advances the health of the organization and its employees, and stimulates excitement to achieve greatness.