Dealing with the workplace bully

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It’s a tough problem to solve, but with 40% of Canadian workers experiencing bullying at work in the last six months it’s something HR needs to get to grips with.

Bullying at work can look very different to the schoolyard tactics we associate with the word. It can include withholding information, excluding someone from meetings, as well as threats and intimidation, according to University of Windsor assistant professor Jacqueline Power, who has spent years researching bullies in the workplace. She found that 40% of Canadians have experienced one or more acts of workplace bullying at least once a week for the last six months.

The Canadian Safety Council reports that 75% of victims of bullying leave their jobs and that workplace bullying is four times more common than sexual harassment or workplace discrimination.

"It leads to higher turnover and higher rates of sickness," Power said. "It reduces people’s levels of self-confidence."

Power said workplace bullying is "virtually never reported" to management – partly because people don’t think they will get the support they’re looking for.

It can be difficult to differentiate bullying from general negative behaviours, but the difference is in the intention behind the actions.

“Sadly we will all be exposed to negative behaviour at one time or another,” said Helge Hoel, a professor of organizational behaviour at Manchester Business School and a recognised international expert on bullying in the workplace. 

“But defining someone as a bully from the outset can be risky and can prompt the perpetrator to become very defensive, often leading to further implications for the victim,” he adds. “It is important that the perpetrator is aware of the effect their behaviour has, and cannot hide behind the idea that ‘they did not know’.”

While children are told they should stand up to the bully, Power’s research found that leads to escalation of the problem, rather than improving the situation.

"Your best bet is to quit your job. If you absolutely can’t do that, be passive. If you actively work (against) a bully ... it will get worse,” Power said.

Advice for the victim:

  1. Ask for help
    Whether from a supportive manager or coworker, or a friend outside the workplace. According to research from the UK’s Trade Union Congress, the more people know about the bullying, the less like it is to flourish.
  2. Document
    Keep track of behaviour that is unacceptable so if it comes to a “he said, she said” situation, you have documentation to back up your experiences.

Advice for HR:

  1. Policy
    The most important component of any workplace prevention program is management commitment. A well-communicated written policy including a clear statement about what types of behaviour are unacceptable can go a long way to preventing problems.
  2. Process
    Encourage reporting of incidents and have a confidential process for reporting. Ensure there are no reprisals for making a report, and have a clear procedure for investigating and resolving complaints.
  3. Train
    Help employees understand what bullying looks like and the risks to victims and the workplace. Ensure line managers understand and can recognize bullying so they can take appropriate steps to protect their teams.
  4. Fast reaction
    Don’t delay reacting or dismiss accusations that may seem trivial. A small intervention early on can help prevent long term effects.

For more information visit the CCOHS Workplace Bullying page.


  • Bruce on 2013-10-08 7:52:37 AM

    Seriously!! This is the advice of the experts in this article?

    "Your best bet is to quit your job. If you absolutely can’t do that, be passive. If you actively work (against) a bully ... it will get worse,” Power said."

    Interesting that the link to the CCOHS website at the bottom of this article mentions that the first step is to confront the bully directly.

  • Kent on 2013-10-08 8:22:55 AM

    I agree with Bruce. A common issue raised by perpetrators is that "they didn't know" their behaviour was unacceptable. If no one ever confronts bullies and advises that their behaviour is unacceptable to others, then it could make the situation worse in my opinion.

  • Amy on 2013-10-08 8:26:22 AM

    This article does not reflect the current direction in our industry (healthcare). Our organization supports the philosophy that staff stand up for themselves, and confront the perpetrator. This doesn't have to be the case, but is always a preferred method when possible. In tandem, there is a violence reporting method that is well known and understood. As an HR professional I have investigated and help successfully resolve many issues around bullying and/or bullying behaviours. Quit your job?? Bullies are everywhere. Give your employer a chance to investigate and resolve the issue. Since Bill 168 came into play, if your employer does not take this issue seriously, you likely have a bigger problem with your employer.

  • Lindsay on 2013-10-08 8:26:28 AM

    I find it hard to take this article seriously when the first bullet point of advice to the victim is to quit their job and be passive towards the bully.

  • Jo on 2013-10-08 8:27:31 AM

    Honestly!!! Roll over and pretend they can't see you. This is research that is well fitted for the bottom of my garbage can and contributes to the degradation of the workplace. Enough already with empowering people who are bullies. My bully nearly killed me in a car accident with excessive speed as we all remained passive - too afraid to speak up.

  • Caitlin Nobes on 2013-10-08 8:31:22 AM

    Thanks for the comments - it's interesting to hear the differing views. Jacqueline Power was commenting specifically based on her own research, which found that after individuals stood up to bullies, the problem got worse, not better.

    I have updated the article to take that out of the advice section based on your feedback, but have left it in as a discussion point.

  • Karen on 2013-10-08 9:11:39 AM

    As an hr manager, executive coach and workplace investigator, I have seen my share of bullying in the workplace, and the devastating effect bullying has on the victim. I have also seen the equally impactful effect of false accusations. I acknowledge bullying in the workplace occurs - I challenge the author on her quote of 40% along with her recommendation that the employee being bullied quits or becomes passive - however, I believe more emphasis is required at the front end, with HR/investigator doing their due diligence to ensure the situation meets the intent of bullying/harassment and is not actually an attempt of a manager to address performance issues. My experience is that many of those accused of bullying have in fact been managers untrained in/uncomfortable with, managing performance OR managers comfortable in having fierce conversations about performance with those less comfortable receiving the information. Don't get me wrong - I know bullying occurs in the workplace and church and schoolyard and social committees and competitive sports/dance get the picture... and I believe the most effective way of handling it is through conversation with the parties involved, led by an unbiased party trained in conflict resolution and systems management.

  • Gregg Taylor on 2013-10-08 3:00:15 PM

    For some excellent new resources on bullying and harrassment in the workplace, check out the new Bullying and Harassment Prevention Toolkit just released by WorkSafeBC at Under resources click on "see all toolkit resources".

    Gregg Taylor
    Workplace Consultant, Vancouver BC

  • HR Professional in Toronto on 2013-10-09 6:58:59 AM

    I just had a personal experience with a workplace "bully". I stood up to him and reported him. This person was immediately terminated. I can't imagine allowing a bully to stay on after an incident. Why would that ever be a good idea?

  • Christopher on 2013-10-09 7:04:56 AM

    It's never a good idea to keep a bully on in the workplace, but in order to report it you must have good management and people who are willing to do something about it. You must have policies in place and managers that are willing to do something. Not all of us work for such ethical companies and/or work units. Also if it's your boss that is being the bully, that wouldn't of turned out so well (again unless you have a really supportive management team).

  • Glenn on 2013-10-09 7:33:14 PM

    I agree with many of the comments above...this article is way off base and as with many of these things relies on unsubstantiated generalizations. After 35 years in the workplace and 20 years in HR, the best approach I found is direct confrontation by management, a written demand for immediate change and dire consequences for any retribution against the victim. I cannot think of one example where this did not work and I worked in some very tough environments... mind you in a few cases the bullies had to be eventually fired. Case closed in any event.

  • isabella on 2013-10-16 3:59:24 PM

    I agree whole heartedly with Christopher. Anyone who has been the victim of a true bully knows there is not a lot to be done. The advice given in the article is excellent. Not every one works in circumstances with strong HR support ...and, let's face it, many work in circumstances where HR is useless. A true bully, good bully is a sociopath who can cut you from 1000 yds and no one can see it. the best thing to do (sometimes) is leave or play dead while they psychologically mall you. so many righteous HR people think they can "help" ...maybe, but usually not.

  • Christopher on 2013-10-09 6:16:39 AM

    It seems most of those who have responded have not been bullied at work or experienced what the consequences are if you fight back. It's nice to know everyone has good intentions and advice, however you have to be bullied to understand fully. I hate to say this, but the original advice is true. I've been a victim of bullying (on more than one occasion) and have also heard out about it through different relationships. Standing up only makes the matter worse for you. I agree (in the principle) we should all stand up to it, however (in reality) when you need the job to survive financially, there is nothing you can do and you can’t expect a co-worker will risk their job for you even if they witness it. If you stand up to the bullying it will get worse especially if it's your boss who's the bully. If you don't do anything it will continue. It's a lose, lose. Regardless it will end in you quitting or being fired because the bully will make it seem it’s all your fault or when confronted by their manager “I didn’t know they felt that way.” If you "lose your cool" on the person after months and months of bullying the company will see you in the wrong and discipline you. The best thing is to actually quit....and resign via email with no notice (that’s the only thing you got). The only way to prevent bullying is to be firm with everyone when you first start a job. If you are not a push over, you will be less likely to be bullied. For example, why do some individuals get away with not doing any work in the workplace? Usually because they are difficult to work with (i.e. dig in their heels) so no one is willing to ask them to do anything. You need to take a bit of this concept (i.e. don't be a push over). If you are already being bullied, it's too late to be repaired unless the bully leaves (which never happens). As a result you definitely need to quit, or your mental health, confidence etc. will be chipped away. If you must stay at least for the time being, don't be alone with the bully and have more and more people witness it so others know. If it’s your boss, this may be impossible because they will “talk to you in private.”

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