The 3 R’s for Dealing with Workplace Bullying

By Danita Johnson Hughes

We’ve heard a lot recently about bullying in the classroom, but what about bullying in the office, the boardroom – and even the call center? Yes, workplace bullying is a pressing problem in today’s offices. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 35 percent of the U.S. workforce report being bullied at work. That’s an estimated 53.5 million Americans being bullied right now! An additional 15 percent of people have witnessed workplace bullying. In all, half of all Americans have firsthand experience with workplace bullying in some way.

At first glance, it’s easy to brush off workplace bullying as just the way business is done. After all, haven’t we all heard such phrases as “It’s a dog eat dog world” and “Only the strong survive?” But being driven to succeed and being a bully are two completely different things.

The fact is that workplace bullying is often harmful to an organization because it impedes the organization’s growth and success. It also costs organizations dearly in terms of lost productivity, increased use of sick days, and time for management’s intervention. For example, WBI estimates that between turnovers and lost productivity alone, workplace bullying could cost a Fortune 500 company $24 million each year. Add another $1.4 million for litigation and settlement costs, and this is one problem no company can afford to ignore.

Since everyone has the right to work in a safe, healthy, and bully-free workplace, what can employees and leaders do to stop workplace bullying? The key is to follow the three R’s.

Recognize It: Say the word “bully” and most people envision a playground thug threatening the weakest kid around. In the workplace, bullying often looks much different. While screaming, yelling, and cursing at someone certainly constitutes bullying, other lesser-recognized forms of bullying include:

  • Belittling employees
  • Excluding people from meetings and other activities
  • Denying employees the resources or assistance needed to get the job done
  • Spreading nasty rumors about people
  • Ignoring the employee
  • Making dismissive remarks
  • Dishing out unwarranted blame or criticism

Ultimately, anything that can be construed as an act of intimidation is really a form a bullying. And when people feel intimidated, they can’t get their job done effectively. Interestingly, both men and women bully. But the majority of bullying is same-gender harassment, which is a loophole often overlooked in anti-discrimination laws and workplace policies.

Refuse It: If you feel you’re being bullied in any way, simply refuse the attack. In other words, don’t engage the person who is bullying you. Walk away, ignore it, or don’t acknowledge the behavior. Yes, sometimes this is very difficult, especially if someone is yelling at you or pushing your buttons. But engaging with the person in the same manner he or she is attacking you will only spiral the situation out of control. Usually, not engaging the bully and showing that his or her words or actions have no effect will make the person go away.

If the bullying action includes you being ignored or ostracized, you need to take the lead and initiate a conversation with the person. State that you feel you are being ignored and why this behavior is impeding your ability to get the job done. Make sure you focus on the behavior rather than the person. This significantly reduces the chances of the person becoming defensive.

Report It: If you cannot handle the bullying situation yourself, you need to talk to someone who can make a difference. Depending on the situation, this could mean talking with your boss, HR manager, or even a manager in another department. Keep going up the chain of command until you find someone who can intervene on your behalf. If no one within your organization seems willing or able to help, you may want to file a complaint against the bully with your industry’s professional organization (if you have one). Fortunately, almost anything can be worked out if both parties are open to it. You simply need to find someone to act as a moderator if talking one-on-one with the bully isn’t an option.

A Bully-Free Future: With all this said, realize that a leader who is tough or demanding is not necessarily a bully. All bosses have the right and obligation to set and uphold high standards of performance as long as they exercise fairness, respect, and objectivity in their dealings with subordinates and others. Therefore, to differentiate whether your boss is being a bully or simply being tough, check if you or your co-workers are being singled out in a negative or demeaning way. Bullying is often a personal attack; leading in a firm and focused way is not.

The only way to curb workplace bullying is to tackle the issue head on. The more awareness people have of the topic and the more prepared they are to deal with it, the more progress companies will make to end the problem.

Danita Johnson Hughes, Ph.D. is a healthcare industry executive, public speaker, and author of the forthcoming Turnaround. Through her work, she inspires people to dream big and understand the role personal responsibility has in personal and professional success. In her first book, Power from Within, Hughes shares her “Power Principles for Success” that helped her overcome meager beginnings and achieve professional, community, and personal success. For more information, email

[From the December 2011/January 2012 issue of AnswerStat magazine]