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Ways in which bullying occurs in the workplace

Published 19 March 2018

Establishing that an employee repeatedly threatened with violence is being bullied can be straightforward, but identifying when this type of unacceptable behaviour occurs is not always as easy.

Thankfully for many, the days of a volatile manager ranting and raving, being aggressive, threatening and openly belittling a member of staff is a thing of the past.

Bullying can be much more subtle and clandestine than that, but just as devastating for the person on the receiving end. It can happen face to face, at a distance or online, which has become more common in recent years.

Bullying may be characterised as: offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient (1).

It can occur in four main ways, sometimes continually and in combination

Physical bullying, where a worker uses physical force to hurt a colleague.

Verbal bullying, where an employee uses words or gestures to humiliate someone else in the workplace.

Relational bullying, where an individual is deliberately excluded and isolated.

Cyberbullying, where social media and instant messaging can be used to bully a worker in the ways described above. 

The impact can be painful and enduring and have a long-lasting impact on the victim’s physical and mental health.

The National Bullying Helpline (2) does state: Unlike their playground equivalents work place bullies and their supporters tend not to use physical abuse. Instead they resort to long term psychological intimidation which can be just as devastating for the person on the receiving end.

Examples of bullying behaviour include:

Humiliating staff in front of others.

Spreading malicious rumours.

Ridiculing or demeaning someone by picking on them or setting them up to fail.

Withholding information which can affect a worker’s performance

Ignoring views and opinions.

Setting unmanageable workloads and unreasonable or impossible deadlines.

A previous study of bullying in the workplace found that nearly a third (29 per cent) of those who took part said they had been bullied at work and in nearly three-quarters of the cases the manager was the perpetrator (3).

There are numerous examples of bullying. The following are various types of bullying behaviour and how it occurs:

Cyber bullying

Takes place online at work, and away from work. It can happen through the use of inappropriate photos or by making nasty and threatening comments.

It is a growing problem in many workplaces and is a particular problem for workers in sectors such as healthcare, the media and education. Previous research by the teaching union NASUWT revealed that 21 per cent of teachers quizzed had received abuse online (4).

Undermining actions

Can include mocking and belittling colleagues, spreading malicious gossip, making out a worker is not up to the job or deliberately withholding messages.

Such behaviour can be hard to detect because the bully is often not blatant and hostile in the comments made unlike more obvious bullying behaviour.

Verbal abuse

Can be threatening and explicit and include insults and name calling.

Ii is blatantly offensive language designed to humiliate the person it is directed at.

There is a common tendency to attempt to excuse such abuse by claiming it is a joke or just banter.

Misuse of power

This can include a senior member of staff making a threat to a worker’s job security, overbearing supervision or constant and unwarranted criticism.

Abusive managers can vary from being a bit pushy or rude to being openly hostile and aggressive.

Being alert to different way in which bullying can occur in the workplace is vitally important. Employers have a clear legal duty to tackle workplace bullying

Organisations should: devise and implement a bullying and harassment policy; promote a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated; and

be aware of the organisational factors that are associated with bullying and take steps to address them. ACAS has produced a guide for managers and employers (5)


1. Bullying and harassment | Acas advice and guidance [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2018 Mar 14]. Available from:

2. Bullying in the workplace advice for employees [Internet]. [cited 2018 Mar 14]. Available from:

3. Chief D. Nearly a third of people are bullied at work, says TUC [Internet]. TUC. 2015 [cited 2018 Mar 14]. Available from:

4. Hodge K. What can be done to protect teachers from cyberbullying? – open thread [Internet]. the Guardian. 2014 [cited 2018 Mar 14]. Available from:

5. Bullying-and-harassment-in-the-workplace-a-guide-for-managers-and-employers.pdf [Internet]. [cited 2018 Mar 14]. Available from:

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