Written by Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer
Bullying, as a term, might sound very high school-esque. But, bullies don’t necessarily go away just because you’re an adult. Workplace bullying is a completely real, valid issue that can be detrimental to our mental health and career confidence.
There are few telltale signs of a workplace bully. Most bullying situations happen from the top-down, meaning a power imbalance often contributes to the abusive treatment. If your boss is a bully, they might be throwing you under the bus for things they screwed up, and are using you as a scapegoat. Or, maybe they also bring up things/mistakes that happened in the past as excuses to drag you down. They might be exclusive, meaning they leave you off networking event lists off party lists, fail to include you in company outings, sporting events, or after-hours meetings. Maybe they even schedule meetings when they know you are on vacation or have a conflict in your schedule, or make important decisions while you are out of the office.
A boss bully might also undermine you by setting unrealistic deadlines to set you up for failure, or even changing project criteria to create extra work or increasing the chance of failure. Sabotaging your success by giving purposefully unclear feedback, messing with deadlines, or dragging their feet with approval are also classic “bully” behaviors. Another trademark is micromanaging, meaning exerting a high level of control over your work and insinuating a lack of trust. And, lastly, blatant verbal put-downs. This could mean snide remarks or outward criticism of any kind (about the quality of your work, your integrity, passive aggression, raised voice with the excuse of trying to be “motivating”) (Gordon).
A study examining coping strategies for workplace bullying identified a few themes concerning how employees handle bullying from their boss. At first, most people showed avoidant behavior, meaning they either distanced themselves from the bully, laughed off criticism as unfair treatment to avoid confrontation, or blamed themselves. In the next phase, 75% of study participants engaged in problem-focused strategies, most of which took the form of confrontation. For most, confrontation alone did not stop the bullying behavior, and formally filed complaints were necessary to bring attention to the problematic behavior. Some employees sought therapy, which was stigmatized and used against them–i.e., if the employee had sought therapy, it insinuated they were the problem, not the bully (Karatuna).
Most resolutions for workplace bullying behavior ended with separation. Either the bully left the company, was transferred somewhere else, or the employee left/transferred. Removal and distance, in most situations with a power imbalance, was the most effective solution. Unfortunately, there are times when the employee is unfairly fired from the position if they attempt to speak up and set boundaries. This is NOT an effective solution. Workplace power dynamics are hard, and they’re not always set up with healthy power dynamics. And this isn’t your fault.
When it comes to workplace bullies, self-blame is futile. Self-blame is an internalized feeling of rejection. Buying into self-blame can shift your attention further from the problem at hand. A bully is setting you up to fail. Buying into the narrative that it’s your fault only gives them more power to continue abuse and manipulation (Gordon).
Within behavioral research studies, employees who confronted boss bullies and were shot down or belittled, some employees turned to destructive coping. This means failing to complete tasks or taking long sick leaves to avoid work. You can practice healthy boundaries, and find ways to re-conceptualize the situation. A job that destroys your mental health and well-being, even if it’s a prestigious job, isn’t necessarily a good job. But, regardless, knowledge of your self-worth is the most important thing.
Gordon, Sherri. “8 Ways to Know for Sure That Your Boss Is a Bully.” Verywell Family, 18 Feb. 2021, http://www.verywellfamily.com/signs-your-boss-is-a-bully-460785.
Gordon, Sherri. “Taking Control of SELF-BLAME When You Are Bullied.” Verywell Family, 5 Feb. 2020,
Karatuna, I. (2015), “Targets’ coping with workplace bullying: a qualitative study”, Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 21-37.