Organizational Wellness

What HR Leaders Should Know About Workplace Bullying

Aug 18, 2023
Last Updated May 20, 2024

No one likes a bully. They can wreck your confidence, shatter your self-worth, and degrade your social ties, making you feel alone in your predicament. Standing up for yourself is often the best way to stop a bully — but that’s easier said than done  when you’re being targeted.

That’s why, when it comes to workplace bullying, it’s up to the human resources department to recognize the signs and step in to help protect employees.

Bullying can be very detrimental to your workplace culture. It causes anxiety and stress and leads to breakdowns in trust between those involved and those who witness the behavior. So it’s important to do everything you can to resolve these issues when they come up, correct the behavior, and escalate disciplinary action if necessary to create a safe environment for everyone.

What is Bullying in the Workplace?

Workplace bullying is a harmful behavior that involves acts of aggression, intimidation, and harassment. It can take many forms, including verbal abuse, physical threats, exclusion, and sabotage. Thirty percent of people have direct experience with being bullied at work, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI).

Unlike other types of bad behavior or mistreatment, workplace bullying is characterized by its persistent and targeted nature. It's important for HR leaders to be able to distinguish between workplace bullying and other types of conflict or misconduct in order to address and prevent it.   

What Are the Effects of Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying can have serious negative impacts on an entire company. Anyone who's a direct target of bullying may experience stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. It can even cause stress and discomfort for other coworkers if they're witnessing this behavior, seeing that nothing is being done, and unsure of how to step in and help themselves.

Because of all of these factors, bullying can lead to decreased morale, low productivity, and higher employee turnover. It's crucial for employers to get a handle on these detrimental behaviors and put a stop to bullying before that happens.    

Examples of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying can take many forms, and it's important for HR leaders to be able to recognize these behaviors in order to address them effectively. Examples of workplace bullying include:

  • Verbal abuse: This can include name-calling, shouting, and using derogatory language towards an employee. It can also include belittling the employee in front of others. Depending on the nature of the derogatory comments, it can even be considered a form of sexual harassment. About 13% of Americans experienced verbal abuse at work during a one-month survey period, according to RAND Corporation.
  • Exclusion: If an employee is intentionally left out of meetings, social events, or important projects, it falls under exclusion. This can impact their ability to perform their work and can be very isolating.
  • Spreading rumors or gossip: In this case, the bully will spread lies or false information about an employee to others in the workplace. The purpose is to foster mistrust and resentment about their target, to sever any positive connections they might have at work.
  • Physical threats or intimidation: This can include threatening gestures or actions, and physical violence. All types of bullying pose a risk to an employee's wellbeing, but these kinds of threats are an immediate danger to their physical health.
  • Undermining or sabotaging work: This involves intentionally interfering with an employee's work or sabotaging their success. An example might be a coworker stealing credit for their work or offering to help, with no intention of actually following through, to leave them scrambling.
  • Withholding information or resources: A bully might withhold key details or access to resources that an employee needs to do their job effectively. For instance, a supervisor could decide to keep their team member in the dark about an important project deadline to prevent them from succeeding. 
  • Micromanagement: This can be more than an overzealous management style. Micromanagement can cross the line when it's done excessively to control or monitor an employee's work, to the point of intentionally causing stress and anxiety.
  • Cyberbullying: Any time technology is used to harass or intimidate an employee, such as email or social media, counts as cyberbullying. Virtual meetings can also count. About 43% of those who work remotely have experienced bullying, according to the 2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey.    

Workplace Bullying Laws to Know

Currently, there is no federal law that specifically prohibits workplace bullying. However, if the bullying targets an employee based on their protected characteristics, such as race, sexual orientation, marital status, or national origin, it may become illegal under federal anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This means that employers can be held liable for workplace bullying if it is found to be discriminatory or contributing to a hostile work environment.

In place of a specific federal law, some states have introduced their own laws and regulations intended to cover more instances of bullying at work, such as:

  • California and Utah: Both of these states have passed mandates that require employers to provide training on preventing abusive conduct in the workplace.         
    Healthy Workplace Bill: 31 other states have introduced this legislation, with the goal of better protecting employees from bullies who endanger the health of their targets.

It's important for employers and HR leaders to be aware of the laws and regulations in their specific state regarding workplace bullying, in order to ensure compliance and promote a safe and healthy work environment for all employees.

What You Can Do About Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying can have severe negative impacts on both the victim and the entire workplace. Employers and HR leaders can address and prevent workplace bullying by:

  1. Training your managers to recognize bullying signs: Managers play a key role in preventing workplace bullying, as they are often the first line of defense when it comes to recognizing bullying behaviors. Training your managers to spot the signs of workplace bullying, such as persistent criticism, personal attacks, or gossip about the same employee, can help them intervene early and prevent the behavior from escalating.  
  2. Establishing an anti-bullying policy: Having a clear, comprehensive, zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy is essential for preventing a toxic workplace from developing. This policy should outline what behaviors are considered bullying, how employees can report incidents of bullying, and the consequences that will be imposed on anyone who engages in bullying behaviors.
  3. Addressing bullying quickly and appropriately: When incidents of workplace bullying are reported, it's important to take them seriously and handle them appropriately. This may involve conducting an investigation, providing counseling or support to the bullying target, and taking disciplinary action against the bully. If you believe it will be beneficial for both the company and the bully, you can also offer counseling to help as a corrective method.       

A Safe Environment is Only One Piece of Employee Wellness

By addressing and preventing workplace bullying, you can create a workplace culture that fosters psychological safety and comfort for your team. In doing so, you’ll help employees feel like it’s safe for them to come to work, reversing the absenteeism that’s often associated with workplace bullying.

Trust and safety at work are just a few important components of retention and wellbeing — but they aren’t the only ones. For instance, our 2023 Return on Wellbeing Study found that 85% of HR leaders report that wellness programs decreased sick day utilization across their companies. These programs can help team members stay healthy throughout the year, improving attendance and engagement for your company and boosting overall wellness for your team.

Implementing a holistic wellness strategy can lead to higher employee engagement, help you care for your employees, and even save on healthcare costs. Learn more about the benefits of a wellness program by speaking to one of our Wellbeing Specialists!         

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


Our weekly newsletter is your source of education and inspiration to help you create a corporate wellness program that actually matters.

By subscribing you agree Wellhub may use the information to contact you regarding relevant products and services. Questions? See our Privacy Policy.