How to Deal with Workplace Bullying and Conflict

Workplace conflict can be demoralising, damaging and very hurtful to everyone involved. In this article, we share with you a number of effective ways on how to deal with workplace bullying and conflict.

Workplace bullying is a serious issue. Victims of workplace bullying can end up with effects such as ongoing anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression and even post-traumatic stress (PTSD). Conflict in the workplace can have a massively damaging effect on your culture and general team motivation.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by a colleague, an employer (or manager) or a group of people at work. It can happen in any type of workplace, from offices to restaurants, workshops, retail shops, cafes, community groups and government organisations.

Is bullying in the workplace a common problem?

In this CareerBuilder study, they surveyed 3,372 U.S. based full-time, private-sector employees and found a shocking 28 percent of respondents have felt bullied at work, with nearly one in five employees having left a previous job because of workplace bullying.

A 2015 poll carried out by YouGov from the United Kingdom reveals that in the UK;

  • nearly a third of people (29%) have been bullied at work
  • women (34%) are more likely to be victims of bullying than men (23%)
  • the highest prevalence of workplace bullying is among 40 to 59-year-olds, where 34% of people are affected
  • in nearly three-quarters (72%) of cases the bullying is carried out by a manager
  • more than one in three (36%) people who report being bullied at work leave their job because of it.

Studies like these, and many others, show that workplace bullying is a widespread and global issue.

What does bullying in the workplace look like?

Workplace bullying can be subtle and hard to detect, through to being very obvious to bystanders, with a scale of behaviours, such as

  • Falsely accused of mistakes.
  • Deliberately and intentionally being ignored.
  • Inconsistent standards/policies applied.
  • repeated hurtful remarks or attacks
  • making fun of your work or you as a person (including your gender, sexuality, race or culture)
  • Physically attacking or threatening with equipment, knives, guns, or objects
  • Sexual harassment, particularly behaviour like unwelcome touching and sexually explicit comments
  • Pushing, tripping or shoving you in the workplace
  • Yelled at by employer in front of others.
  • Belittling comments made about their performance during meetings.
  • Purposely excluded from projects/meetings or targeted on for personal attributes.
  • Intimidation (making you feel less important and undervalued)
  • Deliberately changing your work hours or schedule to make it difficult for you

No matter how you look at it, workplace bullying is never acceptable.

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How workplace bullying can affect employees

If employees are the victims of workplace bullying, they might display attributes such as:

  • being less active or successful
  • being less confident in their work
  • feeling scared, stressed, anxious or depressed
  • having their personal life affected, e.g. study, relationships
  • wanting to stay away from work
  • feel like they can’t trust their manager or the people they work with
  • lack confidence and happiness about themselves or their work
  • have physical signs of stress like headaches, backaches, sleep problems

These symptoms can become worse, and end up having very long term effects unless the workplace bullying is addressed.

Bullying and discrimination

Bullying may also be discrimination if it is because of your age, sex, pregnancy, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or certain other reasons. Sexual harassment and racial hatred are also against the law.

For more information on what anti-discrimination laws cover, and what you can do about it, look at the Australian Human Rights Commission page.

What managers can do to avoid workplace bullying

Because treatment by workplace bullies can be devastating to employees and companies, many companies around the world have instituted zero-tolerance policies toward workplace bullying.

In these companies, if an employee is being bullied he or she needs to document the bullying and present the problem to the proper person in the company, usually someone in human resources or upper management.

Companies with good anti-bullying policies usually hold meetings from time to time to remind employees what workplace bullying is, how to report it, and the consequences for bullying.

Employees need to reminded that they know there are things they can do and people who can help.

Every employee has the right to be in a safe workplace free from violenceence, harassment and bullying.

Responsibility of employers

In Australia and a number of other countries, an employer has a legal responsibility under Occupational Health and Safety and anti-discrimination laws to provide a safe workplace. Employers have a duty of care for your health and wellbeing whilst at work.

An employer that allows bullying to occur in the workplace is not meeting this responsibility, and can face legal action as a result.

Responsibility of bystanders

We all have a moral responsibility to help create a positive, safe workplace. If someone in your workplace is experiencing harassment or bullying, you can tell them about the steps they can take to solve it.


What you can do if you are the victim of workplace bullying

There are a number of effective methods to deal with workplace bullying. We encourage you to understand the different methods you can use to stamp out bullying in the workplace.

Approach the bully

If you feel safe and confident, you can approach the person who is bullying you and tell them that their behaviour is unwanted and not acceptable. If you are unsure how to approach them, you might be able to get advice from an appointed contact person, or from a colleague or manager.

Tell someone at work

Your workplace will usually have a process for making a complaint and resolving disputes, which might include a warning, requiring the bully to have counselling, a mediation process, or even firing the bully if the situation continues. The person to talk to might be your supervisor/manager, a harassment contact officer, or a health and safety representative (if your work has one).

Review Policies and Procedures

Check to see if your employer has a workplace bullying policy and complaints procedure. If your direct manager doesn’t have it, it is likely that HR will.

Get support from trusted sources

Even if you don’t feel you have anyone to talk to, there are support services which are available to you, such as advice phone lines, anonymous internet chat and more. Search for support groups or contacts in your area for help.

Get information and advice

If the bullying is serious, if the situation has not changed after complaining to your manager, or if there is not anyone you can safely talk to at work, you should obtain information and advice from government or city departments in your area. The last thing you want to do, is not tell anyone.

Helpful workplace bullying resources

The following links may help both employers and employees alike to understand workplace bullying and prevention;

Workplace bullying: Violence, Harassment and Bullying (Human Rights Commissioner, Australia)

How to Prevent Workplace Bullying (CIO Magazine, USA)

About Harassment (US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, USA)

Workplace bullying and harassment (gov.UK)

There are plenty of other resources, both online and offline, that can help both employers and employees manage bullying in the workplace.

In Summary

Workplace bullying and conflict is a serious issue across all industries – people in all walks of life, from doctors to labourers can become victims, and end up with long term effects. As leaders and business managers, we have an obligation to do what we can to avoid this behaviour.

As employers, we must do what we can to avoid these situations, and as colleagues, we need to speak out when we see bullying behaviour in the workplace. Let’s all agree to make work as happy as possible for all.

Miles Burke

Miles Burke

Miles is the founder of 6Q. He is passionate about peer-to-peer recognition, company culture, employee engagement and wants every workplace to be the happiest it can be. Miles is also MD of Bam Creative, an author and public speaker.