bullying in the workplace

We need to talk about: bullying at work

Written by Jaclyn Bradshaw at JBrad Digital providing digital consultancy, strategy and content. Women in Agencies Member.

“I worked in an almost entirely male technology team. Initially everyone was really nice – when I met the CTO, he was charming and encouraging. But over time, things started to change. He became quite aggressive towards me, he’d talk over me in meetings, undermine me, often claim my ideas as his own. One day, he scheduled a 1:1 meeting in which he shouted at me and said I was useless at my job (I’d excelled in performance reviews and hit all my targets). When I tried to leave the room, he blocked the door and threatened me. 

I told my manager…he said I was overreacting. I suggested we tell HR but my manager said I should just ignore it and get on with my job, so I did. But the behaviour got worse. People knew he could be difficult but dismissed his behaviour by saying, “that’s just him”. 

Eventually I felt so unsafe at work that my mental health had deteriorated badly. I didn’t know what to do, so I left the company. 

Two weeks after I’d left, the CTO lost his temper and punched a member of his team during a disagreement. He was suspended and eventually left the company. 

I felt awful for the person he’d attacked, but also relieved it hadn’t been me. It took me a long time to build up my confidence and feel safe at work again”

“Jen”, Digital Product Manager

bullying at work

Bullying at work – the facts

Sadly, situations like this are commonplace in many work environments.

In fact, a 2019 survey found that nearly 94% out of 2081 employees said they had been bullied in the workplace. The ways the respondents said they were bullied were aggressive email tones (23.3%), coworkers’ negative gossip (20.2%) and someone yelling at them (17.8%).

Bullying at work can take many forms and is often so subtle it takes a while for the victim to realise they’re being bullied. Victims may take responsibility or adjust their behaviour to pacify the bully or prevent them from losing their temper or saying negative things. But all this side-stepping can be exhausting, and it can negatively affect our mental health. 

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as, “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work-interference, i.e., sabotage, which prevents work from getting done. 


Why does it happen?

There are a few reasons why someone may target you in the workplace. Often, it has more to do with their own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy than their perception of you. They may target you if they’re more senior, have more power or recognise you as someone who won’t make a fuss or call them out on their behaviour. Sometimes bullying at work stems from jealousy or competitiveness, while other times the bully may have anger issues or trouble controlling their emotions.

This doesn’t mean it’s your fault! Whatever the reason for bullying and however it manifests itself, it’s never okay. 


Are you being bullied? Spot the signs

Think about your teammates and colleagues. If you get along well with everyone except one person, consider why that might be the case. 

  • Do they often make you feel as though you’re not good enough, not liked or not as important as they are? 
  • Have you ever felt scared or threatened when dealing with them? 
  • Do they have a reputation for being difficult, but you feel as though they’re particularly unpleasant towards you?

These are often tell-tale signs of a bully. Other less obvious signs can be;

  • Talking about you behind your back, or saying things about you that aren’t true
  • Acting friendly towards you in front of others, but being rude, dismissive or threatening when you’re alone with them
  • Undermining you, talking over you, claiming your ideas as their own or shutting you down when you try to speak during meetings


What to do if you think you’re being bullied at work

As many companies aim to scale quickly, often on a tight budget, HR departments can be lacking, or missing altogether. In some workplaces, HR teams are briefed to deliver the corporate line and protect the company’s interests over those of their employees. But this isn’t the case for all businesses. 

Many organisations put HR and their people at the heart of the business. You’ll already have a feel for how supportive your HR team is likely to be. If you feel you can trust them and seek support, they’re your first port of call if you suspect you’re being bullied. Most companies with an established HR department will have policies and procedures in place to deal with bullying at work.

If, however, your company does not have an HR team, or a supportive one at least, you may need to take matters into your own hands. You might not feel comfortable (or safe!) confronting the bully directly. In this case, it’s worth speaking to your manager, or a trusted colleague, and sharing your concerns and feelings to get their take on the situation. 

Make sure you share facts and examples of the behaviour to clearly identify what happened, when and the impact. Also, consider what your desired outcome would be when you share the information. It’s not realistic to expect that the bully will apologise immediately or leave the company, so think about what measures you would need to be implemented to make your work environment more pleasant. Sometimes, this involves the bully being monitored more closely and mandated to attend workshops or training programmes to deal with their issues. In some cases, they may be moved to a different role or department. For extreme cases, they may be suspended, pending an investigation. Each case is different and will depend on the severity of their behaviour and your company’s policies and procedures. 


What happens if I’m self employed and a client is bullying me?

This is a tricky one. The benefit of working for yourself is that you can pick and choose your clients. However, if you only have a couple of clients and can’t afford to lose them, you may not have this luxury. 

Try talking to your client in the first instance, with facts and clear examples. If you don’t have one already, it can be useful to draw up a client contract and include some rules of engagement. These should clearly state what you will deliver, what’s expected of your clients and any particular information about the way you work. You can tailor the contract to attend to any existing behaviours you don’t like. For example, if your client never responds to chasing emails and then explodes at you when you miss a deadline, you could include a clause that states you are not liable for any missed deadlines due to the client’s failure to respond within a given timeframe. 

If your client is rude when you communicate via certain channels like email, schedule a monthly meeting where you can discuss any upcoming deadlines, get feedback on your performance and celebrate any successes or milestones you’ve achieved. 

If your client becomes threatening towards you but you can’t ditch them for any reason, you may benefit from seeking legal advice. Again, it’s very important that you have clear, factual information on any instances of bullying at work so they can make an objective judgement.

Visit the Workplace Bullying Institute for information and advice.

Written by Jaclyn Bradshaw

[email protected]

Beth Hellowell
Founder of Women in Agencies and co-founder of Signify Digital. Mother, social media scroller and frequent pasta eater.