Ten Common Subtle Signs of Workplace Bullying

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March 2, 2020 by  Stacey S. Joseph, CDP, ODCP, MBA

Workplace bullying is on the rise! An October 2019 Monster.com survey found that close to 94% of people in the global workforce shared that in some way that had been bullied at work.  Over half (51.1%) of the people surveyed shared that they were bullied by a boss or manager.  The ways in which the respondents had been bullied varied, with some of the more common tactics being aggressive email tones (23.3%),  coworkers’ negative gossip (20.2%) and someone yelling at them (17.8%).

If you’re following our four part series on Workplace Bullying which began with The Bully at Work, you’ve learned that Workplace Bullying is defined as the unwanted offensive, intimidating, malicious, and/or insulting behavior, and abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied either by damaging their reputation, their self-confidence, or the relationships that the target has formed with others. It is repeated, often times health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (targets) by one or more perpetrators.  It is abusive conduct that can be the cause of work interference and sabotage, which may or may not, but typically prevents work from getting done. Workplace bullying tends to be psychological in nature but can also be physical or even walk a fine line between physical and psychological with certain types of posturing. It can be subtle or outright and is characterized by the following scale: Repetition: occurring regularly; Duration, so that it’s enduring; and finally: Escalatory, as it becomes increasingly aggressive.  Because there is usually a power disparity, the target(s) lacks the power to successfully defend themselves.

Even with the reported rising rate of workplace bullying, the rate at which incidents are reported remain at a mere 19% in comparison to 43% of reported incidents by children at school. So while we encourage children to report incidents of bullying, as adults, we don’t take our own advice.  And here’s the likely reason why – while many respondents were able to identify that the treatment they were receiving fit the description of bullying, often times the behaviors were subtle, making them uncertain about whether or not in the context of work, that it was in fact a form of bullying.  Because subtle forms of bullying sooner develop into more obvious and egregious tactics, we’ve put together ten subtle signs of workplace bullying to help you name it.  Once you’ve named it, you’re on your way to taking action to stop it.


Ten Subtle Signs of Workplace Bullying

  1. Unreasonable & Constant Criticism.  While constructive criticism at work helps to improve work habits and shore up career skills, constantly criticizing someone’s work or behavior, usually for unwarranted reasons is subtle bullying.
  2.  Withholding Information.  Intentionally withholding information from someone or giving them the wrong information.
  3. Intimidation. Overt or veiled threats; fear-inducing communication or behavior.
  4. Impossible or changing expectations.  Setting nearly impossible expectations and/or work guidelines; changing expectations to set up employees for failure.
  5. Constant change and inconsistency.  Constantly changing expectations, guidelines, and scope of assignments; constant inconsistency of word and action i.e. not following through on things said.
  6. Deceit.  Repeatedly lying, not telling the truth, concealing the truth, deceiving others to get one’s way.
  7. Undermining work.  Deliberately delaying and blocking an employee’s work, progress on a project or assignment, or success; repeated betrayal.
  8. Rationalization. Constantly justifying or defending behavior unwelcome or unpleasant behavior or making excuses for acting in a particular way that is unwelcome, unpleasant, and even emotional unhealthy for the target.
  9. Removal of responsibility.  Removing someone’s responsibilities, changing their role, or replacing aspects of their job without cause.
  10. Projection of blame. Not taking responsibility for problems or issues, and instead shifting blame to others and using them as a scapegoat.

While early warning signs of workplace bullying can vary, and the above list is not exhaustive, it does include the most common subtle behaviors.  Putting an end to workplace bullying while it’s still in the subtle stages is easier to deal with and confront.  In many case, subtle tactics grow into more obvious, and more harmful tactics which can effect the emotional and physical health of the target, and inevitably begin to effect the health of the organization by feeding toxic workplace climate and culture.  In the next part of our four part series on workplace bullying, we will share ten obvious signs of workplace bullying. The fourth and final part of our series will provide you with ways that you can take action in confronting and stopping “The Bully at Work.”


Photocredit: TNS

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