The Effects of Adult Bullying in the Workplace

Jake Newby

| 5 min read

Woman is distraught at work.
Bullying isn’t just reserved for children and teenagers on school playgrounds.
Sometimes that aggressive, unwanted behavior seeps into adulthood and people become targeted by adult bullies while at church, amid community groups and in the workplace.
In a 2021 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying was defined as “repeated mistreatment: abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage or verbal abuse.” The WBI estimates that 77% of people who become targets of workplace bullying leave their place of employment.
Jessi Eden Brown, a national certified counselor and professional coach for WBI said that in her experience, workplace bullying manifests in multiple ways, involves dozens of different tactics, and could result in an emotional and physical toll for those targeted.

Identifying workplace bullying tactics 

During a phone interview with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Brown said she can typically identify workplace bullying based on three main factors: The health harm inflicted on and expressed by a target, a pattern of behavior by the bully, and an intent behind that behavior.
She said gatekeeping is a common workplace bullying tactic.
“One of the ones I hear most frequently is gatekeeping of information or resources,” Brown said. “A lot of times the bully ranks above the target in the organizational structure and has the influence that they need to withhold information. Say there’s an important meeting and they conveniently forget to invite you to that meeting. Or, maybe you need to contact some external individual that can help you move a project forward, maybe they give you false information or make you hunt for something.”
Another prominent workplace bullying tactic Brown has seen is sabotage.

“Maybe there’s a shared document and a bully will get in there and modify something to make it look like the target has no idea what they’re talking about,” she said. “So, when they go to give their presentation, the slides are all messed up. Something like that, that can make you look bad in front of a big group of people.”

Common effects of workplace bullying

Brown – who is also a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in the Seattle, Washington area – said she sees these physical, behavioral, and mental effects occur most often among workplace bullying targets:
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Relationship strain
  • Substance abuse
In severe cases, Brown said, posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) can develop in a target.
“When people are bullied for a very long time at a job you can see PTSD,” she said. “Where people are kind of traumatized by these experiences, and fear and avoidance and that sort of PTSD warning signs start to bubble up. A lot of times you’re approaching this with trauma-informed therapy and an approach that assumes this may have devastated a person and compromised their health.”

Possible resolutions to workplace bullying

Between the multiple hats she wears, Brown believes she has worked with more than 5,000 targets of workplace bullying. Despite her vast experience, she said finding a resolution to workplace bullying situations is extremely difficult.
In a lot of cases she’s seen, Brown said bullying tactics are covert and aren’t easy for others in a workplace setting to recognize.
“A lot of times, bullies will reserve their attacks for behind closed doors, or they won’t do it via email, so there’s no paper trail,” she said. “So, many targets when they contact me, they’re like, ‘How do I even document this?”
She said most people decide the bullying isn’t worth it and wind up leaving their place of employment, as the aforementioned 77% figure indicates.
“Unfortunately, because it’s not legal – this is status-blind harassment and discrimination – most employers don’t have the knowledge, policies or procedures in effect to appropriately recognize and deal with this,” Brown said. “So, a lot of times, if you go to human resources as a target of bullying, most of the time they may tell you it’s a personality conflict and to work it out among yourselves. But really the target doesn’t have a lot of power, particularly if the bully outranks them.
“When I’m working with people in a coaching capacity, often times, the best solution is to save yourself. Preserve your health, preserve your professional career and your reputation. The longer you stay and your bully gets to control your narrative about the sort of incompetent, lazy person you are – whatever the message is – the more that sticks. And particularly in small, close-knit industries, it can be hard to reset that reputation after damage is done.”
She said there are other potential solutions to workplace bullying, adding that sometimes a cross-department transfer is something to consider, in large enough organizations. She said under some circumstances she’s advised “rallying the troops,” if applicable.
“Find people who have been treated similarly – maybe they’re still there or maybe they’re not and bullying is why they left – but maybe if you can collectively send a message that, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening and this is not’s OK,” a lot of times employers will hear that better.”
Photo credit: Getty Images
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