November 10th, 2013

Employer Resource Council: 20 Subtle Signs of Workplace Bullying

This week’s bullying situation in the NFL in which a player resigned because of bullying by a teammate, should remind employers to consider whether bullying by coworkers or bosses is affecting their employees and their ability to retain quality talent.

HR Insights Blog, ERC (, Nov. 5, 2013

If you think workplace bullying doesn’t affect some of your employees, you’re mistaken. One in four employees is affected by it. There is a misconception that bullying is overt. Rather, it’s often subtle, slow, and insidious mistreatment that passes over the radar screen.

Rarely can bullying be identified based on one action, but rather a pattern of actions over a long period of time. This is why it so often goes undetected in the workplace, and your employees could be suffering because of it.

Bullying Defined

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; or work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done.”

The primary issue with bullying is that the perpetrator desires to control the other person’s behavior, usually for his or her own needs, personal agenda, or self-serving motives. Bullies use a variety of subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways to control others emotionally, psychologically, and even physically.

Adept bullies and manipulators are often extremely controlling people who are attuned to certain personality traits to exploit others. They are skilled “people readers” and make it their task to understand someone’s flaws to determine what techniques can be used against them. Some even go a step further and mask their bullying behind a charming and nice demeanor and even a noble cause.

Subtle Signs of Bullying

Bullying often goes unnoticed in the workplace because it is a slow process of emotional and psychological manipulation that is hard to prove and detect. It is also not protected under law. Technically, bullying is not considered harassment, so legally, people can get away with doing it in the workplace if a policy isn’t in place.

Here are twenty (20) subtle signs of bullying that you may be missing, but when a pattern emerges of multiple behaviors over a long period of time, can be a classic bullying situation. These subtle signs are all used to create an emotional reaction, usually anxiety, which establishes greater control and power over the victim.

  1. Deceit. Repeatedly lying, not telling the truth, concealing the truth, deceiving others to get one’s way, and creating false hopes with no plans to fulfill them
  2. Intimidation. Overt or veiled threats; fear-inducing communication and behavior
  3. Ignoring. Purposefully ignoring, avoiding, or not paying attention to someone; “forgetting” to invite someone to a meeting; selectively greeting or interacting with others besides a victim
  4. Isolation/exclusion. Intentionally excluding someone or making them feel socially or physically isolated from a group; purposefully excluding someone from decisions, conversations, and work-related events
  5. Rationalization. Constantly justifying or defending behavior or making excuses for acting in a particular manner
  6. Minimization. Minimizing, discounting, or failing to address someone’s legitimate concerns or feelings
  7. Diversion. Dodging issues, acting oblivious or playing dumb, changing the subject to distract away from the issue, canceling meetings, and avoiding people
  8. Shame and guilt. Making an employee constantly feel that they are the problem, shaming them for no real wrongdoing, or making them feel inadequate and unworthy
  9. Undermining work. Deliberately delaying and blocking an employee’s work, progress on a project or assignment, or success; repeated betrayal; promising them projects and then giving them to others; alternating supportive and undermining behavior
  10. Pitting employees against each other. Unnecessarily and deliberately pitting employees against one another to drive competition, create conflict, or establish winners and losers; encouraging employees to turn against one another
  11. Removal of responsibility. Removing someone’s responsibilities, changing their role, or replacing aspects of their job without cause
  12. Impossible or changing expectations. Setting nearly impossible expectations and work guidelines; changing those expectations to set up employees to fail
  13. Constant change and inconsistency. Constantly changing expectations, guidelines, and scope of assignments; constant inconsistency of word and action (e.g. not following through on things said)
  14. Mood swings. Frequently changing moods and emotions; sharp and sudden shifts in emotions
  15. Criticism. Constantly criticizing someone’s work or behavior, usually for unwarranted reasons
  16. Withholding information. Intentionally withholding information from someone or giving them the wrong information
  17. Projection of blame. Shifting blame to others and using them as a scapegoat; not taking responsibility for problems or issues
  18. Taking credit. Taking or stealing credit for other people’s ideas and contributions without acknowledging them
  19. Seduction. Using excessive flattery and compliments to get people to trust them, lower their defenses, and be more responsive to manipulative behavior
  20. Creating a feeling of uselessness. Making an employee feel underused; intentionally rarely delegating or communicating with the employee about their work or progress; persistently giving employees unfavorable duties and responsibilities

Not-So-Subtle Signs of Bullying

Bullying can also be more obvious. These signs tend to be more commonly associated with bullying.

  1. Aggression. Yelling or shouting at an employee; exhibiting anger or aggression verbally or non-verbally (e.g. pounding a desk)
  2. Intrusion. Tampering with someone’s personal belongings; intruding on someone by unnecessarily lurking around their desk; stalking, spying, or pestering someone
  3. Coercion. Aggressively forcing or persuading someone to say or do things against their will or better judgment
  4. Punishment. Undeservedly punishing an employee with physical discipline, psychologically through passive aggression, or emotionally through isolation
  5. Belittling. Persistently disparaging someone or their opinions, ideas, work, or personal circumstances in an undeserving manner
  6. Embarrassment. Embarrassing, degrading, or humiliating an employee publically in front of others
  7. Revenge. Acting vindictive towards someone; seeking unfair revenge when a mistake happens; retaliating against an employee
  8. Threats. Threatening unwarranted punishment, discipline, termination, and/or physical, emotional, or psychological abuse
  9. Offensive communication. Communicating offensively by using profanity, demeaning jokes, untrue rumors or gossip, or harassment
  10. Campaigning. Launching an overt or underhanded campaign to “oust” a person out of their job or the organization
  11. Blocking advancement or growth. Impeding an employee’s progression, growth, and/or advancement in the organization unfairly

Why Bullying is so Bad

Bullying and manipulation of this nature can affect our employees physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Employees may experience a great deal of distress as a result of their perpetrator’s behavior, which can manifest itself in frustration, anger, anxiety, insomnia, inability to concentrate, performance and productivity issues, and other physical and emotional symptoms. The treatment they experience also tends to influence their lives outside of work.

Oftentimes, employees don’t recognize bullying. Some may feel a vague discomfort at work towards their perpetrator that they cannot recognize. Others may feel that they are on an emotional rollercoaster with the person. Some may sense that they are experiencing toxic, unfair, or disrespectful treatment at times, but can’t understand why. Employees may dread or fear seeing the individual, not enjoy tasks or activities they liked before, and can even become physically ill from the stress of these actions.

What HR Needs to Do

Not everyone plays fair and nice at work, so unfortunately, you need to make sure you protect your employees from disrespectful and unfair treatment in the workplace. No employee deserves to feel uncomfortable at work. Here are some steps to take.

  • Create a policy. Devise a policy that protects employees from bullying behavior in the workplace. While the law doesn’t protect employees, you can.
  • Establish a code of conduct. Your organization should have a code of conduct in its employee handbook, which includes respectful behavior from all employees and sets the tone for a professional work environment.
  • Train managers. Train everyone (particularly managers) on soft skills and specifically workplace bullying. Make sure they recognize the right and wrong ways to treat each other on the job. Likewise, teach managers constructive ways to drive behavior and results they want.
  • Monitor behavior. Monitor behavior throughout the workplace. When you notice signs of bullying or manipulation, address the situation directly with the person.
  • Watch controlling people. Some people who constantly talk about control and exert it should be watched closely. Most are harmless, just perfectionists trying to control results and work, but some people take control to a whole different (and harmful) level.
  • Have a confidential way for employees to report a bullying problem. Create a mechanism for employees to confidentially report bullying issues in the workplace without fear or retaliation.
  • Educate everyone on respect. Everyone in your workplace should be trained on and held accountable for respect. While it sounds like common sense, respect is unfortunately lacking in many workplaces.
  • Recognize employees’ distress. Look for confusion, frustration, discomfort, fear, overt emotional displays, and avoiding one’s boss, which are all signs that an employee is in distress at work and uncomfortable in their situation.
  • Don’t sweep complaints under the rug. Treat every complaint about bullying behavior seriously and fairly and investigate it. Your employees need someone to trust.
  • Document. Be sure to document any behavior incidents you hear about from employees or witness.

“While bullying behavior is often difficult to recognize, investigate and address, the tangible and intangible costs to the employer (e.g., financial, interpersonal, productivity) can be huge. And, left unaddressed, bullying concerns quickly can escalate. Employers need to aggressively reinforce and consistently enforce their codes of conduct and standards of professionalism through training; empowering and requiring supervisors to proactively identify issues; on site monitoring of behavior; and prompt and thorough investigations into allegations of bullying and other misconduct,” says Meg Matejkovic, Employment Attorney and ERC Trainer.

If you are an individual or manager doing any of the above, either knowingly or unknowingly, it’s critical that you stop your actions. They are harmful and destructive. If you are the coworker of an individual experiencing mistreatment, question it and tell someone. Likewise, if you are in HR, it is imperative that you take bullying seriously and follow the guidance above to protect and help your employees who may be affected by manipulative and bullying behavior.

Our employees deserve to work in a respectful, fair, and comfortable work environment where others around them, particularly those of authority, aren’t trying to control them or manipulate their behavior. It’s all of our responsibilities to make sure they leave everyday, at a minimum, with their self-respect, dignity, and well-being intact and unscathed by our actions. If they aren’t, we’re not doing our jobs and we risk good employees eventually walking away when they realize they don’t need to be treated this way anymore.


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This entry was posted on Sunday, November 10th, 2013 at 2:28 pm and is filed under Media About Bullying, NFL: Jonathan Martin, Print: News, Blogs, Magazines, Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education, WBI in the News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. whittier dental

    Employer Resource Council: 20 Subtle Signs of Workplace Bullying | Workplace Bullying Institute

  2. Mark says:

    Wow…this certainly brings back memories of a job I had once. My boss was a major passive-aggressive bully, and so was the HR Manager. The union president also condoned their behavior. Had I know then that I could have sued them all – damn.

  3. Ella says:

    I am starting to feel that I being bullied at work. Criticisms of mistakes at work at made a meal of. I’m listening to my instincts and I feel she’s a bully. I’ve been overtly bullied in the past and HR were completely useless. My mother was also bullied by a known serial bully and HR let her down. HR do not deserve the respect they get.

  4. Angela says:

    I am experiencing the subtle and not so subtle work-place bullying and receiving no support from my Union. The most recent bullying involves office lights, if you can believe that!!! People at this job are mad at me because I want all of the office lights on in order to full-fill my work related responsibilities. I need to see in order to do my job!!!! I cannot believe the utter pettiness of these crazy people.

  5. […] are a four subtle signs that bullying could be happening at your […]

  6. Lilly says:

    I have done everything that I was supposed to and the employer never did anything besides being dishonest and covering up their improprities.

    It’s like living my abusive childhood all over again. The people who were supposed to protect me were the very same people who caused me harm.

  7. […] unnecessary pressure. If you think you may be experiencing workplace bullying, subtle or obvious, check out this article for more information on how to identify and combat […]

  8. Sharon says:

    I just quit a job after only 2 weeks because of a bully in the workplace. It was a small department where 3 people worked at a time. I was training to be the 4th. I noticed the other 2 workers worked with blinders on to avoid confrontation and there was a definite different vibe when the bully wasn’t there. The bully had no desire to train me and would only talk to me if I asked a question which was always a “stupid” question. I had nothing invested in this company and felt I couldn’t work with such a person. When I quit I told them and to find out this person had a history…….hopefully something will be done to protect the other 2 good employees.

  9. Anon says:


    I am currently plucking up the courage to tackle the covert bullying I am experiencing at work, it’s very scary. I am in the healthcare profession.
    I am currently off sick with anxiety and stress and feel that if/when I return to work I will continue to be the victim of further covert bullying.
    Advice please. I am speaking to my union rep about this.

  10. Darlene says:

    I’m experiencing this now. I have two bullies – a young boss and the personnel manager. The young boss is inexperienced in her field so seeks to blame me for anything that goes wrong. It’s never, ever her fault. I’m called into a meeting by the personnel manager whenever the slightest thing doesn’t go the girl’s way or she “feels” something should’ve gone differently, or because something could have gone wrong. The meetings are always accusatory, as if the words are lifted straight from the young boss’s vindictive, over analytical mind.

    I’m a fairly strong, confident person but the stress has reduced me to feeling lethargic from not sleeping well even when I’m tired, feeling depressed, confused, and anxious at work. I want to isolate. The young boss needs constant validation. She must feel perfect and special or I get called in. It’s exhausting. Immaturity is a factor with her, but also a possible mental illness similar to ADD may be also. I think she needs medication.

    It’s tormenting for me to be subjected to both their reactions to fear and the need to control. I should be asleep but I’m still thinking about the accusations waged in a meeting last week. It was painful. They were false, exaggerated, misleading, and retaliatory.

    Please God, help me get to the other side of this nightmare.

    • Angel says:

      Darlene, I am going through the same thing. The people in HR can’t help me because they’re all friends with the bully. I started keeping my cell phone on my desk & using the voice recorder to catch stuff the bully would say so I could have proof. Be careful of talking to co-workers because sometimes they secretly work for the bully. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, but if you really want to stay at that company or dept, then try to go above the property HR and try corporate HR. Even try the BBB(better business bureau), or some other entity. Maybe get an employment lawyer. It’s hard because they play mind games with you, but don’t get sucked in. In one ear, out the other. You probably have something they want and can’t attain. Bullies are jealous people. The most important thing is to know that these pathetic psychopaths exist in the world everywhere, so don’t let them destroy your happiness or sanity! Don’t take the bully home with you. When you’re not at work, don’t let them invade your thoughts. Live your life and be happy. Bullies hate it when you’re happy. Take comfort in knowing you are not alone. Do what you gotta do to take care of yourself and have peace of mind. You deserve it.

      • M says:

        I have endured bullying in various forms at work for almost 3 years. Things got so bad that I finally threw in the towel and offered my resignation. I was moved to a different office and things seemed better. One of the people that bully me however makes it her mission to come into the current office I’m in, I’m assuming just to humiliate me.
        She intimates that I have had a breakdown (because of the move). The frustrating part is one of the people she is “joking” with is HR!

      • MMM says:

        Oh my goodness, I just left a position due to incessant harassment, bullying, belittling, lurking, surveillance – you name it – by one of my bosses. I have never been made to feel so inept and inadequate as that man went out of his way to make me feel. Night after night I would come home and literally just plop onto my bed, unable to do a thing; no cooking, no cleaning, nothing.

        Less than a year before the abuse began I lost my mom, was still grieving (still am) and his realm of psychological terror on me made things much worse. In fact, I began to abuse alcohol.

        As far as HR having done anything, well – heck – it was certainly something they should have addressed; in fact, I wrote to them time after time, but no – the bully was protected. In fact, Mr. Bully has a long history at that company of having abused staff, but HR ignored it, looked the other way and, eventually all staff stopped talking to me.

        I never saw any of it coming. And the reason I became the object was also well-known throughout the company: the bully had issues in “sharing” his support staff with other company executives (I was responsible to him and two others). He literally prevented me from doing the work of the other two by his intimidating behavior and horrible humiliation.

        I am thankful to be out. I can actually breathe again.

        Don’t put up with it. Leave, for your own sake. I became ill – don’t let that happen to you.

    • Theresa says:

      Oh do I know your situation. I was one of dozens of people that left when my new manger came on. Took everyone to HR at the slightest provocation. I ended up leaving b/c I didn’t want her to ruin my career. I now have found out she is not there anymore. I am hoping that a few others in the HR department were shown the door as well. It has left a scrambled department that once was such a cohesive team. Damn shame how one person is allowed to do so much destruction. What have I learned from this? I learned to be flexible and jump ship frequently. Got interviewing down pat and a current resume at all times. Until these power hungry inept people are dealt with, there is no point ruining my health as I have seen. On ward to new horizons.

  11. […] is a great list provided by the Work Place Bullying Institute of Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Signs of Bullying. Read the list, you might be surprised that you have […]

  12. […] Posted by owlandporcupine on March 28, 2016 Employer Resource Council: 20 Subtle Signs of Workplace Bullying […]

  13. Caroline says:

    I quit my job when I finally broke down sobbing for 45 minutes. Former co-worker found me on-line and said he had lost his job after he reported my supervisor pointed a gun at him in his office. When no one else saw, he was accused of lying about HER. She does carry a gun in her purse, BTW. Based on other actions, I am convinced she is truly insane, not just a bully, but there’s nothing I can do now.

  14. RL says:

    Been bullied before. Management sought in protecting the Bully hence no liability. Now else where in the Gov. Sector and facing another Bully! I know the outcome will be the same as before. Victim gets blamed,moved on, denial bh management so as not to be held liable or accountable for allowing bullhing. Nothing changes. Its a sad state of affair when one is confronted with added road blocks other than the Bully.

  15. Angel Whitfield says:

    After researching and reading eberything, I think I am being bullied. I worked for a small family owned business. Two brothers run it. I am the only white person. I am a young lady and everyone else is black. I feel it has something to do with race as well. They just hired another lady and she is black and believe a family member. She is taking some of my responsibilities. They didnt tell me anything. Yesterday had a mtg and i was the main focus even though name wasnt mentioned. I was felt like crap during meeting and having anxiety. Also yelled at me. They picked on somethings that i made mistakes on. Which they told me to do on my own without them helping me. I started telling them some things that needed to be changed. As far as communicating with me on job info and they turned it around to say they are. They wouldnt listen to me at all. Everythinf i brought up as a issue they never addressed and just said we are doing it. Which is a lie cause i brought it up. My concerns were not important to them. Now when i come to work and they get around me i get anxious and chest pains. They talk down to me and snapp at me and its suppose to be ok since they dont apologize. Help please. They are the owners, mamagers and hr.

    • Miss Moses says:

      Complete a complaint with the Employment Commission. But first, write down everything you can remember, dates and details are good. Racism is racism. You should not have to work in a hostile environment.

  16. […] a regular basis, you find your boss or your boss’s boss making thinly veiled or overt threats to your status with the company. Have you ever been told that if you make a certain decision, […]

  17. Whitney says:

    I’m experiencing this now. My manager is currently victimizing me, She is taking some of my responsibilities. she didn’t tell me anything and informing the rest of the stuffs to keep away from me, she does not speak to me nor CC me in any of the work related emails.
    We had a argument before this victimization started which resulted in her yelling & man handling me in her office.She is twice my size and downgrades my qualification. After the incident she later apologized but she also stated that she has a history of violence I’m not sure if that should be something i should worry about. I fear that she will further victimize me physically.
    I have recordings of what happened that day at her office.Our HR is of no help and so is our Boss, i feel they are all taking her side & plotting against me.

  18. Theresa says:

    I am dealing with this right now. Took my rehab person to help point this out. It’s difficult when the problem is in the HR department as well and higher up in the organization. “Power” and “control” goes to peoples’ heads. I also work with a mostly female organization, most who have not worked anywhere else in the profession. This is not a good situation. I find these cloistered groups of women catty and behave as if we were still in high school. Anything that threatens their limited securities and the claws come out. Unfortunately only leaving solves the problem for me. Wishing there was something more that could be done. I am a female. I am not proud of my profession.

  19. […] Builder found that 45% of Canadians claim to have experienced workplace bullying. Bullying is different from harassment in that it is technically legal, and not every company has a code of conduct in place to prevent […]

  20. Sandy says:

    I work for a small family owners business-a mothers a daughter. They are best known for their emotional outbursts. Last year I was promoted to a senior position where they tried to slowly move me into a manager position. Every new person who came into our department was trained by me. I worked hard to get there and the next thing I know the owner heard something untrue about me and called me immature and said I was too young to be manager. Anyways she then hired the new girl I had just trained to be manager Bc she liked her and bonded with her. I feel like her telling me I was immature and too young to handle being a manager was completely out of line. Anyways…I ended up dating a manager of the other department and I am still in my position and all goes well. I have noticed however that when the owner wants to find something out about me she goes straight to my boyfriend to talk to him. She has specifically told us to keep work and personal life separate and instead of coming to me with concerns she goes to him (he is very valuable in bringing new accounts and customers Bc she basically is clueless after her husband left her to run the company). Anyways I think it’s inapprpriatw to go to another manager who is not mine (yes he’s my boyfriend but still it’s uncomfortable. Another thing that recently occurred was I was written up for absentees in the past few months…I was willing to just get written up and move on and improve. My manager told me she would do it in the HR persons office and told me they basically just sit there and witness and my manager would do all the taking which I was completely on board for and to deal with my consequences. During my written up process they gave me a verbal notice form in which I never got a verbal notice at work or documented….my manager had texted me about how she’d have to give verbal warnings but never directly gave me one. :8 then she showed me my written notice and I was confused and the HR lady (who is besties with owners daughter) basically said she saw personal texts I had with my manager and was pretty much in attack mode. She talked in a demeaning way and was completely unprofessional–my manager was even shocked. I am at the point where it’s like I have to keep taking the abuse and awful behavior and just keep going but sometimes it’s too much. I’ve never worked for a company like this and I feel uncomfortable humiliated degraded and spoken downtoo. I get people should be written up and I was willing to just deal with that but the way things occurred seemed a little inappropriate and off. Especially after the owner went to my bf to discuss me and my absentees and he told her I was fighting depression a lot this year and she acted concerned then went behind my back and told my manager to write me up. Maybe I am overreacting a bit and could totally let this go but these types of circumstances have been occurring for the past few years. How much is enough?? Not sure what to do and hope I can hear other people’s opinions and thoughts

  21. […] guide from Workplace Bullying should allow you to detect any trouble. Meanwhile, it’s imperative that you reward employees […]

  22. Frank says:

    I was just fired from my job because I didn’t speak up loud enough about being bullied. I can confirm that each one of the 20 subtle signs were being done to me, or made me feel that way. I tried to tell my bosses, but they blamed me. I tried to live with it, but my bully tried new ways to bully me. Of course she is friends with the bosses, so they always took her side when she sabotaged my work and then blamed me. Now I don’t know how I can go out and look for a new job while trying to explain why I am not longer with that company – 3 years with a strong company, only to be fired for being bullied.

  23. Theresa says:

    What do you do when it’s HR that’s doing the bullying? Who do you turn to? What do you do? I work under a HR manager that is demon possessed. She rules with her emotions and threatens me everyday the sun rises and sets.

  24. Day says:

    What if the bully is your supervisor and your employer has no HR department

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