Workplace bullying: Can a developing situation be nipped in the bud?

(image from

(image from

Can a developing, potential workplace bullying situation be nipped in the bud? In my judgment, the answer depends on definitions, the characteristics of the aggressor(s), and in some instances the savvy of the intended target.

So much of the research, commentary, and advice on workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse assumes situations that have already elevated into a serious state. However, we know much less about situations that may start as lower level conflicts and then elevate into more serious interpersonal abuse — and whether informal or formal intervention could’ve prevented the latter.

For what it’s worth, here is my sense of the landscape on this question:

When a situation involves mostly incivility, rudeness, or disrespect, it may be resolvable.

When a situation involves an abrasive boss or co-worker, it may be resolvable.

When a situation is still one of conflict, strong difference of opinion, or a personality clash, it may be resolvable.

By “resolvable” I mean informal and formal means of working out differences, even in situations that might involve a perceived dignity violation. Talking things out and informal mediation are among the most common ways of getting to a better place. In more intractable circumstances, a move or transfer may be advisable before a situation becomes sharply acute.

In some, perhaps many, of these less severe instances, the personal traits of the individual experiencing the mistreatment will come into play. In no way I am suggesting that we engage in victim blaming here. Rather, I’m saying that an individual’s interpersonal skill set may play a role in navigating, avoiding, or stopping incivility and disrespect, as well as helping to ratchet down disagreements threatening to go haywire.

And, of course, the overall quality of management and the culture of the organization will feed into these equations, too. Quality workplaces are better equipped to handle these situations and resolve them fairly.

Interestingly, all of these scenarios may be defined — often wrongly, I believe — as bullying. In this context I think it’s vital for us to distinguish between individual bullying-type behaviors and genuine bullying or mobbing situations. The latter are what we most need to be concerned about in terms of personal impact.

The big, huge “however”

So folks, here’s my big however: When someone is subjected to intentional, targeted mistreatment designed to cause them harm or distress, that’s the game changer. Toss out of the window notions of conflict, differences of opinion, personality clashes, bad manners, or general jerkiness. The situation is now abusive, and we’re looking at genuine workplace bullying.

Incidentally, this is where I’ve set the bar for recovery under the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I drafted. It’s about providing a legal claim for health harming, targeted abuse at work.

Once we’re at this point, a target’s strong interpersonal skills will be of less use. The bullying or mobbing has started, it is driven by malice, and the aggressor(s) aren’t that interested in patching up differences and making peace. The eliminationist instinct often has taken over.

In sum, if a situation quickly accelerates into full-fledged bullying, then nipping it in the bud is awfully hard. Other, less severe scenarios may possibly be resolved with only minor bloodshed.

4 responses

  1. I have experienced severe workplace bullying….have tons of documentation and cannot find an attorney to take my case. In my opinion there is no help out there for folks like me. There are now laws for discrimination for the LGBT community, but none for me, a 57 year old single white female who is now broke and having to claim bankruptcy. Where is the justice and fairness in that???

  2. HI Dr. Yamada,

    As you mentioned in your post how “…a target’s strong interpersonal skills will be of less use. ..bullying or mobbing has started, it is driven by malice”, This is the point were the bully’s have total control of the situation, it is criminal intent. Criminal intent is categorized by direct or oblique. It is the desire of the person to commit a specific action that will result in a specific outcome. It is to say if the bully has found it’s target and is now committing the criminal activity to make the victim leave or psychologically become unfit for work. Thus we have described a criminal who commits a criminal act with intention to harm.
    Thank you.

  3. Workplace bullying has become a topic of concern and attention by the EEOC in recent years. It’s not included on the list of unlawful behavior yet. However, this issue is gaining traction and rightly so.

    If you experience bullying behavior, be sure to keep a daily record and save any evidence to support your claim. If you’re being bullied, it’s important to determine the source and the reason which is critical to your claim.

    If this began as retaliation, your case may have merit. Retaliation is illegal. If you complained or took action against your employer over unfair treatment and they retaliate, you just might have grounds to sue.

    Most attorneys won’t accept employment complaint cases on a contingency – they’re hard to prove and many times not as strong as we believe. In other words, be prepared to pay as you go and that is oftentimes not an option for most of us. Especially if you’ve lost your job.

    The good news is the EEOC will investigate claims of discrimination, harassment or retaliation free of charge. Unless of course the case lacks sufficient evidence to proceed.

    I’m pretty sure the rules are federal as far as how and when the EEOC becomes involved – you must first file a complaint with them and after they investigate – whether or not they support your claim, they issue a “right to sue” letter. You cannot sue under the protection of EEOC laws unless you bring the complaint to them first.

    Bullying in the workplace is insidious. It’s similar to a kid being bullied unmercifully at school – only the adult version which can be far more damaging and dangerous depending on the circumstances.

    We need bullying to be included in unlawful behavior to prevent more suffering and loss to the victims!

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