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Workplace Bullying

Best practices for mitigating risk and maximizing morale

Employers that take steps to prevent, identify and resolve psychosocial workplace stress benefit from a more productive, resilient and inclusive work culture.

The business case

Occupational health and safety laws are clear — employers must implement processes to ensure employees have a workplace free of known health and safety hazards.[1] What has evolved is an increasing consensus that the scope of health and safety hazards includes psychosocial stressors like workplace bullying.[2]

What is workplace bullying?

Bullying is usually seen as acts or verbal comments that could psychologically or 'mentally' hurt or isolate a person in the workplace.[3] Bullying can involve negative physical contact as well. Bullying often involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behavior that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people. It has also been described as the assertion of power through aggression.

Bullying can come from both peers or from supervisors and managers. According to one study, 65% of bullies are individuals with a higher rank than their target.[4] Supervisors might bully subordinates by:

  • Assigning unreasonable workloads for the purpose of negatively impacting the employee – setting them up to fail
  • Constantly criticizing a person or their contributions before their peers
  • Changing assignments and responsibilities without explanation or reason
  • Underutilizing staff talent to diminish the person’s self-esteem
  • Intentionally blocking staff from training, sought-after projects, or opportunities for advancement.

Peers may bully coworkers by:

  • Sabotaging their coworker’s contribution to group efforts
  • Intruding on another’s privacy by pestering, spying or stalking
  • Threatening physical or verbal behavior
  • Sharing a coworker’s personal and confidential information without authorization
  • Spreading rumors to damage a coworker’s reputation
  • Creating exclusive groups or cliques within the workplace

While Oregon law does not define bullying behavior specifically, the basic question is, “Would most people consider a given action one intended to cause physical or psychological harm?”

The impact of bullying extends beyond an unpleasant experience and may result in lasting negative consequences both for victims and their organizations:

Targets of bullying may experience shock, anger, frustration, a sense of vulnerability and loss of confidence as well as physical symptoms like the inability to sleep or a loss of appetite.[5]

In the work environment, bullying can impact the overall health of the organization. Unchecked, bullying can result in an increase in absenteeism, turnover, stress related responses. In extreme cases, bullying can result in employees filing a workers’ compensation claim for workplace psychological injuries . The same factors can lead to a decrease in engagement, morale and productivity as well as impacts to the organization’s public image on social media. Even if abuse does not rise to the level of a civil rights violation, employees have choices and will leave if they’re being treated unfairly.

Of course, workplace bullying can escalate to inappropriate workplace behavior based on protected classes and become unlawful harassment and discrimination. Employers that fail to take prompt, effective corrective action to prevent harassment and discrimination risk substantial liability in legal actions.

On the other hand, a workplace in which employees feel confident that they and their best work are always welcome is one where staff are empowered to take ownership of their efforts, incorporate diverse perspectives and work toward success.

Steps to take

Preventing bullying in the workplace should start at the top and include implementing consistently applied policies against bullying, harassment, and discrimination. These policies should ensure employees have the information they need to recognize and appropriately respond to bullying in the workplace. Preventing bullying also means providing leaders with training and holding them accountable for recognizing and effectively intervening in unhealthy workplace behaviors. Employees should have multiple reporting paths to go around a manager or supervisor who is the bully. Consider posting resources (examples listed just below) in areas frequented by employees throughout their day.

Resources for employees

As an employee, you have the right to call out inappropriate workplace behavior. Keep detailed records noting who was involved, what happened, when it occurred and the outcome. Documentation like emails and chat threads can be critical to establishing the facts in a dispute.

Avoid escalating the situation or risking your reputation by responding in kind; instead, report bullying to your manager or supervisor or human resources department if needed.

Seek help and support from friends outside the workplace as well as assistance from any employee assistance program your organization provides.

  • If you experience bullying in the workplace on the basis of protected classes like your race, sex or religion, reach out to the Bureau of Labor and Industries, file a complaint or contact a private attorney.
  • Make use of any employer-provided Employee Assistance Program and counseling resources.
  • Call 211 for information on local, nonprofit, government and faith-based health and social services programs in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
  • Call 988 for in-person help with emotional and mental health crises.

Checklist for employers

Implement (and periodically revisit) a respectful workplace policy.
BOLI’s model language page is a great place to start.
Create multiple reporting pathways
Ensure employees are aware of multiple reporting avenues to report bullying and other inappropriate or unlawful behaviors.
Train supervisory and management staff
Ensure supervisors and managers are trained on their role in preventing and responding to inappropriate workplace behavior.
Define expectations
Have clear, accurate job descriptions, performance metrics, and consistent evaluations for all positions. All of these create space for employers and employees to align around shared expectations for their working relationship.
Do performance evaluations in three dimensions
Provide staff avenues to regularly share (anonymous) evaluations of their managers.
Conduct regular workplace culture surveys
Share the results with both staff and management as appropriate. For surveys to be effective tools, respondents need to know their input will be reviewed, carefully considered, and contribute to concrete data-driven changes.

[1] ORS 654.010.

[2] See Workplace Bullying: A Tale of Adverse Consequences. Accessed 2/13/2024.

[3] See Bullying in the Workplace. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Accessed 2/13/2024.

[4] See 2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Accessed 2/13/2024.

[5] See Bullying in the Workplace. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Accessed 2/13/2024.

Disclaimer: This website is not intended as legal advice. Any responses to specific questions are based on the facts as we understand them and the law that was current when the responses were written. They are not intended to apply to any other situations. This communication is not an agency order. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney.​