12 signs your employee is being bullied at work

August 26, 2023

From investigating countless cases involving workplace bullies, I’ve seen a common theme emerge from the targets of that behavior. A workplace bully can be a supervisor, peer, subordinate or even a customer/client.

If your employee tells you things in the following list are happening, listen to the employee and investigate thoroughly.

1. Work means misery. Although many people don’t look forward to going to work – because it’s work, after all — targets of bullying report a feeling of extreme dread, anxiety and doom. Some report having a panic attack when they pull into the parking lot. One said she drove an hour to work, vomited in the bushes and then turned around and drove home. Another employee said she woke up at 2 a.m. just to pray for the bully so God could fix whatever is in his life that is causing him to treat her like this.

2. Chaos. The targeted employee will report feeling like being on a hamster wheel – always running to go somewhere, but not knowing where exactly. The bully changes the rules and expectations on the fly — and all the time. The target frantically tries to keep up with the whim of the bully while desperately trying not to upset the bully. The bully is setting the target up to fail, so the target will fail. It’s impossible to succeed when the bully hides and changes what success looks like.

3. Manipulation. The bully has manipulated “up” the chain quite well, and everyone above the bully thinks the bully is wonderful, competent and sees no issue. The target will report that the bully has manipulated human resources, so that when the target goes to HR to complain, the bully has already predisposed HR into thinking the target is the problem.

4. Gaslighting. The target will report that the bully will say, “I didn’t tell you to do X” or “You have my full support to do Y” or “You have full autonomy.” Meanwhile, none of that is accurate. The bully is fully in control of everything the target is doing and is giving the target no autonomy to make any decisions or to do the job. All of this leaves the target to wonder, “Is this me? Am I the problem?”

5. Micromanagement. The bully takes an interest in every movement of the target – from the target’s daily activities to the target’s arrival time, departure time, lunch and break schedule. The bully is watching and placing extreme attention on the target — all the time.

6. Gossip and lies. At the start of the target working for the organization, the bully confided in the target, saying things such as “Your coworker Alice is an alcoholic; Fred has depression; Sally is on a final warning.” This seems strange to the target, but the bully is trying to lure in the target to gain trust, and also pit employees against one another.

7. Constant criticism and undermining. No matter what the target does, it’s wrong. Always. The bully will tell the employee to do “x” and then the employee will do “x,” but the bully will become unhinged that the employee did “x” not “y.”

8. Yelling. This is not always the case, but the bully is frequently described as aggressive and will raise his/her voice. Sometimes, however, the bully is described as “nice nasty,” in which the person is super sweet on the outside, but incredibly passive aggressive and manipulative in action.

9. Belittling and humiliation. In public meetings and in private, the bully will engage in conduct that is demeaning, condescending and belittling — undermining and humiliating the target.

10. The employee’s family knows about the bully. Targets will report that their friends and family know about the bully, and they have been trying to persuade the target to report the bully, quit or change departments. Family and friends will notice a physical change in the appearance of the targets, referring to them as a shell of their former selves. Unfortunately, the bully has eroded the employee’s self-esteem so much that the employee has now lost so much confidence that it’s hard to look for other work. The bully has convinced the target that the target is worthless or incompetent.

11. The employee is suddenly on medication/in therapy. For the first time in the target’s life, the target is sudden on anti-anxiety medicine, anti-depressants, high blood pressure medicine, seeing a therapist or taking leave. One employee told me recently that she contemplated suicide.

12. It’s an abusive relationship. The target feels bad reporting the bully. When the good times are good, they are really good. But when the bad times are bad, they are really bad. This is why it is a classic abusive relationship created by the bully. Sometimes the bully is really supportive.

The targeted employee will have a difficult time explaining specifically what has happened because it’s constant and all the time. This makes it difficult to investigate and what makes organizations wrongly take no action against the bully. When an investigation happens and there are no consequences to the bully, the bully becomes emboldened, feeling untouchable.

Employees bullied at work face extreme trauma. While no law protects against workplace bullying, organizational policies should be sufficient to hold bullies accountable, and bullies should be removed from the workplace.