Recognizing and addressing workplace bullying: Diversity Column Nine

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Workplace bullying often begins subtly and insidiously so that bullied individuals (targets) have difficulty recognizing, understanding and labeling their experiences as bullying. This is a problem because they may tend to minimize bullying behaviours (e.g., she’s just having another bad day) and blame themselves (e.g. maybe there’s something wrong with me). This lack of recognition extends periods of self-doubt, delays identifying bullying, prolongs the negative behaviour and increases ill effects on health. For these reasons, it’s important to name and address the problem as bullying sooner rather than later.

Although it is often difficult to recognize and identify bullying, there are some early warning signs.

Targets often report having noticed or felt some things before they knew it was bullying. Initial feelings and responses that indicate bullying include sensing a change in relationships with people at work, having consuming thoughts about experiences, dwelling on or replaying incidents over and over, doubting or continually questioning self and work abilities, having difficulty concentrating and dreading going to work or school.

Targets of bullying often report noticing health symptoms, sometimes before they recognize they’re being bullied.

Some of the early consequences that you might notice include increased stress, more anxiety, changes in sleeping patterns (insomnia or sleeping more), changes in weight and eating patterns (over- or under-eating), and upset stomachs. Later on, more severe health effects often occur if bullying continues.

If you find that you’re experiencing any of these feelings or symptoms in response to work experiences, there are some things you can do. It’s important to take time to reflect and consider those experiences and compare them to your past work experiences so that you can see changes more clearly.  Some people find it helps to seek information and learn about workplace bullying from sources such as the internet, journals, books, workplace policies and resource people.

Many people find it helps to talk to trusted friends, family members, co-workers, or health care professionals. Talking to someone can sometimes validate your feelings and confirm your suspicions that the unacceptable behaviours you’re experiencing are workplace bullying. They can also help you to identify what options you have for doing something about it.

There are different ways of handling workplace bullying. First, becoming informed about what it is and what it isn’t, helps to empower a target person to recognize bullying behaviours for what they are and to understand that what feels hurtful is not their fault.

From there, one can use what’s called “I statements” to create an initial response that presents some simple resistance, such as “I find criticism in front of others to be unacceptable. Please speak to me privately if there’s a problem.” That way, there is no doubt that the behaviour is unwelcome. If the behaviour still doesn’t stop, seek support and assistance in making your point.

Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace. While there might be disagreement and problem solving required, those can be done respectfully.

For more information, please visit Towards a Respectful Workplace at or contact the Office of Human Rights and Positive Environment at




Emily is in her fourth year of Political Science. She loves studying and academics which follows into her research work. She's a stern black coffee drinker and is a proud Acadienne. When she's not working or doing school work, you can find Emily listening to 70s music on vinyl and watching Parks and Recreation. If you ask her about parliamentary institutions, she won't stop talking.