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What to do if you notice bullying in the workplace

In my time at private schools, I was bullied, beaten and publicly shamed by both a headmaster and later by other boys.

For me, having structure, camaraderie, experience of being part of a team, and having a purpose with the Royal Marines were all vital parts of my recovery, and my early life experiences have made me passionate about addressing the issues around bullying and the abuse of power.

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Those who have been bullied (the target) find out that their experience cuts very deep and leaves psychological scars that can impact them throughout their life.

The consequences of bullying can have long-lasting effects on physical and mental health, self-esteem, confidence, mood, levels of anxiety, stress and depression.

Bullying is often a traumatising ordeal which affects the ability to sleep, have healthy relationships and hold down a job - PTSD is a common result. Bringing into our consciousness that these are the consequences of bullying should help stop us from turning a blind eye and instead act as a catalyst for us to take action to support the target.

What can we do if we notice bullying in the workplace?

Don’t be complicit. Sometimes it is hard to speak up and we may be unsure what to say without creating a backlash, especially if you are dealing with a bully who is in a leadership role. However, turning a blind eye to harassment, bullying or power play ultimately means we are condoning the behaviour rather than challenging it.

Reassure and be an ally. Talk to the target in the first instance and let them know you have witnessed it. Encourage them to find the strength to take the next steps in alerting the appropriate people and following the correct protocol if it is (hopefully) in place.

Ask them what support they need and how you can help. Remember that allyship does not necessarily require an intervention, it can just be being with someone, just listening. Part of the insidiousness of bullying is the creation of deep feelings of loneliness.

If appropriate let the bully know you have seen their behaviour. Sometimes people don’t know that their behaviour is bullying, and it can have started with a simple misunderstanding or miscommunication and can fester. Sometimes a conversation can be enough of a lightbulb moment for the bully to reflect and change their behaviour. Make sure you check with the person being bullied that it is ok for you to do this.

Find out what your workplace policy is for reporting and handling bullying. Follow procedure and talk to someone you trust at work. This can be harder in a small business, especially if the bully is your boss. If it isn’t in place already, ask for clearer messaging about what to do if there is bullying within the organisation, ask to have compulsory prevention training and bring up discussions about bullying generally.

Record evidence. Document what is happening by noting the date and time of the event(s) and an accurate account of what was said or done and if there were any other witnesses. This can be used by the person being bullied if they wish.

Be a good leader and role model. Employees naturally follow by example, so positive role modelling is vital, especially by leaders in the business. Help build a safer, more collaborative, inclusive environment where all respectful opinions can be heard. 

Be inclusive. Invite the person being bullied for a chat in a safe environment after work or choose them to join your team in training. These simple gestures can make all the difference. And remember that the target may well be feeling extremely vulnerable so be careful and considerate about what gesture of help might be appropriate and supportive.


Thom Dennis is CEO of Serenity in Leadership