7 signs you’re dealing with a workplace bully

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I think it’s safe to say that at some point in our lives, we’ve all come across a bully in some form or another. 

After all, the human proclivity for preying on those perceived as vulnerable or weak has existed since time immemorial. 

The bully is especially prevalent in schools, at home, or in the workplace–-that is, spaces where we are obligated to have to deal with certain people on a regular basis. 

In the office, a bully might target you for a number of reasons: maybe they consider you a threat, maybe they have an underlying personality disorder, or maybe they are just an old-fashioned asshole. 

In this article, I’ll walk you through seven obvious signs you’ve got a workplace bully on your hands. 

Sometimes their methods are subtle, other times, not so much. Don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s them.

Either way, once you know the signs, you can take the appropriate steps to move forward… like a trip to HR. Let’s dive in!

1) They unfairly criticize you 

Sometimes, a bully who is aware of his own inadequacy will shift blame, unfairly targeting an innocent scapegoat. 

They might be slacking off a bit and in order to distract superiors, they’ll slyly turn the attention to you, blaming you for things that are completely out of your control. 

Sound familiar? 

Maybe you find yourself tolerating it at first since you consider it an opportunity to grow. But eventually, you realize their criticism isn’t your typical, well-meaning, run-of-the-mill feedback. 

The barrage of blame transforms into an unfair and unnecessary pattern, as their malicious intent becomes increasingly evident. 

2) They publicly humiliate you 

Here’s the thing: a bully knows to hit their victims where it hurts. 

They tend to gain a sick, twisted pleasure out of belittling you and witnessing your humiliation and suffering in front of others.

Their foundation is so delicate, they need to see others suffer to get that fleeting ego boost. 

Sure, they might laugh it off, disguising their contempt as playful banter. 

So read between the lines–if you’re hurt by their actions, don’t put up with it. 

You’re not just “too sensitive.” It’s time you put Biff in his or her place. 

3) They make you feel excluded

Typically, the bully will be quite subtle in their expressions of dismay for you, such as by leaving you out of key communications, meetings, or after-work bonding sessions. 

You can let it slide for a while, but once your exclusion becomes a clear pattern, then something is definitely up. 

It’s likely that the snub was premeditated, as a way of isolating you from the group and making you feel alone and marginalized within your own team. 

In every other workplace, there seems to be this toxic and primal urge for bullies to make rookies and newcomers perpetually feel like crap. 

When I entered the corporate world, I was a wide-eyed youngster keen to make a mark on the company. 

Inevitably, my enthusiastic spirits were dampened by a workplace bully who would go out of his way to make me feel excluded. 

In my case, I’d notice this bully cutting me off when it was my turn to speak in group discussions; or after I made a valid point, he’d quickly change the subject, so the collective attention of the group would be pointed elsewhere. 

He knew what he was doing and it didn’t take me long to catch on. 

4) They behave aggressively toward you 

Real talk: while every bully has their own unique style, what they all have in common is an underlying hostility toward their victims. 

Just as in the schoolyard, workplace bullies might resort to aggressive words, raised volume, and menacing gestures to terrorize their targets. 

They seek to actively intimidate, occasionally forgetting that you’re teammates in an office and not adversaries on the island from Lord of the Flies. 

This can result in an unhealthy (and frankly, unnecessary) amount of stress for you. 

So if you find yourself being the target of such attacks, it’s time to take it to the higher-ups. 

5) They’re overbearing supervisors

I’ll admit it: I once dated a co-worker. She was an editor at my first publishing job. 

The romance was short-lived and didn’t end particularly well. This, in turn, created a complicated, messy dynamic between us. 

She began to micromanage me in a way that clearly went beyond standard managerial oversight. 

Every piece I’d submit, she’d savagely butcher, making me painstakingly fix the countless revisions she’d made. It took a breakup for her to become the fascist, nightmare editor. 

How convenient. 

A workplace bully might overwork you, setting you up to fail. 

They may set unrealistic deadlines or assign you a ridiculous workload. When you inevitably fail at meeting these deadlines, they will weaponize those shortcomings against you. 

In other words, if you find that your superior is overseeing your work and often undermining your capability to do a job, something may be up. 

Dig a little deeper, a bully might just be at play. 

6) They love to spread false rumors and gossip 

You know they’re a bully when they attempt to orchestrate systematic smear campaigns against you. 

Bullies just love spreading damaging rumors to ruin your reputation among peers, superiors very much included. 

This kind of character assassination has the potential to make your life far more difficult than it should be, which, let’s face it, is the end goal of the bully, whose version of psychological warfare is waged by gradually chipping away at your self-worth. 

In fact, sometimes nobody is off limits to the bully. 

They’ll ruthlessly cross the line into personal territory, spreading negative gossip about your personal life, your appearance, and your family. 

In addition to being incredibly unprofessional, this behavior can also be deeply painful and emotionally tormenting.

Why is the bully so cold-hearted? A lot of it has to do with misplaced frustrations. 

Dr. Dan Olweus, often referred to as the “pioneer” in bullying research, has said: “Bullying is not about anger, it’s about contempt, a powerful feeling of dislike toward somebody considered to be worthless, inferior, and undeserving of respect.”

7) They resort to intimidation tactics

Maybe you’ve heard it before: hurt people hurt people. 

From my experience, bullies are just people who have been bullied in the past, whether in school, in childhood, or in past jobs. 

Once they achieve a position of power, they use that platform to wreak havoc like their former bullies once did. This is classic projection. 

They hold onto dormant anger from the past and eagerly take it out on others once in their position. Ironic, I know. 

For the bully, intimidation can be achieved in many ways. 

Some common tactics include standing just a little too close for comfort, making bizarrely inappropriate and ominous comments, or using their authority to make you feel uncomfortable or uneasy.

Have you ever met someone at work and they shake your hands just a bit too hard that your knuckles touch and there’s some mild pain? 

This is often just a bully sending a message in a not-so-understated fashion. 

Final thoughts

To recap, bullying is marked by a combination of contempt, a thirst for power, and a stark lack of empathy–a frankly dangerous combination of personality traits. 

Bullying has long been ubiquitous, from the government and politics to the classroom to the workplace. 

Therefore, I think it’s great that in recent years, segments of society have collectively come together, standing up for the victims and recognizing that bullying is an epidemic in itself. 

But the job isn’t done. For bullying to become truly obsolete, we need more silent bystanders to come out, not just the bullied.

Let’s not forget what progressive South African Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu, whose activism helped dismantle apartheid, famously said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

And if you are a victim, please don’t think twice about reaching out to HR or a trusted manager. 

Outline specific incidents and build a case. You can’t keep allowing the bully to get away with toxic behavior that comes at your expense. 

As an employee, it’s well within your rights to have a healthy and safe work environment. 

Keep standing tall and never, ever compromise your mental health.

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Justin Brown

As co-founder of Ideapod, a digital publishing platform reaching millions, and creator of The Vessel, a new platform for self-knowledge, I bring a unique perspective to the world of culture, politics and psychology. With a M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and M.A. (First Class Honours) from the Australian National University, I've dedicated my career to understanding and sharing new ideas and perspectives for a new generation.

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