Do You Know a Bully?

What constitutes workplace bullying? These are some basic criteria and examples.

Most of us grew up knowing a bully. He or she preyed on the little kids on the playground. Yes, she. Women can be bullies, not just men. The bully might have pushed the little kids around trying to make them cry. The bullies might have made fun of how kids dressed or talked or how they looked. Bullies might have been the ringleaders of a gang of kids who preyed on other kids in the school.

Many of us lived through these experiences or saw what happened to other kids. We hoped that as we got older, we could leave bullying behind. 

Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Incidents of adult bullying are present in the workplace. Many federal agencies have implemented anti-bullying policies. As an example, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has a workplace anti-bullying policy which is available on the internet. This policy describes what is bulling and what is not bullying. It sets forth criteria that bullying must generally meet and describes the forms bullying may take.

The EPA policy has an important caveat: “In considering what is workplace bullying, it is necessary to apply common sense. The points provided in the policy are not to be applied rigidly or without regard to all relevant factors. All bullying complaints must be treated seriously and acted on promptly.”

Basic Questions About Bullying

The following are some basic questions about bullying:

Who can be bullied?

Potentially anyone in the workplace could be subject to bulling behavior.

Who are the bullies?

They include fellow employees, supervisors or even contractors who you work with.

How can the bulling take place?

It can be by one or more persons against any other person verbally in person or on the phone or through email, text messages, internet chat rooms, instant messaging, or other social media channels.

When can it take place? 

It can even take place during duty hours or outside normal duty hours outside the workplace

Basic Criteria for Bullying

The following are some of the criteria for bullying:

  • The bullying is repeated and systematic (although a serious single incident may constitute bullying),
  • It is unwelcomed and unsolicited,
  • The recipient considers the behavior offensive, intimidating, humiliating, or threatening,
  • A reasonable person would consider the behavior offensive, intimidating, to humiliate or threatening, it creates a risk to health and safety. 

Forms of Bullying

Bullying can take many different forms. The following are some forms bullying may take:

  • Aggressive behavior such as shouting and physical confrontation,
  • Using an abusive or aggressive tone in speaking to staff members,
  • Tacitly supporting bullying by letting it to continue. 

What is Not Bullying?

The following are some actions by management which normally would not be considered bullying: 

  • Legitimate and reasonable managerial actions to direct and control how work is done in the workplace.
  • Providing fair and reasonable feedback on staff member’s work performance.
  • Ensuring that workplace policies, procedures and reporting are implemented.
  • Managing allegations of misconduct and using disciplinary actions where appropriate.
  • Making justifiable decisions related to recruitment, selection, and other development activities. 
  • Issuing reasonable directions and work allocation and performance, and about attendance at the workplace.

Disagreements in the workplace are generally not considered workplace bullying, however, these disagreements may escalate to the point where they meet the definition of workplace bullying.

An employee who is bullied may be subject to discrimination or sexual harassment because of the bullying. However, an employee need not meet the requirements for discrimination or sexual harassment to have met the definition of bullying. Discrimination and/or sexual harassment may be an aspect of the bullying behavior, but an employee has a right to complain about bullying even when no discrimination sexual harassment has taken place.

Some agencies have internal processes to handle bullying complaints by employees, in others bullying may the subject of a grievance under the negotiated grievance procedure in the collective bargaining agreement.

For years bullying behavior in the workplace was just something employees had to put up with. Now employers have learned that it is in the best interests of the employer to take affirmative steps to reduce the incidence of bullying in the workplace.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.