Bullying has become a hot topic in the last couple of years. Whether it’s because society has changed what qualifies as acceptable behavior in the workplace, on campus, and in schools or whether it’s because we are more aware of the negative psychological effects that bullying can have during all phases of life has not been determined. But the fact remains that we are becoming more cognizant of bullying and its effects on not only the target of the bullying, but also the bystanders who witness such behavior. 

As we are becoming more aware of bullying, a shift to claim all bad behavior as bullying has also been on the rise. Did someone get mad at you and slam the door? Bullying. Did someone send you a singular email that called you fat? Bullying. Did your supervisor tell you that the task asked of you was incomplete and needed to be redone? Bullying. Did a professor tell you that your work needs improvement or you’re likely going to fail the class? Bullying.

Or not? The truth is that with our increased awareness has also come the tendency to label all things as bullying. As such, this article offers clarification regarding this sensitive and often painful issue – and tips to help address bullying behavior


Characteristics of School and Workplace Bullying

Motives for bullying vary by age. Children and teens who bully are often uncomfortable with a perceived weakness or difference that they identify in their target. The weakness/difference could be a disability (seen or hidden) or other health issue, a weight problem, a cultural difference; or it could be rooted in a socio-economic status difference, which can impact not only the target’s ability to assimilate with current trends, but also their access to hygiene items such as washing machines and showers. 

As children often don’t understand the cause of their discomfort but are able to identify the source, they will target the other child or person with teasing, name-calling, intimidation and sometimes physical aggression.

Many states now have anti-bullying legislation in place that affects schools. Some are specific to identified groups; others are general in regards to the behavior itself versus an identified target. For those states that don’t have their own legislative protections in place, the federal civil rights laws obligate schools to take action to address and deter bullying.

Is this really a big issue for kids, though? According to a Buffalo State study, one out of three children has been the target of a bully, and one out of three children has been a bully. If this statistic is applicable to the U.S. at large, then the issue of bullying is a very serious one indeed.

Unfortunately, experts agree that the transition from K-12 doesn’t magically cure the bullying dilemma that our nation is facing. In fact, statistically, bullying levels remain about the same, or in some cases may actually get worse as children go off to college and/or enter the workforce. 

Approximately 15 percent of college students report being bullied, according to a study conducted by Indiana State University professors. In the same study, 42 percent of college students stated that they’ve witnessed the bullying of a fellow student.

Due to the varying ages of students that make up a college campus, which can range from high school advanced placement students to adult graduate students, bullying often presents itself in one of two ways. The first way is an aggressor may target a perceived weakness or difference, as previously discussed. As people mature, however, the reason bullying occurs on campus may shift to targeting those who have a perceived strength. Workplace bullying often occurs when the bully sees that their target is good or better at something then they themselves may be. Both types of bullying are often rooted in the aggressor feeling an underlying sense of inadequacy – either in their own abilities or in their ability to handle the discomfort or difference.

Bullying behaviors on campus and in the workplace can be difficult to define when there are few legislative parameters besides those that address discrimination or harassment of a protected group. CPI (Crisis Prevention Institute)  defines bullying as behavior that involves incivility and/or disrespect that is pervasive and ongoing with the intent to manipulate or harm another individual. Frequently with bullying, there is also a power difference, an absence of consent, and a culture that tolerates it. Bullying is not typically a solitary or occasional incident of anger or inappropriate outbursts, nor would differences in personalities, opinions, or style be bullying. Also, bullying is not direction from authority figures such as professors, supervisors or leadership.


Bullying Is Violence

CPI and other reputable organizations contend that bullying is violence. As we look at violence from a holistic perspective, CPI’s Workplace Violence Continuum encompasses discourtesy, disrespect, intimidation, harassment/bullying, retaliation, verbal assault and physical aggression.

We can break bullying behaviors down even further and describe them as behaviors directed toward an individual or group with the intent to be rude or discourteous, or to annoy, manipulate, control or abuse. Other bullying behaviors include threats of imminent or future harm and verbal or physical aggression that’s persistent and ongoing. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that “any behavior that demeans, embarrasses, humiliates, annoys, alarms or verbally abuses a person” could be considered violence. As such, the similar behaviors that we see in bullying equate bullying with violence.


How Bullying Occurs

The behaviors involved in bullying can be dispensed through diverse communication channels. For example, of the 15 percent of students who’ve reported being bullied, 22 percent indicate they’ve been cyberbullied. Cyberbullying can occur through social media, text messages, instant messages, email, etc. Bullying behaviors can also be communicated through our body language, nonverbal behavior, and the manner in which we use the words we speak. It’s important to note that inaction or withholding communication from an individual with the intent to cause harm can be just as much bullying as deeds and written or spoken words.

One typical characteristic of bullying is a power difference. A power difference exists where one person’s behavior is able to control, manipulate or strongly influence the behavior of another person. People who bully often have either assumed, perceived, or real power (authority) in relation to their target.

However, this isn’t always related to hierarchical power such as that possessed by a professor, manager or supervisor. It’s a myth that only bosses are bullies, and in fact, studies indicate that most bullying occurs on a lateral level. There are a variety of forms of power differences in addition to seniority – including intellectual power, gossip, lies, physical prowess and social power, to name a few.

Regarding social power on college campuses, 55 percent of students who were involved in campus organizations, clubs or sports experienced hazing, according to a study by the University of Maine. Hazing can have psychological and physical harm for students who are just trying to “fit in” to a group. While students in some cases may consent to the treatment, there are other factors to consider such as the difference of power, the intentional and often repeated disrespect, manipulation, and verbal and sometimes physical abuse that’s associated with hazing.

Workplace bullying statistics indicate that it just doesn’t go away when you enter the workforce either. According to NIOSH, 25 percent of companies surveyed reported that bullying had occurred within their organization to some degree. Similarly, approximately 33 percent of Canadian employees have reported being the target of workplace bullying.


Warning Signs and Intervention Tips

As a bullying encounter increases in severity, often, students, faculty and staff become concerned for their safety. Within the CPI bullying continuum, we identify aggression as one of the potential behaviors, so individuals’ concern is not unwarranted.

Predicting violence is an inexact science. Even among those with specialized training, there can be factors and influences that go unaccounted for. The most reliable predictor of future violence is past violence. While you may not know the behavior history of everyone on campus, the following are warning signs that should be heeded with appropriate follow-up and/or reporting steps taken.

  • Extraordinary changes in behavior. Extraordinary means clearly outside the normal range of behavior. A person you are familiar with may act in a way that’s dramatically different or unusual for that person. You may want to increase the space between yourself and an individual in your immediate vicinity who exhibits an extraordinary change in behavior.
  • Verbal abuse that increases in intensity and frequency. A person who’s exhibiting verbal abuse is typically beginning to lose rationality and control of themselves. As the intensity and frequency of these behaviors increases, the risk for violence could also increase. This includes cyberbullying. Even when not spoken, written words can be just as concerning. Partner with school and/or local officials when cyberbullying – or any form of bullying – increases. The evidence will help in establishing patterns and for gathering any case documentation.
  • Specific or extreme anger directed at a specific person, department or procedure. The risk of violence escalates when a person’s verbal release is targeted rather than vague in nature. 
  • Threats to cause physical harm. There are different kinds of threats: threats of physical harm, threats of other types of negative action, and vague and open-to-interpretation threats. CPI advises that all threats be taken seriously, and reported to the appropriate channels, and that experts conduct a threat assessment. Threats to be taken seriously include threats of self-harm, as the American College Health Association reports that suicide rates have tripled since the 1950s. Incidents of individuals who’ve been bullied at work or on campus taking their own lives is a serious issue. Therefore, if you’re aware of someone being bullied, it’s imperative that you follow up with counseling services, security, EAP or HR.


How to Address Bullying on Campus

So what can we do to address bullying on our campuses? We can See It, Call It, and Stop It.

See It

First, identify whether the behaviors that you’re identifying or experiencing fit the criteria for bullying. Is the behavior persistent and ongoing with the intent to control, manipulate, or cause harm?  If your campus has defined campus/workplace bullying, do the behaviors follow your definition? It’s important to identify and distinguish the real and toxic behavior of bullying from someone who’s venting on a bad day. 

Call It

Next, if you have identified the behaviors as bullying, calmly inform the individual that the behavior is unwelcome and unwanted. The same goes for even that occasional angry outburst of disrespectful behavior. Particularly in instances of bullying, if you feel it’s safe to do so, respectfully assert your right to feel safe and respected in all situations and in all circumstances. If you don’t feel it’s safe to speak up directly, obtain support through your student services office, counseling services, security, EAP, HR, etc. Having an unbiased outside party for support is never a bad choice.  

Keep a log. Documenting encounters not only provides you with information that may be necessary to take further action, it can also help identify patterns and risks to present when you seek support.

If you are a bystander witnessing disrespect, intimidation, incivility or aggression, you can also call it out. As mentioned, 42 percent of students have witnessed bullying behavior. While we don’t suggest putting yourself in harm’s way, if it feels safe to approach the individual who’s exhibiting disrespectful behavior, call it out by telling that person that their behavior is inappropriate, disrespectful, unkind, etc. A Harvard Business Review article reports that noxious behavior contributes to higher stress and less creativity and productivity in those who witness disrespectful behavior. So report bullying behaviors – whether you’re a target or a bystander. Many institutions are implementing anonymous incident reporting and anti-bullying tip lines. These are useful tools for establishing patterns of behavior and gaps in training and awareness. As bystanders, we owe it to ourselves to help create and foster a respectful environment for everyone.

Stop It

Lastly, be mindful of your own actions. We need to be respectful in our interactions if we are to expect respect from others. If you’re in a leadership role, it’s especially important to address concerns thoroughly, fairly and quickly. Implement policies and procedures on bullying if none exist for students, faculty, staff, and visitors to your campus.

Bullying is a difficult situation – for the target, for bystanders, often even for those who engage in bullying behavior, and also for organizations that may or may not have policies, procedures or legislation supporting them. However, we all have an inherent right to feel safe and be treated respectfully. To that end, it starts with you, and it starts with me. How will you impact your organization and help facilitate a culture of respect, service and safety within for everyone?