Understanding and Preventing Bullying in the Workplace

By Jordan Rosenfeld - June 27, 2023

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Bullying may seem like something that only happens to kids at schools and on playgrounds, but bullying in the workplace is more common than you might imagine, and it can significantly hamper worker mental health, productivity, and organizational reputation. Some 30 percent of workers, in general, have been bullied, and 19% have been witnesses to workplace bullying, according to a 2021 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute.1 And it’s not only in-person bullying; 43 percent of remote workers in the same survey reported being recipients of bullying. 

Bullying lacks federal protections

Bullying exists in a gray area on the fringes of the federally protected category of discrimination. The definition of bullying that Dr. Leah Hollis, PhD, visiting scholar at Rutger’s University, turns to, from the University of Bergen in Norway, is “excluding somebody with negative experiences or negative social acts in a systemic way that interferes with their work,” she says. Bullying behavior can also consist of a wide range of behaviors “including belittling, humiliating, personal attacks; verbal criticism; and exclusion,” according to a 2023 article in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology,2Workplace Bullying in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.” 

Laboratories are no exception, either. According to the AJCP study, while there has not been enough research done specifically on bullying in the laboratories, lead author, Dr. Paul Chiou, DrPH , MPH, SCT (ASCP), faculty and lecturer at Rutgers University, says, “According to our survey study, 70 percent of laboratories do not have a reporting structure in place, and 80 percent of the facilities do not have a culture that allows for open discussion of critical issues like workplace incivility.” This can lead to an environment where targets of bullies' fear retribution for reporting bullying behavior, especially if the bullies are high performers who are considered valuable employees by management. 

What qualifies as bullying? 

While discrimination and bullying can intersect, bullying is different than discrimination, says Dr. Hollis. “A lot of it may look the same, but the motivations are very different. Discrimination is based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. And there’s a federal policy, Title Seven,3 for people to follow.” To qualify, bullying must be prolonged over time and escalate in intensity. 

In the laboratory, bullying could look like many things, Dr. Hollis explains, such as, “People forced to give up their copyright, or taken off a publication that they worked on; people told to be quiet if they have a dissenting view on a finding on lab results; people having their lab times stolen. And the worst I’ve heard of is somebody having their refrigerator unplugged before a holiday weekend and all their samples were ruined when they returned.” 

Dr. Chiou adds physical intimidation (pushing, swearing, shouting), as well as “spreading gossip or rumors about the other, being intentional in excluding others professional, or subjecting the other to excessive teasing and sarcasm in the workplace.” 

However, he says the most common form of bullying in the laboratory is “work-related threat,” which translates to “persistently overworking someone by giving them an unreasonable amount of work or deadlines, ignoring others’ professional opinions, or intentionally asking them to work below their level of competence without apparent reason.” 

Bullying can also be hard to prove, says Dr. Lotte Mulder, PhD, Director of Leadership and Empowerment at ASCP. “Sometimes it’s about a feeling you have. Clearly, there can also be evidence and you should gather everything you can, but it’s similar to microaggressions—bullying can be very small and subtle, and how do you show that?” Additionally, someone might also not realize the impact of their words or actions and that it can be perceived as bullying. That is why educating staff on bullying is important to prevent and mitigate it. 

What to do if you’re being bullied 

If a laboratory professional is being bullied, Dr. Mulder says it’s very important to document these kinds of encounters. “It’s really important with any type of harassment to record it, to gather evidence and to keep a record of it because you are not going to remember the details, especially if it occurs over weeks, months, or even years.” 

Moreover, she says it can be easy to doubt yourself, or to feel like you might be overly sensitive or exaggerating the severity of an event. “So, seeing it all written down in your own words can really bring to light the situation, both for yourself and for others.” 

Other forms of documentation can include emailing the details to yourself, to have a time stamp, talking to friends or other targets of the bully, and eventually, if it feels safe, talking to a supervisor, an ombudsman, a union rep, or someone in human resources or other managers. 

However, Dr. Hollis warns, “When you report something to your organization, you have to be braced for them to not handle it well.” The Workplace Bullying study shows that bullying is not often handled well because many organizations do not have institutional policies or core values established, much less a reporting structure. 

“It’s always good to assess company culture, to find out if there is an existing reporting structure in place, whether there are leadership commitments to workplace wellness, preferably prior to working there,” Dr. Chiou says.  

Supervisors need to take reports seriously 

Supervisors need to exhibit extreme care around receiving reports of bullying, Dr. Hollis says. “If someone came to you and said, ‘I’m being bullied,’ that person took a big risk. So, honor that fact.” It may be good to have people trained in conflict reduction or management brought in, but only if the target is open to it—supervisors should follow a target’s lead, since retaliation is a real problem with reporting bullying. The worst thing a supervisor can do is to ignore a report, however. “Let’s say somebody charges bullying and the supervisor does nothing about it. And then it blows up later, and it comes out that the supervisor did nothing. You don’t want that,” Dr. Hollis says. 

What supervisors may not realize is that the target of the bully may be living in a state of mental crisis, Dr. Hollis says. “They may be crying on the way home from work, and their family is worried about them. Because the employee realizes this is not an emotionally safe environment, they mentally check out, do the bare minimum, or disengage.” 

Not only is that bad for the employee—and morale—it costs an organization money. In the study2 Dr. Mulder and Dr. Chiou conducted, they found that people being bullied will disengage from work at a rate of around 2.9 hours per week, or a total of five weeks per year. “Can any institution afford to pay somebody five weeks for disengagement? Because when you don’t address a bully, that’s what you’re doing.” 

Establish policies and educate 

The costs of bullying are tremendous in the workplace, Dr. Mulder explains. “If people are being bullied, they start making mistakes, they may start calling in sick more frequently, their productivity goes down. Bullying has the potential to be a traumatic experience.” 

And, while some bullies may know full well what they’re doing, according to Dr. Chiou, not all of them do. “Unfortunately, many of the perpetrators may not even be aware how they are coming across. Therefore, there is definitely a need to promote awareness within the laboratory community.” 

On the other end of that, when bullying is prevented, employees are more motivated, there’s more inclusion, diversity, equity and better organizational culture, and reputation, Dr Mulder points out.  

The way to get there, Dr. Chiou says is “to do what you can to reduce the toxic work environment, have a clear organizational reporting structure to manage workplace bullying/incivility, and have organizational commitment to zero tolerance of workplace incivility.” 


  1.  Gary Namie, PhD. “2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey.” 

  2. Chiou, Z Paul, Mulder, Lotte and Jia, Yuane. “Workplace Bullying in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. American Journal of Clinical Pathology, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36749307/

  3. “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. https://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/title-vii-civil-rights-act-1964  









Jordan Rosenfeld

Contributing Writer