We hear a lot about bullying in the workplace through the media these days and it’s easy to downplay the seriousness of the issue.

We might scoff and think that it was just people mucking around and having fun, but where exactly does the line between workplace banter and bullying blur?

It can be difficult to identify, but get it wrong even once, and your conduct can be considered harassment.

Behaviour can be deemed as harassment if a person feels intimidated, insulted or humiliated because of their:

  • Race
  • Colour
  • National or ethnic origin
  • Sex
  • Disability
  • Sexual preference
  • Any other characteristic specified under anti-discrimination or human rights legislation

So, to keep your nose out of trouble it’s best to avoid:

  • Telling insulting jokes about racial groups
  • Sending explicit or sexually suggestive emails
  • Displaying offensive or pornographic posters or screen savers
  • Making derogatory comments or taunts about someone’s race or religion
  • Asking intrusive questions about someone’s personal life, including their sex life

While some of this might seem like common sense, it’s very easy to creep over the line, assuming what you’re doing or saying is nothing more than harmless fun.

Even if you do feel like you have a close relationship with your co-workers remember that circumstances and relationships change and as a result what may be seen as a joke one day can be seen as a personal attack the next.

Bullying styles

Awareness of bullying and the sometimes-devastating consequences has increased in recent years, with workplace bullying one of the key areas of discussion.

But while most people know that bullying is a problem, not all managers are able to identify a bully, or bullying behaviour, in all situations.

Bullying comes in a few different forms and knowing what each one looks like can help you understand the situation a little better:

The Vocal One: They are loud, obnoxious and in your face. What they lack in logic and decency they make up with high decibel rants that are often carried out in front of an audience for best effect. They are not open to reasonable, rational debate. They are right and you are wrong and you are going to hear about it.

The Two-Faced Bully: This workplace bully can be one of the most dangerous as you may not even realize you are dealing with one until after they have already destroyed your reputation. To your face they may represent themselves as a friend; you may even trust and confide in them. They will stab you in the back, slander your character and steal credit for your work while telling you they are your biggest fan.

The Relentless Critic: Your self-esteem will take a beating from the Relentless Critic who will nit-pick you to death. Even if you've received excellent feedback they will find a way to twist everything into a negative. Even if they need to create the evidence themselves, falsify documents or sabotage your projects they will prove that you are incompetent – at everything, all the time.

The Wannabe: They are controlling, manipulative and very insecure. They will attempt to move into positions where they will have some power over others even if only as a committee member, union representative or limited supervisory position. They are poor at their jobs but will react with aggression if their performance is questioned. They will demand that things be done their way even though there are better and more efficient ways of accomplishing the same task (though if they were competent in their fields they would know that).

The Sociopath: The most frightening and dangerous workplace bully of all. They are predators that have zero empathy for anything or anyone. They do not process emotions the way you do and they do not understand your emotions - they will however manipulate the emotions of other to get them to do what they want. Sociopaths are often very intelligent, charming, and even charismatic with powerful verbal skills of persuasion. They are ruthless and relentless with no regard for consequences of their actions.

Serial Workplace Bully: The problem with any of these workplace bully types is that they do not stop once a target has been terminated or has resigned. Managers and HR departments that take the short-sighted approach of silencing a target and helping the bully to threaten and then terminate them think the problem (complaining employee) is resolved.

However, it is not. The serial workplace bully will need a new target and will often select one within days or weeks and the cycle of abuse will start over again.

Most bullies won’t stick to just one style but will display characteristics of all depending on the situation and who they are dealing with. It is vital managers truly understand the consequences and costs of bullying to the organisation and take bullying seriously.