Six Ways You’re a Workplace Bully Without Even Realizing It

Mike RiceBullying has been on primetime display this week as basketball coach Mike Rice was fired from his head coaching job at Rutgers after a leaked practice video showed him pushing, grabbing, throwing balls at players, and cursing them with gay slurs. As a youth sports coach for over 15 years and the father of a 20 year-old college student, I was sickened at Rice’s conduct. There is absolutely no room for that kind of behavior in sports, school, or the workplace. Leaders have to be held to a higher standard.

Bullying is not just verbal or physical intimidation of someone. Especially in the workplace, bullying can manifest itself in many subtle ways. Any behavior you use to intimidate, dominate, embarrass, harass, or purposely make someone feel inferior could be considered bullying.

Here are six subtle ways you may be acting like a workplace bully without even realizing it:

1. You are condescending – When you act in a condescending manner, whether it’s patronizing someone, being dismissive of a person’s contributions, or minimizing someone’s accomplishments in order to highlight yours, you are sending a message that you believe you are superior to the other person.

2. Wounding with sarcasm – I like sarcastic humor as much as the next guy, but there is a huge difference between sarcasm that highlights the irony of a situation and is self-deprecating, versus sarcasm that is intended to belittle and injure another person. Next time you’re ready to drop that witty, sarcastic joke, pause and consider if it will build up the other person or tear her down.

3. Being cliquish – Cliques aren’t only for high school. Unfortunately, many adults carry that same behavior into the workplace. Purposely excluding people from activities is a bullying behavior intended to send the message that “you’re not one of us” and “we’re better than you are.” Trusted leaders look for opportunities to include people so they feel valued and appreciated.

4. Thinking you know it all – Have you ever worked with a person who thinks she knows it all? How annoying is that?! Much like behaving in a condescending manner, acting like you are the all-knowing expert is a way to intimidate others to go along with your ideas or wishes. Just stop it! No one really believes you anyway.

5. Being passive-aggressive – Perhaps one of the most subtle forms of bullying and manipulation, passive-aggressive behavior poisons teams, departments, and organizations. A common trait of bullies is expressing aggression in order to intimidate another person. Passive-aggressive people are bullies who express aggression in indirect ways such as disguising hostility in jokes, stubbornness, procrastination, resentment, or giving just the minimum effort required. I perceive passive-aggressive people as double-agent bullies disguised as victims. Watch out for them!

6. Gossipping – Have you ever considered gossipping as a form of bullying? Probably not, but it easily could be considered bullying, and some experts even consider it a form of workplace violence because it’s intended to harm another individual or group. Why do people gossip? It’s to make themselves feel powerful. The gossipper believes she knows something that other people don’t and she uses that information as leverage to elevate herself above others.

Leaders are charged with bringing out the best in their people and I don’t understand how some leaders, particularly sports coaches, believe that bullying is an acceptable form of motivation. It’s not. It’s belittling, destructive, demeaning, dehumanizing, and does nothing but feed the power-hungry ego of the bullying leader.

If you’re a leader in the workplace, whether it’s in an office, factory, warehouse, construction site, or any other place, make sure you’re not being a bully without even realizing it. You’re better than that and your people deserve your best.

20 Comments on “Six Ways You’re a Workplace Bully Without Even Realizing It

  1. It concerns me when, out of good intentions, we expand the meaning of a word so widely that it becomes uselessly weakened. When the same word, “bully,” refers not only to serious abuse and violence but also gossip and social cliques, we take a small dangerous group and dilute it in a group that includes more people than it excludes. The very word “bully” starts to mean very little, whcih benefits no one.

    • You make an excellent point Greg. I believe a person’s intent is a key factor. You can engage in the behaviors I mentioned without having the intent to bully, yet it’s also important to remember how other people are perceiving your behaviors. Although you may not intend it, it may be perceived as bullying.

      Thanks for your insightful feedback.


  2. Randy,
    Thank you for so clearly identifying behaviours that are so often hidden in darkness; behaviours that impede progress and add stress to the workplace.

    Additionally, these types of behaviours are signs and symptoms of stressed-out individuals. What these types of bullies may not realize is that their actions are contributing to their own stress. Negative thoughts and feelings not only trigger the stress response, but also change behaviour – it becomes a vicious cycle with far-reaching consequences.

    I hope that your article ignites an interest in your readers to get curious about those subversive bullying activities, then learn to treat the cause, rather than just the symptoms.

    • Marianna – You are so right! It’s a vicious cycle and we become our own worst enemy. It’s important for leaders to find ways to relieve stress so they don’t take it out on others.

      Thanks for commenting!


  3. I love this post, Randy, and completely agree with your take on bullying. As a Rutgers graduate I’m especially sickened by this story. I like how you make the connection to the more subtle forms of bullying and hope that leaders who see themselves will use this as a catalyst towards change. If you don’t mind, may I share a post I wrote on gossip that may be of help:

    • Thank you, Jamie, for taking the time to comment. I loved the way you described the “gossip choice” in your blog post. Gossip is one of the most insidious and hidden ways that bullying occurs in the workplace and your article offers excellent tips on how to deal with it.

      Take care,


  4. Great post Randy,
    Unfortunately I think this behaviour is quite prevalent. It makes good people afraid to do their best, to risk and to trust. It’s a tangible drain on the organization. I think departments have to be on the lookout that they don’t accept this behaviour from high performers because then they tacitly endorse it and it can become a department or organizational norm.

    • Great point Dominique. If left unchecked these behaviors can become part of the dysfunctional norm of the organization.

      I appreciate your insights!


  5. Randy,

    Thanks for this reminder. I appreciate this expanded view of bullying. As you stated so well in a reply comment below, bullying is not so much about our intention as it about how the other person percieves it.

    Even more challenging/convicting for me is realizing that I have been guilty of all of these at some point or another. I’ve got some areas to tighten up in.

    Thanks for a great post and for this reminder. I am looking forward to following your blog.


    • Thanks for your comments Jason. I’m just as guilty as you so don’t feel like you’re alone. We are all on a leadership journey!

      Take care,


  6. Randy,

    Thanks so much for this post and for your “exapnded” view of bullying. You said it best in one of your reply comments below: Bullying is not so much about our intention as it is about the other person percieves it. Very insightful and throught provoking.

    What was challenging/convicting for me is realizing that I have been guilty of all of these at some point. I’ve got some tightening up to do.

    Thanks for this reminder. I am looking forward to following your blog and continuing to be challenged.


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  8. As a recent victim of a cold war by my work “friends” I can assure you how subtle the abuse appears but how far reaching emotionally it scars. Actions, or lack thereof, speak volumes past frosty smiles. The easy deniabilty of any wrongdoing keeps me from confronting or complaining. Not all bullies are created equal; unfortunately hurt feelings are all painful.

    • Doreen, Do we work in the same place ? (just kidding). I’m also a victim of passive aggressive behaviour at work and really back your point about ‘easy deniability’. This deniability is compounded by the number of people involved eg. if a group is involved they all have each others back and can easily deny every single aspect that makes you look as an aggressor or makes your look like a delusional paranoid person.

      As you say it keeps me from confronting or complaining about the treatment.

      Also, it gets even more compounded when the passive aggressive perpetrators string on senior management to the band wagon. My boss hasn’t directly spoken to me (professionally/personally) for years always creating barriers using the passive aggressive regime which creates an impregnable wall that never gets to hear my side/version of the situation. It’s HELL.

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