Workplace bullying refers to "repeated" and unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which is intended to intimidate and creates a risk to the health and safety of the employee(s).

What is workplace bullying and who is affected?

Workplace bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying includes behavior that intimidates, degrades, offends, or humiliates a worker, often in front of others. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness in the target and undermines an individual's right to dignity at work. Bullying is different from aggression. Whereas aggression may involve a single act, bullying involves repeated attacks against the target, creating an "ongoing pattern" of behavior. "Tough" or "demanding" bosses are not necessarily bullies, as long as their primary motivation is to obtain the best performance by setting high expectations.

Examples of workplace bullying:

  1. Unwarranted or invalid criticism.
  2. Blame without factual justification.
  3. Being treated differently than the rest of your work group.
  4. Being sworn at.
  5. Exclusion or social isolation.
  6. Being shouted at or being humiliated.
  7. Being the target of practical jokes.
  8. Excessive monitoring.

Many bullying situations involve employees bullying their peers, rather than a supervisor bullying an employee.

One study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that a quarter of the 516 private and public companies studied reported some occurrence of bullying in the preceding year.

What can be done about bullying?

Bullying in general is "not" illegal in the United States, unless it involves harassment based on race/color, creed (religion), national origin, sex, age (40+), disability, HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C status, marital status, or sexual orientation/gender identity.

However, here is what you can do about bullying:


  1. Regain control by:
    • Recognizing that you are being bullied.
    • Realizing that you are "not" the source of the problem.
    • Recognizing that bullying is about control, and therefore has nothing to do with your performance.
  2. Take action by:
    • Keeping a diary detailing the nature of the bullying (e.g., dates, times, places, what was said or done and who was present).
    • Obtaining copies of harassing/bullying paper trails; hold onto copies of documents that contradict the bully's accusations against you (e.g., time sheets, audit reports, etc.).
  3. Other actions:
    • Expect the bully to deny and perhaps misconstrue your accusations; have a witness with you during any meetings with the bully; report the behavior to an appropriate person.
    • Contact your Human Resources representative.


  1. Create a zero tolerance anti-bullying policy. This policy should be part of the wider commitment to a safe and healthful working environment and should involve the appropriate Human Resources representative.
  2. When witnessed or reported, the bullying behavior should be addressed "immediately."
  3. If bullying is entrenched in the organization, complaints need to be taken seriously and investigated promptly. Reassignment of those involved may be necessary (with an "innocent until proven guilty" approach).
  4. Structure the work environment to incorporate a sense of autonomy, individual challenge/mastery, and clarity of task expectations for employees. Include employees in decision-making processes.
  5. Hold awareness campaigns for "everyone" on what bullying is. Encourage reporting.
  6. Ensure the management has an active part in the staff they supervise, rather than being far removed from them.
  7. Encourage open door policies.
  8. Investigate the extent and nature of the problem. Conduct attitude surveys.
  9. Improve management's ability and sensitivity towards dealing with and responding to conflicts.
  10. Establish an independent contact for employees (e.g., HR contact).
  11. Have a demonstrated commitment "from the top" about what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Bullying is Different from Harassment

Harassment is one type of illegal discrimination and is defined as offensive and unwelcome conduct, serious enough to adversely affect the terms and conditions of a person's employment, which occurs because of the person's protected class, and can be imputed to the employer. Protected classes in employment are race/color, creed (religion), national origin, sex, marital status, disability, and sexual orientation/gender identity.

An example of "harassment" could be when an employee tells racist jokes and refers to a particular co-worker or group of co-workers by using racial slurs, and after a complaint, the employer does nothing to stop the behavior. Another example of "harassment" could be a male manager who makes unwelcome sexual suggestions to a female employee and touches her inappropriately.

Bullying also differs from "retaliation", which occurs after a person makes a complaint of illegal discrimination, and is then the subject of an adverse employment action or subjected to harassment because he or she made the complaint.

If you believe that you are being harassed or retaliated against for making a discrimination complaint, you should immediately contact the Penn State Affirmative Action Office at 328 Boucke Building, University Park, PA 16802. Phone: (814) 863-0471 V/TTY.

"Bullying", on the other hand, is often directed at someone a bully feels threatened by. The target often doesn't even realize when they are being bullied because the behavior is covert, through trivial criticisms and isolating actions that occur behind closed doors. While harassment is illegal; bullying in the workplace is not.

If you need more information, view Resources or contact University Police.