Unfortunately bullying is all too common in our society, and universities and workplaces are not exempt from its impacts.

Bullying takes many forms, often resulting in victims of and witnesses to bullying being unsure how seriously they should take what is occurring. In brief, bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an individual or group that can be physical, verbal, or social. In practice, this can include name-calling, intimidation, sexual harassment, social exclusion, spreading rumours, undermining the person’s credibility, and public humiliation, to name just some of the ways bullying occurs. In university settings, bullying can include ‘hazing’ and sharing associated humiliating images online.

It is important to know that verbal attacks which harass or hurt someone can be just as significant as physical threats or attacks. If you’re feeling uncomfortable about a situation and wondering if this could be bullying, it’s likely that something isn’t right. At the least, discussing the situation with someone else will be beneficial to help you figure out what is going on. Bullying can be insidious and eat away at a victim’s self-esteem and sense of control, so we all have a role to play in identifying and challenging bullying behaviour.

If you’re being bullied

Seek Support

Tell someone about what is happening and how it feels to you. It’s common for those experiencing bullying to question themselves, wondering if it’s really that bad or if they should be feeling the way they do about it. Sharing what’s going on with someone else can help you to make sense of it.

Recognise your own feelings

Experiencing bullying as an adult is no less difficult than it is for children, and many victims describe finding it all the more surprising to be facing these situations outside of school and high school. It’s normal to feel confused, hurt, upset, frustrated, angry, embarrassed, or ashamed.

Keep track

Many people experiencing bullying find it useful to keep notes (such as in notes on your phone) soon after experiencing a behaviour they consider to be problematic. Note down what was said and done as specifically as you can, as well as when it happened and anyone who may have witnessed it. This type of log of your experiences can help to develop a clearer picture of what is happening, and will also be valuable should you wish to make a complaint against the bully. If the bullying occurs through any medium that can be kept as a permanent record – text, email, screenshots of online pictures or messages – these records are also valuable in helping you to demonstrate the problematic behaviour.

Think about what next

You probably have a range of options available to you, from raising your concern with the bully directly, informally raising the concern with a third party who is in a position to mediate, or making a formal complaint. If you think that a formal complaint may be required, find out what policies are in place in your organisation (university or workplace)– most organisations will have a policy.

If you want to confront the person

This action is most useful when the behaviour is relatively new. Try to be specific about the action they have done and what you’d like to see differently. Think about what you’ll say ahead of time, and how the person might respond. It’s understandable that you would feel anxious or intimidated in the moment and therefore less able to think clearly. Try not to rush to assumptions about the person’s motives. You might try something like “I heard that you had said X about me, which isn’t true. I’d really like it if you didn’t say things like that, and if you hear anyone else saying things like that I’d appreciate it if you could let me know”. It’s much harder for them to dodge or deny what has occurred if you are specific.

Raise your concerns

In a workplace context, take your concerns to someone senior that you trust to listen to you, such as a manager or HR team member. Try to be as descriptive and specific as you can about the behaviour that is happening. Employers are much more able to address the situation with specifics rather than general terms such as bullying, exclusion, and being treated badly or differently.

Within a university context, you could speak to your tutor, course co-ordinator, student union, or student counselling service about the situation and what options are available to you to help resolve it. Many universities do have systems in place to manage on-campus bullying, and just like employers, they have a responsibility to look after the wellbeing – including psychological wellbeing – of students on campus.

Seek external support

This could be from friends and family, or if you are on a placement or in a role with a workplace, you may be able to access their Employee Assistance Program. These EAP schemes give employees free and confidential access to counsellors and psychologists who frequently work with people experiencing workplace issues, including bullying. Most workplaces have posters advertising their EAP schemes with contact details. Alternatively, you could check your contract, your workplace intranet, or ask an HR team member.

If you see someone being bullied

Check-in with the person

Make sure what you think you heard or saw is accurate, raise your concerns with the actions you witnessed, and ask what the person who it was directed at thinks about the situation. You could also check with anyone else who witnessed the behaviour. Doing nothing enables these types of actions to continue or get worse.

Make it clear that you do not agree

If you feel able to, directly call out the bully’s behaviour with comments like “I don’t think what you’re saying about her is true” or “I think it’s pretty stink for him when you keep leaving him out”.

Offer to be a friend

Approach the person you feel is being bullied and suggest having lunch or going for a coffee together and listen. Encourage the person to take action that they feel is right for them, helping them to feel empowered. You could offer to be a support person if the person wants for any reporting or complaint process about the bullying.

Demonstrate support

For example, if someone is being deliberately excluded you could try including or inviting them. If the person is constantly being shut down from getting their point across, you could make a point of saying “Hey, Aroha just started to say something, can we go back so I can hear what she was trying to say?”

Don't dismiss the victim's feelings

Research involving interviews with victims of bullying found that often times they were told to calm down or not take the behaviour personally. This advice led to victims feeling like their emotions were being dismissed. We know from extensive psychological research that having one’s emotions invalidated or dismissed actually serves to make these emotional responses more difficult to regulate. So, if someone comes to you about bullying they are experiencing, listen and ask how it is affecting them. Show that you can understand their feelings by reflecting back the emotions you hear them saying, e.g. “It sounds like your feelings were really hurt by her behaviour”.


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