What makes bullies stop

Bullying in the workplace: causes, examples, what to do?

Bullying has many faces: there is whispering and blaspheming behind the back, the actually good work is criticized for no reason or important information is deliberately withheld. Regardless of the type of bullying, it is difficult for victims to fight back. Still. For those affected, not only does the daily walk to the office turn into a nightmare. Private life and health also suffer from the consequences of bullying. Victims of bullying often feel helpless, powerless, and left alone. Find out when bullying starts, what causes it, and what you can do to deal with bullying in the workplace ...

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

Bullying definition: when is it bullying at all?

It is estimated that there are around 1.5 million people in Germany who are bullied on the job. Other figures speak of a good 11 percent of employees in Germany who have suffered from bullying in their professional lives. Mobbing takes place regardless of profession, industry or company in the entire world of work.

However, a distinction must be made between actual bullying and other forms of aversion or wrong behavior. Bullying is not always the case when you feel badly treated by colleagues. For example, there can be a bad mood in the team for a variety of reasons, but this has nothing to do with bullying at first. According to the definition, two factors and prerequisites are decisive that must be met in order for it to be bullying from the point of view of labor law:

Bullying definition

These two properties are decisive:

  • Systematically
    Only when the harassment by the boss or colleague is systematic and therefore targeted is a criminal offense. The wrongdoing can be excused beforehand as a “one-time slip”.
  • Repeated
    Bullying must take place over a long period of time. Not every incident that is nasty is targeted psychological terror. A path of suffering is therefore required for proof and documentation.

According to the definition of bullying, real bullying therefore includes ...

... continued assault; sexual harassment; Humiliation; Discrimination; baseless degradation of achievement; damning judgments; Isolation - also from company communication; harassing instructions, such as assigning useless or unsolvable tasks; Instructions for disrespectful work to which comparable employees are not subject; objectively unfounded accumulation of work controls; as well as bringing about or maintaining a need for explanation.

The term "mobbing" itself comes from the English "to mob" and means something like "mob", "harass" or even "kill" someone (in English it also means "bullying").

Mobbing is often the result of bad work organization and a bad working atmosphere: Employees and bosses are overburdened, under-challenged or bored and channel their frustration onto a victim. Often it affects the insecure, poor contact, quiet colleagues. A vicious circle of isolation and harassment then begins for them.

Causes: How and why does bullying arise?

Bullying occurs where people in a confined space - such as in the office - form a coercive community. There can then be rivalries, but also open hostilities. Instead of working together on goals and successes, employees encounter each other with competitiveness, hostility or exclusion.

A common cause of bullying is also low self-esteem. By making someone else bad, bullies try to elevate themselves and strengthen their own ego. This is to get over one's own mistakes and inadequacies.

What is remarkable about this: According to research, bullying is primarily a group phenomenon and less the result of an individual perpetrator. Some also speak of a "bullying system" - consisting of perpetrators and victims, but also fellow travelers, bystanders and shivers.

Victims of bullying often cannot explain the causes at all. This may be due to a wrong assessment of one's own behavior, but the reason is much more often simple: Victims of bullying get into the predicament completely through no fault of their own. Of course there are situations in which an employee has made himself unpopular because of his behavior, but there are often other reasons behind it:

  • The colleagues are jealous of your achievements
    Your colleagues feel pure envy of your good performance and the successes that you have achieved. Salary increases or promotions can add to this. This can again scratch the self-esteem of some colleagues who resort to bullying out of envy.
  • You have a good relationship with the boss
    Your boss likes you and your colleagues notice that too. Perhaps you and your boss are on the same wavelength, see things and decisions similarly, or work very similarly. You are secretly branded and marginalized as the boss's darling. People distance themselves from you because they fear you might give confidential information to the boss.
  • You live in different circumstances
    Your colleagues distance themselves from you because you have the impression that you have nothing in common with you. For example, you are the only married woman with children. All of your colleagues are still singles and enjoy going out on Friday evenings, while you leave the office early on Friday to spend time with your children.

Perpetrator and victim: who is bullying? Who is being bullied?

There are industries and occupational groups in which bullying is more common than in other areas: Paradoxically, this includes the care area, in which one would rather suspect social interaction. But bullying can also be observed more often in sales and banking.

On the other hand, professional drivers, drivers in local public transport or farmers are completely different: they are characterized by a very respectful cooperation.

Particularly interesting: women bully significantly more often than men, but at the same time they are also much more likely to be victims of bullying. Here are the numbers:

Bullying: The perpetrators

Who is bullying in the workplace?

  • colleagues: 44 percent
  • Superiors: 37 percent
  • Colleague and boss: 10 percent
  • Subordinates: 9 percent

Bullying: The Victims

  • 81.3 percent of the victims are Women.
  • 18.7 percent of the victims are Men.

The results of a study by Michigan State University are also frightening. The researchers examined the relationship between bullying and perceived attractiveness. They found that people who are considered beautiful or attractive are significantly less likely to be victims. Participants in the study who were classified as “unattractive” or even “ugly” on the basis of photos, however, suffered more often from bullying and other psychological terror in the workplace.

Types of bullying and examples: Types of bullying

Bullying is often associated with open hostility or with gossip behind the back of colleagues. But bullying occurs in a wide variety of forms and facets. Especially at the beginning, many victims do not even notice that they are being bullied. Unfortunately, some perpetrators of bullying are very insidious and subtle. Instead of open confrontation, they rely on attrition and like to use hidden attacks, intrigues or taunts as weapons.

Shots are either against the performance and competence of the bullying victims or directly against their appearance and reputation. What all forms and attacks have in common, however, is that they are extremely harmful to those affected. The following are typical examples and forms of bullying, as well as warning signs that you should look out for in order to identify bullying in good time:


Errors occur. Likewise, that one is criticized for it. But if the nagging predominates, if it is baseless or if your basic competence is questioned again and again and not criticized constructively, this is a sign of harassment. Especially if the aim of the criticism is to ridicule, intimidate, and disrespect you. Increasingly, such criticism is also personal: the bullies make fun of physical weaknesses, the figure or hairstyle, the clothing or a language accent. In any case, that has nothing to do with the job for a long time.

Wrong ratings

In many cases, however, the bullying comes directly from the boss (this is also referred to as bossing). He boycotts conversations or cooperation, makes irrelevant hints, turns mini-mistakes into tragedies and evaluates you and your achievements completely wrongly and unfairly. This situation is particularly difficult for victims - in this case help can be obtained from other colleagues or the next higher level supervisor.


Not just singularly, such as from lunch together, but systematically: from chatting in the coffee kitchen (or the group falls silent as soon as you turn up), from meetings (to which you are not invited or which are postponed at short notice - which nobody tells you, however) or meetings the department. The perpetrators treat you like air, avoid you and marginalize you. A typical signal for antipathy and insidiousness.


Some bosses have more temperament than others. They are more emotional, more impulsive, and maybe even loud. You don't have to accept that, but you can overlook it if it stays within the framework. Nobody is perfect. But if you are yelled at regularly, possibly even in front of an assembled team, then that is not only outrageous and illegal, but also bullying. The emphasis, however, is on "regularly".


Corridor radio, rumors, gossip and gossip exist in every company. That actually has advantages. However, if this hearsay is destructively and persistently directed against you in order to damage your reputation, if it takes on the character of insulting allegations, then this is defamation - and justifiable. Such rumors and falsehoods are considered the most common form of bullying.


In addition to teasing, bullying also repeatedly leads to insults. These can be spoken directly to the victim or spread around the back like the mentioned rumors. Those affected suffer particularly badly from such psychological terror and often do not know how to deal with the situation. If you are exposed to serious abuse in the workplace, you should realize that it is not a harsh communication but a form of bullying.


One step further and you are not only accused of bad things, but also made sure that it is correct. Your computer is being manipulated, documents are disappearing, telephone terrorism sets in, colleagues are intriguing against you. In short: they provide you with incorrect information and put you under pressure, thus ensuring that you make mistakes, appear “stupid” or embarrass yourself. Bullying doesn't get any clearer than this.

Exclusion of information

Go in the same direction as the point in front of it. If you are regularly deprived of important information (in order to harm you), this is also bullying. For example, if a colleague intentionally does not pass on information that is relevant to a project and has an impact on your work, this is definitely a form of bullying.


There are subtle forms of violence. Bullying is psychological violence. This also includes sexual harassment or intimidation, as well as threats of violence. If colleagues embarrass you with ambiguities, touch you against your will, or make sure that you stop expressing your opinion (out of fear), it is psychological violence and a form of bullying.

Over / underload

In labor law, this also clearly falls under bullying: You are given tasks that are either below your level and degrading - or you get a project that you cannot manage under the respective conditions. In short: You are put under enormous psychological pressure, extreme demands are made - and you are hoped for failure. Also classic in this context: As soon as it is clear that you have an important private appointment that evening (such as parents' meeting, wedding day), the boss assigns you a task that cannot be delayed. And while everyone is drinking beer together, you push overtime.

Heinz Leymann is an expert and one of the most important researchers on the subject of bullying. He identified a total of 45 acts of bullying and divided them into different categories. In this PDF we have listed the different types of bullying for you.

No bullying? What doesn’t count

There are many clear cases of bullying, but the term should not be used in an inflationary way. Not every apparent misconduct in the workplace is bullying, not every situation that an employee does not like or in which they feel they have been treated unfairly is punishable and prohibited.

The problem: In practice, it is often difficult to draw a clear line at which bullying begins. In case of doubt, one must therefore pay close attention to the definition in order to distinguish between exclusion and bullying. It is only when hostility, harassment and discrimination are really systematic and repeated that we can speak of bullying.

An example from labor law to better understand the subdivision: An administrative specialist felt bullied by her manager. She regularly overlooked this in technical matters and thus withdrew her previous management role in the department.

After all, her boss wouldn't even have greeted her in the morning. The woman felt harassed by the behavior of her boss and sued the Mainz labor court for compensation of 120,000 euros.

However, the judges dismissed the lawsuit. The employee was also unsuccessful at the regional labor court (Az .: 10 Sa 121/12), justification: Not every incident that makes you feel bad is to be viewed as a targeted harassment. Missing morning greetings and other injuries are rude, but also only subjective sensitivities.

The situation is different, however, when those affected are completely cut: If your colleagues no longer talk to you, then it's like being in solitary confinement.

Bullying Consequences: Serious disturbances

Bullying has far-reaching consequences on the job, on the working atmosphere and the quality of work. But even worse effects in the private lives of the victims.

Many employees cannot cope with persistent bullying and the associated pressure and suffer from mental illnesses even outside the office.

Most victims of bullying feel helpless, miserable and powerless. Their self-confidence suffers enormously from the fact that they can hardly help themselves and defend themselves against bullying attacks.

In addition to the psychological effects such as greatly reduced self-esteem, fear of work and, in the long term, depression and even the risk of suicide, there are also numerous physical effects of bullying. Those affected often suffer from:

  • sleep disorders
  • Breathing problems
  • Back pain
  • stomach pain
  • a headache
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • eating disorder

Quite a few victims of bullying try to make their situation more bearable with drugs or alcohol. In addition, there are financial losses if, as a result of continued bullying, employees are on long-term sick leave or even become unemployed.

Bullying is a criminal offense: these are your rights

In contrast to other countries, there is no general anti-bullying law in Germany. Nonetheless, bullying is also a criminal offense in Germany and is considered to be an interference with a person's personal rights, which is protected by Articles 1 and 2 of the Basic Law.

You can therefore display various aspects of bullying. Perpetrators can, for example, be prosecuted for ...

  • Insult (Section 185 of the Criminal Code)
  • defamatory gossip (Section 186 of the Criminal Code)
  • Defamation (Section 187 of the Criminal Code)
  • Bodily harm (Section 223 of the Criminal Code)

There is also the General Equal Opportunities Act (AGG), which you can refer to as a victim of bullying if you have the impression that you are being discriminated against on the basis of your ethnic origin, your gender, your religion or belief, a disability, your age or your sexual orientation .

Victims of bullying can also make use of the right to lodge a complaint under the Works Constitution Act (Section 84 I BetrVG) and complain to their employer about unfair treatment. The latter must examine the complaint and, if this is permissible, ensure that the situation is improved. According to §85 I BetrVG you can also address this complaint directly - if available - to the works council, which then has to deal with the employer.

Incidentally, if managers get wind of this, they have to intervene. Because they have a labor law duty of care for their employees. Means: You have to stop the bullies immediately - by ...

Resistance: This is how you should respond to bullying

In any case, you should NEVER put up with bullying, but rather set out to defend yourself. Those who remain silent and tolerate tend to strengthen bullying and bullying perpetrators. You feel powerless and helpless, but the more you fight back, the greater the chances of ending the bullying.

Of course, it is first and foremost the responsibility of the line manager to ensure that bullying in the workplace is prevented from the outset. However, the many cases of bullying show that this does not always work.

Therefore, the bullied should take action themselves. In no case should you submit to the role of victim and become passive.

Rather, take action and act. In fact, there are a few strategies that victims of bullying can use to defend themselves:

  • To ignore
    In this case, being “active” means that you are completely “passive” and have no reaction at all to the bullying. If you have enough friends in the company and you can be sure that your boss doesn't care about the complainant or his actions, then give the bully the cold shoulder. This thwarts plans and contributes to de-escalation - the most important goal in bullying. Often such guys give up quickly when they realize that their spitefulness, rumors and meanness have no effect. On the contrary: you yourself suddenly stand there as a mud-thrower in front of the others ... However, these cases are rare.
  • Attack
    If the bully does not give up or if he is gathering more and more allies around you, you have to take action and stand up to the bully. First speak to him in private (some only give in), then in front of witnesses. You can also involve the works council. Disclose his conduct to colleagues and make it clear to him that if he doesn't stop, you will take legal action if necessary. In this way you also gain respect and document strength. Be sure to gather some solid evidence before starting the debate. If necessary, by playing the victim for a while and letting the office terrorist feel safe until he falls into the trap. Bullying is a criminal offense.
  • Prompt
    At the latest when a conversation does not bring any improvement, you should ask the bully in writing to refrain from and change his behavior. Here you can again make it clear that you will inform the employer and take legal action.

    Also keep a bullying diary: If there is a legal dispute later, the burden of proof often rests on the victim of the bullying. But because many perpetrators are so wise not to commit their harassment in front of witnesses or in writing, this is usually difficult. Then there is a testimony against a testimony. An alternative - which is legally accepted - is to keep a so-called bullying diary. Record the attacks in minute detail - with the date, time, name and exact description. The record does not weigh as heavily as documents or witnesses. In any case, you can use it to prove the systematics and regularity of the bullying and thus that it is bullying at all.
  • retreat
    If nothing helps, you have only two alternatives: going to the boss or resigning. In the case of the former, it is important that you make your supervisor aware of his or her duty of care and discuss internal job alternatives. But be sure to stay objective. Anyone who howls and makes themselves small damage their reputation. You complain about injustice - that doesn't mean you are defenseless or helpless. The heroic emergency termination, on the other hand, is often even the target of the bullies - especially if one of them is the boss. Even if saying goodbye seems like a defeat to you - make it clear to yourself: a company with such a culture of intrigue doesn't deserve you. And your health is not worth enduring either.

Beware of bullies: Bullying offends and makes you sick

Bullying makes you sick. As Richard Ryan, social psychologist at the University of Rochester and his co-author Nicole Legate were able to determine, the effects on the psyche of the perpetrators are anything but what they might naively hope for: fun, satisfaction, feelings of power. The opposite is true: you suffer from it yourself.

Ostracizing others creates feelings of shame and guilt, and over time the feeling of being independent also fades. Because marginalizing and bullying is exhausting. Even if the target of the attacks is the alleged victim, the perpetrator also becomes his victim, because he now has to stick to his role and achieve his goal. And because bullying always involves two people (one who bully and one who lets himself be bullied), success becomes more and more distant the more autonomous and sovereign the victim remains.

The authors even go so far as to say that the perpetrators are as stressed as the victims. The studies showed that the same pain mechanisms were triggered in the brains of the perpetrators as those of the victims of physical violence. In short: bullies kill the bullies themselves.

Superiors' Duty of Care: Steps Against Bullying

Managers MUST intervene if they experience bullying. It would be even better, however, to do educational work and thus promote bullying prevention so that it does not even come to that.

But once it happens, watching and remaining silent are no solution. The regional labor court of Thuringia once formulated this in a judgment (dated April 10, 2001, AZ 5Sa 403/00):

The employer is obliged not to violate the general personal rights of the employees he employs himself through attacks in their privacy or freedom, to protect them from harassment by employees or third parties over whom he has an influence, to provide a humane workplace and promote employee personality.

The following steps are certainly not easy to carry out, but as a manager you have to be able to deal with conflicts and disputes. If you discover psychological terror and bullying within your team, you must intervene and act - you are even legally obliged to do so:

  • Seek conversation
    It sounds banal, but it can solve a lot of problems: Find a conversation with the bullying employee. Prepare for this by documenting the problematic behavior in advance and clearly naming it in the conversation. Make it clear that the initiative comes from you and that YOU are bothered by the behavior. It should be clear that the bullied employee has nothing to do with the conversation and that you, as the boss, take offense at the behavior.
  • Clarify the causes
    Try to find out the causes of the bullying both through face-to-face discussions and as a team. It is not uncommon for the bullied employee to act as a lightning rod or a welcome outlet for completely different, long-pent-up problems and conflicts. Try not only to identify the causes, but also to make the bullying employees aware of them and to find solutions.
  • Show the consequences
    In most cases, of course, the conversation alone is not enough. Point out the behavior to the bullying employee (s) and make the consequences clear if the perpetrator does not stop his behavior. As mentioned above, there is a clear escalation dramaturgy consisting of admonition, warning and termination.
  • Bring relief
    If the stress caused by the bullying is acute and the employee concerned is already affected, you should take immediate measures and ensure timely relief. This can be done by transferring or - in extreme cases - taking leave of the bullying employee. Taking the victim of bullying on leave often sends the wrong message and can be misunderstood as a further punishment by the victim. If this step is necessary, you must definitely announce and explain it.
  • Seek support
    If your initial measures fail, you should seek external support. These can be professional supervisors or mediators who come into the team and tackle the smoldering conflict and bullying on site. But you can also involve the works council - at this point at the latest. Whether its support is sufficient, however, can be doubted.

Addresses, contact points and advice for victims of bullying

Because bullying is - unfortunately - no longer an exceptional phenomenon, there are now numerous advice centers, bullying telephones and aid associations that those affected can turn to. The following list does not claim to be complete, but is only intended to provide an initial overview, which we are constantly adding to and expanding.

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