Today was my son’s first day of Kindergarten. Miles was excited to go, primarily because his big sister Lily, who started 2nd grade today, loves school and was really excited to go back. I’ve included the obligatory super-adorable picture.

As the parents of a new Kindergartener, we’ve received a lot of terrific materials from our school district as part of their prep and transition program. One of those materials struck me when I pulled it out of the packet earlier this week. Here’s a picture:


Leave it to our terrific elementary educators to help us simplify and understand what can often be a complex and convoluted issue.

I talk with leaders all the time about the challenges they face on their teams and in their workplaces. When I ask them to list the specific behaviors they’d like to see reduced or eliminated, bullying is often on the list. Yet further discussion makes it clear that most of the time, what’s occurring there isn’t actually bullying. Or in some cases, bullying is a problem but it’s not being named or addressed directly.

I love the simplicity of this handout, which can help us clearly define what bullying is and isn’t. If you are a team leader in any setting, these definitions can help you get clear on what is and is not happening where you work.

Furthermore, these three specific situations – three similar but not-the-same acts – need to be handled differently.

If you encounter the first – RUDE behavior – whereby someone says or does something unintentionally harmful one time, the best approach is to give feedback. Name the specific behavior that was problematic, and make it clear that it can not happen again. If appropriate, be sure to describe the new behavior needed if the employee finds themselves in a similar situation down the line.

If you witness the second behavior – MEAN behavior – whereby someone says or does something intentionally harmful one time, it’s imperative that you take corrective action. Consult with your HR team regarding your process but in most cases the first step is formally documenting the incident and administering a verbal or written warning. You may even take the step to put the employee on a performance improvement plan. In any case where an employee does something intentionally harmful to someone else, it must be documented and handled formally.

If you find yourself in the situation where you become aware of the third behavior – BULLYING – whereby someone is repeatedly engaging in intentionally harmful behavior and it continues in the face of a request to stop, you must take the step to remove that person from the environment. This could be in the form of a suspension but often the best step is separation.

In my new book No More Team Drama: Ending the Gossip, Cliques, & Other Crap that Damage Workplace Teams, I outline the difference between bullying and incivility (with help from renowned workplace bullying expert Dr. Renee Thompson) and share advice and tactics on how to attack both, because both are harmful. But let’s be clear: Bullying does considerable harm. It’s toxic and disruptive and has no place in any work environment. Anyone engaging in any kind of bullying behavior can not be allowed to remain as part of a healthy workplace.

Joe Mull is a healthcare leadership speaker, author, and trainer who works with organizations that want to motivate employees, defeat team drama, and transform workplaces. He is the former head of learning and development for one of the largest physician groups in the U.S. and is the author of two books Cure for the Common Leader and No More Team Drama. For more info on using Joe as a keynote speaker for your event or to deliver training on site, visit