is Workplace Bullying and Who is Affected?*
Workplace bullying refers to
repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed
towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to
intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine; or which create a risk to
the health or safety of the employee(s).
Workplace bullying often
involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying behavior creates feelings
of defenselessness and injustice 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 on-going pattern of
behavior. “Tough” or “demanding” bosses are not necessarily
bullies as long as they are respectful and fair and their primary
motivation is to obtain the best performance by setting high yet
reasonable expectations for working safely. Workplace bullying can be
instigated by coworkers, supervisors, contract workers, or labor
Some bullying situations
involve employees bullying their peers, rather than a supervisor bullying
an employee. The term mobbing refers to a group of coworkers targeting
another worker. Supervisors should intervene immediately to address and
stop mobbing behaviors.
In a prevalence study of U.S.
workers, 41.4% of respondents reported experiencing psychological
aggression at work in the past year representing 47 million U.S. workers (Schat,
Frone & Kelloway, 2006). The research found that 13%, or nearly 15
million workers, reported experiencing psychological aggression on a
Unwarranted or invalid
Blame without factual
Being treated differently
than the rest of your work group
Being sworn at
Exclusion or social
Being shouted at or being
Excessive monitoring or
Being given work
is corporate/institutional bullying?
bullying occurs when bullying is entrenched in an organization and becomes
accepted as part of the workplace culture.
bullying can manifest itself in different ways:
expectations on employees, where failure to meet those expectations
means making life unpleasant (or dismissing) anyone who objects.
suffering from stress as “weak” while completely ignoring or
denying potential work-related causes of the stress.
Encouraging employees to
fabricate complaints about colleagues with promises of promotion or
threats of discipline.
Signs of corporate and
institutional bullying include:
Failure to meet
Increased frequencies of
grievances, resignations, and requests for transfers.
Increased absence due to
If you are aware of bullying
in the workplace and do not take action, then you are accepting a share of
the responsibility for any future abuses. This means that witnesses of
bullying behavior should be encouraged to report any such incidences.
Individuals are less likely to engage in antisocial behavior when it is
understood that the organization does not tolerate such behavior and that
the aggressor is likely to be punished.
that Increase the Risk for Bullying Behavior:
change (i.e., major internal restructuring, technological change).
(e.g., age, gender, parental status, apprentice or trainee).
(e.g., inadequate information flow between organizational levels, lack
of employee participation in decisions.)
Work systems (e.g., lack
of policies about behavior, high rate and intensity of work, staff
shortages, interpersonal conflict, organizational constraints, role
ambiguity, and role conflict.)
bullying affects people:
Targets of bullying experience
significant physical and mental health problems:
Work withdrawal and
Sleep and digestive
Family tension and stress
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Financial problems due to
bullying affects organizations:
Each of the individual
consequences listed above can be very costly for the organization. Costs
of bullying generally fall into three categories:
1. Replacing staff members
that leave as a result of being bullied, cost of training new employees.
2. Work effort being displaced
as staff cope with bullying incidents (i.e., effort being directed away
from work productivity and towards coping).
3. Costs associated with
investigations of ill treatment, potential legal action and loss of
Bullies do not run good
organizations; staff turnover and sick leave will be high while morale and
productivity will be low. Stress, depression and physical health problems
result in time away from work that is costly in terms of workers’
compensation and lost productivity.
The health problems
experienced by targets of bullying result in a sense of helplessness and
negative emotional states. Low
self-esteem and a negative organizational climate suppress creativity and
hamper employees’ abilities to respond to difficult situations or
The breakdown of trust in a
bullying environment may mean that employees will fail to contribute their
best work, do not give extra ideas for improvement, do not provide
feedback on failures and may be less honest about performance.
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, HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C status, sexual orientation/gender
identity, and honorably discharged veteran and military status.
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.
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
can be done about bullying?
At the first sign of conflict
check if your company has a workplace violence program or a code of
conduct that addresses psychological intimidation and aggression that is
not based on a protected characteristic. It can be useful to talk to the
aggressor if you are comfortable with that. The person may deny the
aggression, but you have let them know that you are aware and consider it
unprofessional. Or talk with someone you absolutely trust in the workplace
that can advise you and advocate for you while keeping your situation
can you do about bullying?
Employees — regain
Recognize that you are
Realize that you are NOT
the source of the problem.
Recognize that bullying is
about control, and therefore has nothing to do with your performance.
Keep a diary detailing the
nature of the bullying (e.g., dates, times, places, what was said or
done and who was present).
Obtain copies of harassing
/ bullying paper trails; hold onto copies of documents that contradict
the bully’s accusations against you (e.g., time sheets, audit
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.
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 have
the full support of top management.
When witnessed or
reported, the bullying behavior should be addressed IMMEDIATELY.
bullying is entrenched in the organization, complaints need to be
taken seriously and investigated promptly. Reassignment of the bully
may be necessary.
Structure the work
environment to incorporate a sense of autonomy, individual
challenge/mastery, and clarity of task expectations for employees.
Include employees in
Hold awareness campaigns
for EVERYONE on what bullying is. Encourage reporting.
Ensure management has an
active part in the staff they supervise, rather than being far removed
Encourage open door
Investigate the extent and
nature of the problem.
Conduct employee attitude
ability and sensitivity towards dealing with and responding to
an independent contact for employees (e.g., Human Resources
Department of Labor & Industries. (2013.) “Workplace bullying and
disruptive behavior: What everyone needs to know.” Olympia, WA: Safety
& Health Assessment & Research for Prevention (SHARP). Retrieved