Workplace Bullying

Bullying in the Workplace: An Unfortunate Reality

Bullying in schools continues to receive deserved and extensive attention. Originally, the focus was on playground and hallway behavior with individuals or groups ganging up on an individual perceived to be weaker, different, or otherwise, a good target for aggression. Boy-on-boy violence today continues to be more commonplace.

The workplace, the setting where individuals go daily to “make a living,” advance their career, and to otherwise contribute to an organization’s mission and bottom line, is a site of daily bullying to both men and women alike.

According to the 2014 Workplace Bullying Institute Survey:

  • 27% of adult Americans have directly experienced “repeated abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage or work abuse.”
  • 48% have been affected including witnesses
  • Targets of bullying appear to be the veteran and/or most skilled workers who cause the bully to perceive a “threat”
  • 60% of targets were female and 40% were male in 2014
  • 72% of Americans are now aware of workplace bullying
  • 93% of Americans want a law to protect them from abuse in addition to anti-discrimination laws
  • 72% of bullies are bosses
  • 40% of targets never report bullying
  • 77% of experiences involved cases where the perpetrator and target were the same gender
  • Female targets reported losing their job more so than male targets
  • People of color were targets of bullying at percentages much greater than White groups
  • Hispanics reported the highest rates followed by African Americans and Asians
  • Employers are lagging far behind and doing relatively nothing voluntarily to stop abusers on the payroll

How Workplace Bullying is Defined

According to the WBI, workplace bullying is defined as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:

  • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or
  • Verbal abuse

As is evident, workplace bullying takes many forms. It manifests in verbal and non-verbal behaviors, can be deliberately undermining, pervasive, and with effects on performance and productivity.

Comparisons between workplace and domestic violence have also been made.  According to researchers at the WBI, being bullied at work most closely resembles the experience of being a battered spouse. The abuser inflicts pain intermittently and sporadically to keep the target (victim) on edge knowing that the violence could begin at any point while also instilling a sense of hope that safety may be possible, for at least some time. It is the nature of the relationship between the target and abuser that keeps them close – such as husband to wife or boss to subordinate or co-worker to co-worker. It is noteworthy that the bullying often takes place between individuals with a degree of intimacy and trust. When it is violated, confidence is undermined, shame occurs, and victims may even believe they are at fault for the bullying that is being directed at them.

Examples from Different Settings

  • In a sample of 677 employees from five different working populations (managers, teachers, technicians, call center operators, and engineers), around half reported experiences of bullying in the workplace on a regular basis (Jennifer et al., 2003).
  • In a study of Norwegian employees, workplace bullying significantly predicted increased anxiety and depression, decreased job satisfaction, and a rise in absenteeism and turnover. These results persisted despite the authors controlling for job stressors of job demands, decision authority, role ambiguity and role conflict (Hauge et al., 2010).
  • Another study found a significant association between bullying and cardiovascular disease among hospital employees; bullying was also linked with increased risk of depression. This study evidences the far-reaching effects bullying can have on adults (Kivimaki et al., 2002).

Organizational Considerations

In our organizational consultation, we have generally found that employers are aware of workplace bullying. They generally chalk it up to people with bad attitudes, who do not get along, or are not big contributors. The contrary is often the case, however, for individuals who are considered “stars,” “dealmakers,” “sacred cows,” and otherwise, they are considered essential to the organization’s reputation and success. Generally, these individuals are given a pass and everyone knows this is going on. That is, excuses are often made about these employee’s behaviors, and in most cases, we have found, these are men.

I recall stories from women in staff roles who were readily criticized if the coffee came out warm, and not hot, or if they failed to anticipate the manager’s expectation that they stay late. Verbal abuse was cutting in these examples, and when verbalized in front of others, humiliating and predictable. Then there are faculty meetings where senior professors openly ridicule junior professors, particularly women,  telling them to go off and prepare better ideas they express at meetings. Power is at play in bullying situations.

Individual Responsibility

All organizations have their respective culture of how to communicate, make change, and express concerns. To this end:

  • Know your rights as an employee; in addition to HR and your supervisor, learn about other entities at work to express concern. If there are Affinity Groups for women, LGBTQI+, and Asian heritage employees, for example, connect for a consultation.
  • If you have a relationship with the bully, approach and give feedback. Perhaps the individual is oblivious to the intimidating behavior.
  • Speak to others in your work group where the bullying is taking place, what do they notice? Are they willing to confront the bully with you?
  • Speak directly to the bully because you care about how the behavior is negatively affecting the work environment;
  • Know workplace policies about bullying—are these in place and how do they work?

Employer Responsibility

  • Ensure that policies about bullying are in place.
  • In addition to the policies, have behavioral corrections outlined.
  • Provide workshops on workplace bullying to create awareness and knowledge.
  • Communicate to employees the negative effects of bullying and other forms of microaggressions on workplace morale, productivity, and trusting relationships.
  • Through anonymous communication forms, encourage employees to speak up.

The facts above indicate the pervasiveness of bullying and forms of intimidation, incidences on more women and Persons of Color, and the role of employers in being responsive. In other words, the workplace is a “hostile work environment” where bullying festers and pervades and it is the responsibility of the organization leaders to confront this issue – it is especially important that these individuals lead by example in creating a healthy and productive work atmosphere.

What are your workplace policies for bullying? Are there plans underway? If so, who is managing these? GET INVOLVED.


Hauge, L. J., Skogstad, A., & Einarsen, S. (2010). The relative impact of workplace bullying as a social stressor at work. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology51(5), 426-433.

Jennifer, D., Cowie, H., & Ananiadou, K. (2003). Perceptions and experience of workplace bullying in five different working populations. Aggressive Behavior: Official Journal of the International Society for Research on Aggression29(6), 489-496.

Kivimäki, M., Virtanen, M., Vartia, M., Elovainio, M., Vahtera, J., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2003). Workplace bullying and the risk of cardiovascular disease and depression. Occupational and environmental medicine, 60(10), 779-783.

Workplace Bullying Institute. (2014). 2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey February 2014. Retrieved from

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