Workplace bullying

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Workplace bullying occurs when an employee experiences a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others in the workplace that causes harm.[1] Workplace bullying can include such tactics as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, physical abuse and humiliation. This type of aggression is particularly difficult because, unlike the typical forms of school bullying, workplace bullies often operate within the established rules and policies of their organization and their society. Bullying in the workplace is in the majority of cases reported as having been perpetrated by someone in authority over the target. However, bullies can also be peers, and on occasion can be subordinates.[2] Bullying can be covert or overt. It may be missed by superiors or known by many throughout the organization. Negative effects are not limited to the targeted individuals, and may lead to a decline in employee morale and a change in company culture.


Malintent directed at employees is bullying. Bullying behaviour may be in the form of humiliation and hazing rites, or iterative programs, protocols, and coaching framed as being in the best interests of employee development. Some people who have studied malintent separate it into different behavior patterns (labeling a subset of those behaviours as bullying), and offer various ways to deal effectively with each specific pattern of behaviour. Some workplace bullying is defined as involving an employee's immediate supervisor, manager or boss in conjunction with other employees complicit, while other workplace bullying is defined as involving only an employee’s immediate supervisor, manager, or boss.

Because it can occur in a variety of contexts and forms, it is also useful to define workplace bullying by the key features that these behaviours possess. Bullying is characterized by:[13]

This distinguishes bullying from isolated behaviours and other forms of job stress and allows the term workplace bullying to be applied in various contexts and to behaviours that meet these characteristics. Many observers agree that bullying is often a repeated behavior. However, some experts who have dealt with a great many people who report abuse also categorize some once-only events as bullying, for example with cases where there appear to be severe sequelae.[14] Expanding the common understanding of bullying to include single, severe episodes also parallels the legal definitions of sexual harassment in the US.

According to Pamela Lutgin-Sandvik,[15] the lack of unifying language to name the phenomenon of workplace bullying is a problem because without a unifying term or phrase, individuals have difficulty naming their experiences of abuse, and therefore have trouble pursuing justice against the bully. Unlike sexual harassment, which named a specific problem and is now recognized in law of many countries (including U.S.), workplace bullying is still being established as a relevant social problem and is in need of a specific vernacular.

Euphemisms intended to trivialize bullying and its impact on bullied people: Incivility, Disrespect, Difficult People, Personality Conflict, Negative Conduct, Ill Treatment.


Statistics[16] from the 2007 WBI-Zogby survey show that 13% of U.S. employees report being bullied currently, 24% say they have been bullied in the past and an additional 12% say they have witnessed workplace bullying. Nearly half of all American workers (49%) report that they have been affected by workplace bullying, either being a target themselves or having witnessed abusive behavior against a co-worker.

Although socio-economic factors may play a role in the abuse, researchers from the Project for Wellness and Work-Life[3] suggest that "workplace bullying, by definition, is not explicitly connected to demographic markers such as sex and ethnicity" (p. 151). Because 1 in 10 employees experiences workplace bullying, the prevalence of this issue is cause for great concern, even as initial data about this issue are reviewed.

According to the 2010 National Health Interview Survey Occupational Health Supplement (NHIS-OHS), the national prevalence rate for workers reporting having been threatened, bullied, or harassed by anyone on the job was 8%.[17]

In 2008, Dr. Judy Fisher-Blando[18] wrote a doctoral research dissertation on Aggressive Behavior: Workplace Bullying and Its Effect on Job Satisfaction and Productivity.[19] The scientific study determined that almost 75% of employees surveyed had been affected by workplace bullying, whether as a target or a witness. Further research showed the types of bullying behaviour, and organizational support.


In terms of gender, the Workplace Bullying Institute (2007)[16] states that women appear to be at greater risk of becoming a bullying target, as 57% of those who reported being targeted for abuse were women. Men are more likely to participate in aggressive bullying behavior (60%), however when the bully is a woman her target is more likely to be a woman as well (71%).[20]

The NHIS-OHS confirms the previous finding, as higher prevalence rates for being threatened, bullied, or harassed were identified for women (9%) compared with men (7%).[17]


Race also may play a role in the experience of workplace bullying. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (2007),[16] the comparison of reported combined bullying (current + ever bullied) prevalence percentages reveals the pattern from most to least:

  1. Hispanics (52.1%)
  2. Blacks (46%)
  3. Whites (33.5%)
  4. Asian (30.6%)

The reported rates of witnessing bullying were:

  1. Blacks (21.1%)
  2. Hispanics (14%)
  3. Whites (10.8%)
  4. Asian (28.5%)

The percentages of those reporting that they have neither experienced nor witnessed mistreatment were

  1. Asians (57.3%)
  2. Whites (49.7%)
  3. Hispanics (32.2%)
  4. Blacks (23.4%)

Marital status[edit]

Higher prevalence rates for experiencing a hostile work environment were identified for divorced or separated workers compared to married workers, widowed workers, and never married workers .[17]


Higher prevalence rates for experiencing a hostile work environment were identified for workers with only a high school diploma or GED and workers with some college education compared to workers with less than a high school education.[17]


Lower prevalence rates for experiencing a hostile work environment were identified for workers aged 65 and older compared to workers in other age groups.[17]


Among industry groups, workers with higher prevalence rates of a hostile work environment, compared to all adults employed at some time in the past 12 months (8%), were in Public Administration (16%) and Retail Trade industries (10%). Lower prevalence rates of a hostile work environment were reported among those working in Construction (5%); Finance and Insurance (5%); Manufacturing (5%); and Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services industries (6%).[17]


For occupational groups, workers in Protective Service reported a higher prevalence rate (25%) of hostile work environments compared to the prevalence rate for all adults employed at some time in the past 12 months. Workers in Community and Social Service occupations also experienced a relatively high rate (16%). Lower prevalence rates were observed among Architecture and Engineering (4%), Computer and Mathematical (4%), Business and Financial Operations (5%), and Construction and Extraction (5%) occupations.[17]

Typology of bullying behaviours[edit]

With some variations, the following typology of workplace bullying behaviours has been adopted by a number of academic researchers. The typology uses five different categories.[21] [22]

  1. Threat to professional status – including belittling opinions, public professional humiliation, accusations regarding lack of effort, intimidating use of discipline or competence procedures
  2. Threat to personal standing – including undermining personal integrity, destructive innuendo and sarcasm, making inappropriate jokes about target, persistent teasing, name calling, insults, intimidation
  3. Isolation – including preventing access to opportunities, physical or social isolation, withholding necessary information, keeping the target out of the loop, ignoring or excluding
  4. Overwork – including undue pressure, impossible deadlines, unnecessary disruptions.
  5. Destabilisation – including failure to acknowledge good work, allocation of meaningless tasks, removal of responsibility, repeated reminders of blunders, setting target up to fail, shifting goal posts without telling the target.

Abusive workplace behaviours[edit]

According to Bassman, common abusive workplace behaviours are:[23]

  1. Disrespecting and devaluing the individual, often through disrespectful and devaluing language or verbal abuse
  2. Overwork and devaluation of personal life (particularly salaried workers who are not compensated)
  3. Harassment through micromanagement of tasks and time
  4. Overevaluation and manipulating information (for example concentration on negative characteristics and failures, setting up subordinate for failure).
  5. Managing by threat and intimidation
  6. Stealing credit and taking unfair advantage
  7. Preventing access to opportunities
  8. Downgrading an employee's capabilities to justify downsizing
  9. Impulsive destructive behaviour

According to Hoel and Cooper, common abusive workplace behaviours are:[24]

  1. Having opinions and views ignored
  2. Withholding information which affects the target's performance
  3. Being exposed to an unmanageable workload
  4. Being given tasks with unreasonable or impossible targets or deadlines
  5. Being ordered to do work below competence
  6. Being ignored or facing hostility when the target approaches
  7. Being humiliated or ridiculed in connection with work
  8. Excessive monitoring of a person's work (see micromanagement)
  9. Spreading gossip
  10. Insulting or offensive remarks made about the target's person (i.e. habits and background), attitudes or private life
  11. Having key areas of responsibility removed or replaced with more trivial or unpleasant tasks

Specific professions[edit]

Bullying in academia[edit]

Several aspects of academia, such as the generally decentralized nature of academic institutions[25][26] and the particular recruitment and career procedures,[27] lend themselves to the practice of bullying and discourage its reporting and mitigation.

Bullying in blue collar jobs[edit]

Bullying has been identified as prominent in blue collar jobs including on the oil rigs and in mechanic shops and machine shops. It is thought that intimidation and fear of retribution cause decreased incident reports. This is also an industry dominated by males, typically of little education, where disclosure of incidents are seen as effeminate, which, in the socioeconomic and cultural milieu of such industries, would likely lead to a vicious circle. This is often used in combination with manipulation and coercion of facts to gain favour among higher ranking administrators.[28][non-primary source needed]

Bullying in information technology[edit]

A culture of bullying is common in information technology (IT), leading to high sickness rates, low morale, poor productivity and high staff turnover.[29] Deadline-driven project work and stressed-out managers take their toll on IT workers.[30]

Bullying in medicine[edit]

Bullying in the medical profession is common, particularly of student or trainee doctors. It is thought that this is at least in part an outcome of conservative traditional hierarchical structures and teaching methods in the medical profession which may result in a bullying cycle.

Bullying in nursing[edit]

Bullying has been identified as being particularly prevalent in the nursing profession although the reasons are not clear. It is thought that relational aggression (psychological aspects of bullying such as gossipping and intimidation) are relevant. Relational aggression has been studied amongst girls but not so much amongst adult women.[31][32]

Bullying in teaching[edit]

School teachers are commonly the subject of bullying but they are also sometimes the originators of bullying within a school environment.


Tim Field suggested that workplace bullying takes these forms:[33]

Adult bullying can come in an assortment of forms. There are about five distinctive types of adult bullies. A narcissistic bully is described as a self-centered person whose egotism is frail and possesses the need to put others down. An impulsive bully is someone who acts on bullying based on stress or being upset at the moment. A physical bully uses physical injury and the threat of harm to abuse their victims, while a verbal bully uses demeaning and cynicism to debase their victims. Lastly, a secondary adult bully is portrayed as a person that did not start the initial bullying but participates in afterwards to avoid being bullied themselves ("Adult Bullying"). [34]

Workplace bullying vs. workplace incivility[edit]

Workplace bullying overlaps to some degree with workplace incivility but tends to encompass more intense and typically repeated acts of disregard and rudeness. Negative spirals of increasing incivility between organizational members can result in bullying,[35] but isolated acts of incivility are not conceptually bullying despite the apparent similarity in their form and content. In case of bullying, the intent of harm is less ambiguous, an unequal balance of power (both formal and informal) is more salient, and the target of bullying feels threatened, vulnerable and unable to defend himself or herself against negative recurring actions.[21][22]

Personality disorders[edit]


In 2005, psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon at the University of Surrey, UK, interviewed and gave personality tests to high-level British executives and compared their profiles with those of criminal psychiatric patients at Broadmoor Hospital in the UK. They found that three out of eleven personality disorders were actually more common in executives than in the disturbed criminals. They were:

They described these business people as successful psychopaths and the criminals as unsuccessful psychopaths.[36]

According to leading leadership academic Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, it seems almost inevitable these days that there will be some personality disorders in a senior management team.[37]

Industrial/organizational psychology research has also examined the types of bullying that exist among business professionals and the prevalence of this form of bullying in the workplace as well as ways to measure bullying empirically.[38]


A workplace bully or abuser will often have issues with social functioning. These types of people often have psychopathic traits that are difficult to identify in the hiring and promotion process. These individuals often lack anger management skills and have a distorted sense of reality. Consequently, when confronted with the accusation of abuse, the abuser is not aware that any harm was done.[39]

Robert D. Hare and Paul Babiak discuss psychopathy and workplace bullying thus:[40]

"Bullies react aggressively in response to provocation or perceived insults or slights. It is unclear whether their acts of bullying give them pleasure or are just the most effective way they have learned to get what they want from others. Similar to manipulators, however, psychopathic bullies do not feel remorse, guilt or empathy. They lack insight into their own behaviour, and seem unwilling or unable to moderate it, even when it is to their own advantage. Not being able to understand the harm they do to themselves (let alone their victims), psychopathic bullies are particularly dangerous."
"Of course, not all bullies are psychopathic, though this may be of little concern to their victims. Bullies come in many psychological and physical sizes and shapes. In many cases, 'garden variety' bullies have deep seated psychological problems, including feelings of inferiority or inadequacy and difficulty in relating to others. Some may simply have learned at an early stage that their size, strength, or verbal talent was the only effective tool they had for social behaviour. Some of these individuals may be context-specific bullies, behaving badly at work but more or less normally in other contexts. But the psychopathic bully is what he/she is: a callous, vindictive, controlling individual with little or no empathy or concern for the rights and feelings of the victim, no matter what the context."


In 2007, researchers Catherine Mattice and Brian Spitzberg at San Diego State University, USA, also found that Narcissism revealed a positive relationship with bullying. Narcissists were found to prefer indirect bullying tactics (such as withholding information that affects others' performance, ignoring others, spreading gossip, constantly reminding others of mistakes, ordering others to do work below their competence level, and excessively monitoring others' work) rather than direct tactics (such as making threats, shouting, persistently criticizing, or making false allegations). The research also revealed that narcissists are highly motivated to bully, and that to some extent, they are left with feelings of satisfaction after a bullying incident occurs.[41]

Health effects[edit]

According to Gary and Ruth Namie, as well as Tracy, et al.,[42] workplace bullying can harm the health of the targets of bullying. Organizations are beginning to take note of workplace bullying because of the costs to the organization in terms of the health of their employees.

According to scholars at The Project for Wellness and Work-Life at Arizona State University, "workplace bullying is linked to a host of physical, psychological, organizational, and social costs." Stress is the most predominant health effect associated with bullying in the workplace. Research indicates that workplace stress has significant negative effects that are correlated to poor mental health and poor physical health, resulting in an increase in the use of "sick days" or time off from work (Farrell & Geist-Martin, 2005).

The negative effects of bullying are so severe that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even suicide[43] are not uncommon. Tehrani[44] found that 1 in 10 targets experience PTSD, and that 44% of her respondents experienced PTSD similar to that of battered women and victims of child abuse. Matthiesen and Einarsen[45] found that up to 77% of targets experience PTSD.

In addition, co-workers who witness workplace bullying can also have negative effects, such as fear, stress, and emotional exhaustion.[7] Those who witness repetitive workplace abuse often choose to leave the place of employment where the abuse took place. Workplace bullying can also hinder the organizational dynamics such as group cohesion, peer communication, and overall performance.

Financial costs to employers[edit]

Several studies have attempted to quantify the cost of bullying to an organization.

Research by Dr Dan Dana has shown organizations suffer a large financial cost by not accurately managing conflict and bullying type behaviors. He has developed a tool to assist with calculating the cost of conflict.[47] In addition, researcher Tamara Parris discusses how employers need to be more attentive in managing various discordant behaviors in the workplace, such as, bullying, as it not only creates a financial cost to the organization, but also erodes the company's human resources assets.[48]

Legal aspects[edit]


Each state has its own legislation.

In Queensland, legislation comes from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland. If bullying (referred to as 'Workplace Harassment' in the Queensland subordinate legislation) endangers a worker's health causing stress or any other physical harm, an obligation holders under the 'Workplace Health and Safety Act, 1995' can be found liable for not providing a safe place for their employees to work. Queensland is one of only two States in Australia with a Code of Practice specifically for workplace bullying – 'The Prevention of Workplace Harassment Code of Practice, 2004'[49] In Victoria, legislation comes from Worksafe Victoria. If bullying endangers a worker's health causing stress or any other physical harm, a corporation can be found liable for not providing a safe place for their employees to work.[50]


Quebec The Canadian Province of Quebec passed legislation addressing workplace bullying on 1 June 2004. In its act representing labour standards, "psychological harassment" is prohibited. The Commission des normes du travail is the organization responsible for the application of this act.[51]

Ontario Under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act 1979, all employers "take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker." This includes protecting them against the risk of workplace violence."[52] The Act requires establishment of Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committees for larger employers.

Under the act, workplace violence is defined as "...the attempted or actual exercise of any intentional physical force that causes or may cause physical injury to a worker. It also includes any threats which give a worker reasonable grounds to believe he or she is at risk of physical injury".[52][53] Currently, as the Act is written, the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act does not specifically cover the issue of psychological harassment.[52]

On 13 December 2007, MPP Andrea Horwath introduced for first reading a new Bill, Bill-29, to make an amendment to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. This Bill-29 is proposing "to protect workers from harassment and violence in the workplace" and will include protection from psychological abuse and bullying behaviors in the workplace in Ontario.[54]

The Ontario OHS Act has been amended to include Bill 168, which came into force 15 June 2010. The amendment includes the protection of employees from psychological harassment, workplace violence, including domestic violence in the workplace.[55]

Saskatchewan The Canadian Province of Saskatchewan made workplace bullying illegal in 2007 by passing The Occupational Health and Safety (Harassment Prevention) Amendment Act, 2007. The act broadened the definition of harassment, as defined in The Occupational Health and Safety Act 1993, to include psychological harassment.[56]


Manitoba enacted Bill 18 making bullying illegal and legitimized school "bullying clubs", Including gay-straight alliances, and other school anti-bullying clubs.


In Republic of Ireland, there is a Code of Practice for employers and employees on the prevention and resolution of bullying at work.[57] The Code notes the provision in the Safety, Health and Welfare Act 2005 requiring employers to manage work activities to prevent improper conduct or behaviour at work. The Code of Practice provides both employer and employee with the means and the machinery to identify and to stamp out bullying in the workplace in a way which benefits all sides.


In Spain, within the public administration, activities including preventing access to opportunities, physical or social isolation, withholding necessary information, keeping the target out of the loop, ignoring or excluding, if permanent and for a long time, are considered labor harassment and have to be prosecuted.[58]


Workplace bullying in Sweden is covered by the Ordinance of the Swedish National Board of Occupational Safety and Health containing Provisions on measures against Victimization at Work, which defines victimisation as "...recurrent reprehensible or distinctly negative actions which are directed against individual employees in an offensive manner and can result in those employees being placed outside the workplace community."[59]

The act places the onus on employers to plan and organise work so as to prevent victimisation and to make it clear to employees that victimisation is not acceptable. The employer is also responsible for the early detection of signs of victimisation, prompt counter measures to deal with victimisation and making support available to employees who have been targeted.

United Kingdom[edit]

In the United Kingdom, although bullying is not specifically mentioned in workplace legislation, there are means to obtain legal redress for bullying. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997[60] is a recent addition to the more traditional approaches using employment-only legislation. Notable cases include Majrowski v Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Trust [61] wherein it was held that an employer is vicariously liable for one employee's harassment of another, and Green v DB Group Services (UK) Ltd,[62] where a bullied worker was awarded over £800,000 in damages. In the latter case, at paragraph 99, the judge Mr Justice Owen said,

"...I am satisfied that the behaviour amounted to a deliberate and concerted campaign of bullying within the ordinary meaning of that term."

Bullying behaviour breaches other UK laws. An implied term of every employment contract in the UK is that parties to the contract have a (legal) duty of trust and confidence to each other. Bullying, or an employer tolerating bullying, typically breaches that contractual term. Such a breach creates circumstances entitling an employee to terminate his or her contract of employment without notice, which can lead to a finding by an Employment Tribunal of unfair dismissal, colloquially called constructive dismissal. An employee bullied in response to asserting a statutory right can be compensated for the detriment under Part V of the Employment Rights Act 1996, and if dismissed, Part X of the same Act provides that the dismissal is automatically unfair. Where a person is bullied on grounds of sex, race or disability et al., it is outlawed under anti-discrimination laws.

It was argued, following the obiter comments of Lord Hoffmann in Johnson v Unisys Ltd in March 2001,[63][64] that claims could be made before an Employment Tribunal for injury to feelings arising from unfair dismissal. It was re-established that this was not what the law provided, in Dunnachie v Kingston upon Hull City Council, July 2004[65] wherein the Lords confirmed that the position established in Norton Tool v Tewson in 1972, that compensation for unfair dismissal was limited to financial loss alone. Unfair dismissal compensation is subject to a statutory cap set at £60600 from Feb 2006. Discriminatory dismissal continues to attract compensation for injury to feelings and financial loss, and there is no statutory cap.

Access to justice in the UK is via self-representation at a tribunal, via a no-win no-fee lawyer, or via insurance or trade union lawyers. Since the Access to Justice act, "collective conditional fees" have blurred the distinction causing controversy for example in the case of Unison v Jervis.

United States[edit]

In the United States, comprehensive workplace bullying legislation has not been passed by the federal government or by any U.S. state, but since 2003 many state legislatures have considered bills.[66] As of April 2009, 16 U.S. states have proposed legislation; these are:[67]

  • Nevada (2009)
  • Illinois (2009)
  • Utah (2009)
  • New Jersey (2007)
  • Washington (2007, 2005)
  • New York (2006)[68]
  • Vermont (2007)
  • Oregon (2007, 2005)
  • Montana (2007)
  • Connecticut (2007)
  • Hawaii (2007, 2006, 2005, 2004)
  • Oklahoma (2007, 2004)
  • Kansas (2006)
  • Missouri (2006)
  • Massachusetts (2005)[69]
  • California (2003)[70]

These workplace bullying bills would typically have allowed employees to sue their employers for creating an "abusive work environment," and most have been supported by the notion that laws against workplace bullying are necessary to protect public health. Many of the above bills are based upon the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill.[67] This proposed bill contains several restrictive provisions not found in workplace anti-bully legislation adopted in other countries.[71]

Despite the lack of any federal or state law specifically on workplace bullying, some targets of bullying have prevailed in lawsuits that allege alternative theories, such as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and Assault.[72]

Although most U.S. states operate primarily under the doctrine of at-will employment (which, in theory, allows an employer to fire an employee for any reason or no reason at all), American workers have gained significant legal leverage through discrimination and harassment laws, workplace safety laws, union-protection laws. etc., such that it is illegal under federal and most states' laws to fire employees for many reasons. For example, these employment laws typically forbid retaliation for good faith complaints or the exercise of legal rights such as the right to organize a union. Discrimination and harassment laws enable employees to sue for creating a "hostile work environment," which can include bullying, but the bullying/hostility usually is tied in some way to a characteristic protected under the discrimination/harassment law, such as race, sex, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, etc.

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]