Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others in the workplace that causes either physical or emotional harm. It can include such tactics as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, physical abuse and humiliation. This type of workplace aggression is particularly difficult because, unlike the typical school bully, workplace bullies often operate within the established rules and policies of their organization and their society. In the majority of cases, bullying in the workplace is reported as having been by someone who has authority over their victim. However, bullies can also be peers, and occasionally subordinates.

The first known documented use of “workplace bullying” is in 1992 in a book by Andrea Adams called Bullying at Work: How to Confront and Overcome It.

Research has also investigated the impact of the larger organizational context on bullying as well as the group-level processes that impact on the incidence and maintenance of bullying behaviour. Bullying can be covert or overt. It may be missed by superiors; it may be 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 organizational culture. It can also take place as overbearing supervision, constant criticism, and blocking promotions.

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Workplace Bullying


While there is no universally accepted formal definition of workplace bullying, several researchers have endeavoured to define it:

  • According to Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf and Cooper “Bullying at work means harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks. In order for the label bullying (or mobbing) to be applied to a particular activity, interaction or process it has to occur repeatedly and regularly (e.g. weekly) and over a period of time (e.g. about six months). Bullying is an escalated process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts.”
  • According to Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts, researchers associated with the Arizona State University’s Project for Wellness and Work-Life, workplace bullying is most often “a combination of tactics in which numerous types of hostile communication and behaviour are used
  • Gary and Ruth Namie define workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment, verbal abuse, or conduct which is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or sabotage that interferes with work or some combination of the three.”
  • Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik expands this definition, stating that workplace bullying is “persistent verbal and nonverbal aggression at work, that includes personal attacks, social ostracism, and a multitude of other painful messages and hostile interactions.”
  • Catherine Mattice and Karen Garman define workplace bullying as “systematic aggressive communication, manipulation of work, and acts aimed at humiliating or degrading one or more individual that create an unhealthy and unprofessional power imbalance between bully and target(s), result in psychological consequences for targets and co-workers, and cost enormous monetary damage to an organization’s bottom line
  • Employers can also be bullies. Bad employers use bullying strategically to rid the workplace of good employees to avoid a legal obligation, such as paying unemployment compensation or a worker’s compensation claim. Employers also use bullying tactics to drive out employees who demand legal pay or overtime or assert a legal right to organize collectively. The most common type of complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involves retaliation, where an employer harasses or bullies an employee for objecting to illegal discrimination. Patricia Barnes, author of Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace, argues that employers that bully are a critical but often overlooked aspect of the problem in the United States.

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:

  • Repetition (occurs regularly)
  • Duration (is enduring)
  • Escalation (increasing aggression)
  • Power disparity (the target lacks the power to successfully defend themselves)
  • Attributed intent

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 repetitive behaviour. 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. 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, 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 include: incivility, disrespect, difficult people, personality conflict, negative conduct, and ill treatment. Bullied people are labelled as insubordinate when they resist the bullying treatment.

There is no exact definition for bullying behaviours in workplace, which is why different terms and definitions are common. For example, mobbing is a commonly used term in France and Germany, where it refers to a “mob” of bullies, rather than a single bully; this phenomenon is not often seen in other countries. In the United States, aggression and emotional abuse are frequently used terms, whereas harassment is the term preferred in Finland. Workplace bullying is primarily used in Australia, UK, and Northern Europe.


Bosses are the most common bullies. In fact, approximately 72% of bullies outrank their victims. Statistics 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 behaviour against a co-worker.

Although socioeconomic factors may play a role in the abuse, researchers from the Project for Wellness and Work-Life suggest that “workplace bullying, by definition, is not explicitly connected to demographic markers such as sex and ethnicity”. Because one in ten 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 2015 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 7.4%.

In 2008, Dr. Judy Fisher-Blando wrote a doctoral research dissertation on Aggressive behaviour: Workplace Bullying and Its Effect on Job Satisfaction and Productivity. 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) 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 behaviour (60%), however when the bully is a woman her target is more likely to be a woman as well (71%).

In 2015, the National Health Interview Survey found a higher prevalence of women (8%) workers who were threatened, bullied, or harassed than men.

In the research of Samnani and Singh (2012), it concludes the findings from previous 20 years’ literature and claims that in terms of the gender factor, inconsistent findings could not support the differences across gender.


Race also may play a role in the experience of workplace bullying. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (2007), the comparison of reported combined bullying (current + ever bullied) prevalence percentages in the USA 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. Asian (28.5%)
  2. Blacks (21.1%)
  3. Hispanics (14%)
  4. Whites (10.8%)

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%)

Research psychologist Tony Buon published one of the first reviews of bullying in China in the prestigious Journal PKU Business Review in 2005.

Marital status

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.


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


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

With respect to age, conflicting findings have been reported. A study by Einarsen and Skogstad (1996) indicates older employees tend to be more likely to be bullied than younger ones.


The prevalence of a hostile work environment varies by industry. In 2015, the broad industry category with the highest prevalence was healthcare and social assistance 10%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16,890 workers in the private industry experienced physical trauma from nonfatal workplace violence in 2016.


The prevalence of hostile work environment varies by occupation. In 2015, the occupation groups with the highest prevalence was protective services (24%) and community and social services (15%).


Researchers Caitlin Buon and Tony Buon have suggested that attempts to profile ‘the bully’ have been damaging. They state that the “bully” profile is that ‘the bully’ is always aware of what they are doing, deliberately sets out to harm their ‘victims’, targets a particular individual or type of person and has some kind of underlying personality flaw, insecurity or disorder. But this is unproven and lacks evidence. The researchers suggest referring to workplace bullying as generic harassment along with other forms of non-specific harassment and this would enable employees to use less emotionally charged language and start a dialogue about their experiences rather than being repelled by the spectre of being labelled as a pathological predator or having to define their experiences as the victims of such a person. Tony Buon and Caitlin Buon also suggest that the perception and profile of the workplace bully is not facilitating interventions with the problem. They suggest that to make significant progress and achieve behaviour change over the long term then, organisations and individuals need to embrace the notion that everyone must all potentially house ‘the bully’ within them and their organisations. It exists in workplace cultures, belief systems, interactions and emotional competencies and cannot be transformed if externalization and demonization continue the problem by profiling ‘the bully’ rather than talking about behaviours and interpersonal interactions.

Relationship among participants

Based on research by H. Hoel and C.L. Cooper, most the perpetrators are supervisors. The second most common group is peers, followed by subordinates and customers. The three main relationships among the participants in workplace bullying:

  • Between supervisor and subordinate
  • Among co-workers
  • Employees and customers

Bullying may also occur between an organization and its employees.

Bullying behaviour by supervisors toward subordinates typically manifests as an abuse of power by the supervisor in the workplace. Bullying behaviours by supervisors may be associated with a culture of bullying and the management style of the supervisors. An authoritative management style, specifically, often includes bullying behaviours, which can make subordinates fearful and allow supervisors to bolster their authority over others.

On the other hand, some researchers suggest that bullying behaviours can be a positive force for performance in the workplace. Workplace bullying may contribute to organizational power and control.

However, if an organization wishes to discourage bullying in the workplace, strategies and policies must be put into place to dissuade and counter bullying behavior. Lack of monitoring or of punishment/corrective action will result in an organizational culture that supports/tolerates bullying.

In addition to supervisor – subordinate bullying, bullying behaviours also occur between colleagues. Peers can be either the target or perpetrator. If workplace bullying happens among the co-workers, witnesses will typically choose sides, either with the target or the perpetrator. Perpetrators usually “win” since witnesses do not want to be the next target. This outcome encourages perpetrators to continue their bullying behaviour. In addition, the sense of the injustice experienced by a target might lead that person to become another perpetrator who bullies other colleagues who have less power than they do, thereby proliferating bullying in the organization.

Maarit Varitia, a workplace bullying researcher, found that 20% of interviewees who experienced workplace bullying attributed their being targeted to their differences from others.

The third relationship in the workplace is between employees and customers. Although less frequent, such cases play a significant role in the efficiency of the organization. Overly stressed or distressed employees may be less able to perform optimally and can impact the quality of service overall.

The fourth relationship in the workplace is between the organization or system and its employees. An article by Andreas Liefooghe (2012) notes that many employees describe their employer as a “bully.”

These cases, the issue is not simply an organizational culture or environmental factors facilitating bullying, but bullying-like behaviour by an employer against an employee. Tremendous power imbalances between an organization and its employees enables the employer to “legitimately exercise” power (e.g., by monitoring and controlling employees) in a manner consistent with bullying.

Although the terminology of bullying traditionally implies an interpersonal relationship between the perpetrator and target, organizations’ or other collectives’ actions can constitute bullying both by definition and in their impacts on targets. However, while defining bullying as an interpersonal phenomenon is considered legitimate, classifying incidences of employer exploitation, retaliation, or other abuses of power against an employee as a form of bullying is often not taken as seriously.

Organizational culture

Bullying is seen to be prevalent in organizations where employees and managers feel that they have the support, or at least the implicit blessing of senior managers to carry on their abusive and bullying behaviour. Furthermore, new managers will quickly come to view this form of behaviour as acceptable and normal if they see others get away with it and are even rewarded for it.

When bullying happens at the highest levels, the effects may be far reaching. People may be bullied irrespective of their organizational status or rank, including senior managers, which indicates the possibility of a negative domino effect, where bullying may cascade downwards, as the targeted supervisors might offload their own aggression onto their subordinates. In such situations, a bullying scenario in the boardroom may actually threaten the productivity of the entire organisation.

Geographical culture

Main article: Culture

Research investigating the acceptability of the bullying behaviour across different cultures (e.g.g Power et al., 2013) clearly shows that culture culture affects the perception of the acceptable behaviour. National background also influences the prevalence of workplace bullying (Harvey et al., 2009; Hoel et al., 1999; Lutgen-Sandvik et al., 2007).

Humane orientation is negatively associated with the acceptability of work-related bullying. Performance orientation is positively associated with the acceptance of bullying. Future orientation is negatively associated with the acceptability of bullying. A culture of femininity suggests that individuals who live and work in this kind of culture tend to value interpersonal relationships to a greater degree.

Three broad dimensions have been mentioned in relation to workplace bullying: power distance; masculinity versus femininity; and individualism versus collectivism (Lutgen-Sandvik et al., 2007).

In Confucian Asia, which has a higher performance orientation than Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, bullying may be seen as an acceptable price to pay for performance. The value Latin America holds for personal connections with employees and the higher humane orientation of Sub-Saharan Africa may help to explain their distaste for bullying. A culture of individualism in the US implies competition, which may increase the likelihood of workplace bullying situations.

Culture of fear

Ashforth discussed potentially destructive sides of leadership and identified what he referred to as petty tyrants, i.e., leaders who exercise a tyrannical style of management, resulting in a climate of fear in the workplace. Partial or intermittent negative reinforcement can create an effective climate of fear and doubt. When employees get the sense that bullies “get away with it,” a climate of fear may be the result. Several studies have confirmed a relationship between bullying, on the one hand, and an autocratic leadership and an authoritarian way of settling conflicts or dealing with disagreements, on the other. An authoritarian style of leadership may create a climate of fear, where there is little or no room for dialogue and where complaining may be considered futile.

In a study of public-sector union members, approximately one in five workers reported having considered leaving the workplace as a result of witnessing bullying taking place. Rayner explained these figures by pointing to the presence of a climate of fear in which employees considered reporting to be unsafe, where bullies had “got away with it” previously despite management knowing of the presence of bullying.

Kiss up kick down

The workplace bully is often expert at knowing how to work the system. They can spout all the current management buzzwords about supportive management but basically use it as a cover. By keeping their abusive behaviour hidden, any charges made by individuals about his or her bullying will always come down to your word against his. They may have a kiss up kick down personality, wherein they are always highly cooperative, respectful, and caring when talking to upper management but the opposite when it comes to their relationship with those whom they supervise. Bullies tend to ingratiate themselves to their bosses while intimidating subordinates. They may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine their fate. Often, a workplace bully will have mastered kiss up kick down tactics that hide their abusive side from superiors who review their performance.

As a consequence of this kiss up kick down strategy:

  • A bully’s mistakes are always concealed or blamed on underlings or circumstances beyond their control
  • A bully keeps the target under constant stress
  • A bully’s power base is fear, not respect
  • A bully withholds information from subordinates and keeps the information flow top-down only
  • A bully blames conflicts and problems on subordinate’s lack of competence, poor attitude, or character flaws
  • A bully creates an unnatural work environment where people constantly walk on eggshells and are compelled to behave in ways they normally would not

Fight or flight

The most typical reactions to workplace bullying are to do with the survival instinct – “fight or flight” – and these are probably a victim’s healthier responses to bullying. Flight is often a response to bullying. It is very common, especially in organizations in which upper management cannot or will not deal with the bullying. In hard economic times, however, flight may not be an option, and fighting may be the only choice.

Fighting the bullying can require near heroic action, especially if the bullying targets just one or two individuals. It can also be a difficult challenge. There are some times when confrontation is called for. First, there is always a chance that the bully boss is labouring under the impression that this is the way to get things done and does not recognize the havoc being wrought on subordinates.

Typology of bullying behaviours

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.

  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 the 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.


Research by the Workplace Bullying Institute, suggests that the following are the 25 most common workplace bullying tactics:

  1. Falsely accused someone of “errors” not actually made (71%).
  2. Stared, glared, was nonverbally intimidating and was clearly showing hostility (68%).
  3. Unjustly discounted the person’s thoughts or feelings (“oh, that’s silly”) in meetings (64%).
  4. Used the “silent treatment” to “ice out” and separate from others (64%).
  5. Exhibited presumably uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group (61%).
  6. Made-up rules on the fly that even they did not follow (61%).
  7. Disregarded satisfactory or exemplary quality of completed work despite evidence (discrediting) (58%).
  8. Harshly and constantly criticized, having a different standard for the target (57%).
  9. Started, or failed to stop, destructive rumours or gossip about the person (56%).
  10. Encouraged people to turn against the person being tormented (55%).
  11. Singled out and isolated one person from other co-workers, either socially or physically (54%).
  12. Publicly displayed gross, undignified, but not illegal, behaviour (53%).
  13. Yelled, screamed, threw tantrums in front of others to humiliate a person (53%).
  14. Stole credit for work done by others (plagiarism) (47%).
  15. Abused the evaluation process by lying about the person’s performance (46%).
  16. Declared target “insubordinate” for failing to follow arbitrary commands (46%).
  17. Used confidential information about a person to humiliate privately or publicly (45%).
  18. Retaliated against the person after a complaint was filed (45%).
  19. Made verbal put-downs/insults based on gender, race, accent, age or language, disability (44%).
  20. Assigned undesirable work as punishment (44%).
  21. Created unrealistic demands (workload, deadlines, duties) for person singled out (44%).
  22. Launched a baseless campaign to oust the person; effort not stopped by the employer (43%).
  23. Encouraged the person to quit or transfer rather than to face more mistreatment (43%).
  24. Sabotaged the person’s contribution to a team goal and reward (41%).
  25. Ensured failure of person’s project by not performing required tasks, such as sign-offs, taking calls, working with collaborators (40%)

Abusive workplace behaviours

A woman upset over cyberbullying

A woman upset over cyberbullying

According to Bassman, common abusive workplace behaviours are:

  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. Over evaluation 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:

  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.

Abusive cyberbullying in the workplace can have serious socioeconomic and psychological consequences on the victim. Workplace cyberbullying can lead to sick leave due to depression which in turn can lead to loss of profits for the organisation.

In specific professions


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

Blue-collar jobs

Bullying has been identified as prominent in blue collar jobs including on the oil rigs, and in mechanical areas and machine shops, warehouses and factories. It is thought that intimidation and fear of retribution cause decreased incident reports, 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.

Information technology

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

Legal profession

Bullying in the legal profession is believed to be more common than in some other professions. It is believed that its adversarial, hierarchical tradition contributes towards this. Women, trainees and solicitors who have been qualified for five years or less are more impacted, as are ethnic minority lawyers and lesbian, gay and bisexual lawyers.


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 exists to varying degrees in the military of some countries, often involving various forms of hazing or abuse by higher members of the military hierarchy.


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 gossiping and intimidation) are relevant. Relational aggression has been studied amongst girls but not so much amongst adult women.


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


Bullying can be common in volunteering settings. For example, one study found bullying to be the most significant factor of complaints amongst volunteers . Volunteers often do not have access to protections available to paid employees, so while laws may indicate that bullying is a violation of rights, volunteers may have no means to address it.


Tim Field suggested that workplace bullying takes these forms:

  • Serial bullying — the source of all dysfunction can be traced to one individual, who picks on one employee after another and destroys them, then moves on. Probably the most common type of bullying.
  • Secondary bullying — the pressure of having to deal with a serial bully causes the general behaviour to decline and sink to the lowest level.
  • Pair bullying — this takes place with two people, one active and verbal, the other often watching and listening.
  • Gang bullying or group bullying — is a serial bully with colleagues. Gangs can occur anywhere, but flourish in corporate bullying climates. It is often called mobbing and usually involves scapegoating and victimisation.
  • Vicarious bullying — two parties are encouraged to fight. This is the typical “triangulation” where the aggression gets passed around.
  • Regulation bullying — where a serial bully forces their target to comply with rules, regulations, procedures or laws regardless of their appropriateness, applicability or necessity.
  • Residual bullying — after the serial bully has left or been fired, the behaviour continues. It can go on for years.
  • Legal bullying— the bringing of a vexatious legal action to control and punish a person.
  • Pressure bullying or unwitting bullying — having to work to unrealistic time scales or inadequate resources.
  • Corporate bullying — where an employer abuses an employee with impunity, knowing the law is weak and the job market is soft.
  • Organizational bullying — a combination of pressure bullying and corporate bullying. Occurs when an organization struggles to adapt to changing markets, reduced income, cuts in budgets, imposed expectations and other extreme pressures.
  • Institutional bullying — entrenched and is accepted as part of the culture.
  • Client bullying — an employee is bullied by those they serve, for instance subway attendants or public servants.
  • Cyberbullying — the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others.

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-centred 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”).

Emotional intelligence

Workplace bullying is reported to be far more prevalent than perhaps commonly thought. For some reason, workplace bullying seems to be particularly widespread in healthcare organizations; 80% of nurses report experiencing workplace bullying. Similar to the school environment for children, the work environment typically places groups of adult peers together in a shared space on a regular basis. In such a situation, social interactions and relationships are of great importance to the function of the organizational structure and in pursuing goals. The emotional consequences of bullying put an organization at risk of losing victimized employees. Bullying also contributes to a negative work environment, is not conducive to necessary cooperation and can lessen productivity at various levels. Bullying in the workplace is associated with negative responses to stress. The ability to manage emotions, especially emotional stress, seems to be a consistently important factor in different types of bullying. The workplace in general can be a stressful environment, so a negative way of coping with stress or an inability to do so can be particularly damning. Workplace bullies may have high social intelligence and low emotional intelligence (EI). In this context, bullies tend to rank high on the social ladder and are adept at influencing others. The combination of high social intelligence and low empathy is conducive to manipulative behaviour, such that Hutchinson (2013) describes workplace bullying to be. In working groups where employees have low EI, workers can be persuaded to engage in unethical behaviour. With the bullies’ persuasion, the work group is socialized in a way that rationalizes the behaviour, and makes the group tolerant or supportive of the bullying. Hutchinson & Hurley (2013) make the case that EI and leadership skills are both necessary to bullying intervention in the workplace, and illustrates the relationship between EI, leadership and reductions in bullying. EI and ethical behaviour among other members of the work team have been shown to have a significant impact on ethical behaviour of nursing teams. Higher EI is linked to improvements in the work environment and is an important moderator between conflict and reactions to conflict in the workplace. The self-awareness and self-management dimensions of EI have both been illustrated to have strong positive correlations with effective leadership and the specific leadership ability to build healthy work environments and work culture.

Related concepts

Abusive supervision

Abusive supervision overlaps with workplace bullying in the workplace context. Research suggests that 75% of workplace bullying incidents are perpetrated by hierarchically superior agents. Abusive supervision differs from related constructs such as supervisor bullying and undermining in that it does not describe the intentions or objectives of the supervisor.

Power and control

Main article: Abusive power and control

A power and control model has been developed for the workplace, divided into the following categories:

  • overt actions
  • covert actions
  • emotional control
  • isolation
  • economic control
  • tactics
  • restrictions
  • management privilege.

Workplace mobbing

Main article: Workplace mobbing

Workplace mobbing overlaps with workplace bullying. The concept originated from the study of animal behaviour. It concentrates on bullying by a group.

Workplace incivility

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, 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.

Bullying Stop Violate Feelings Sad Cry Tears

Stop Mobbing

Personality disorders and dysfunctional personality characteristics


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:

  • Histrionic personality disorder: including superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity and manipulation
  • Narcissistic personality disorder: including grandiosity, self-focused lack of empathy for others, exploitativeness and independence.
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: including perfectionism, excessive devotion to work, rigidity, stubbornness and dictatorial tendencies.

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

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.

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.


Narcissism, lack of self-regulation, lack of remorse and lack of conscience have been identified as traits displayed by bullies. These traits are shared with psychopaths, indicating that there is some theoretical cross-over between bullies and psychopaths. Bullying is used by corporate psychopaths as a tactic to humiliate subordinates. Bullying is also used as a tactic to scare, confuse and disorient those who may be a threat to the activities of the corporate psychopath Using meta data analysis on hundreds of UK research papers, Boddy concluded that 36% of bullying incidents were caused by the presence of corporate psychopaths. According to Boddy there are two types of bullying:

  • Predatory bullying – the bully just enjoys bullying and tormenting vulnerable people for the sake of it.
  • Instrumental bullying – the bullying is for a purpose, helping the bully achieve their goals.

A corporate psychopath uses instrumental bullying to further their goals of promotion and power as the result of causing confusion and divide and rule.

People with high scores on a psychopathy rating scale are more likely to engage in bullying, crime and drug use than other people. Hare and Babiak noted that about 29% of corporate psychopaths are also bullies. Other research has also shown that people with high scores on a psychopathy rating scale were more likely to engage in bullying, again indicating that psychopaths tend to be bullies in the workplace.

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.


In 2007, researchers Catherine Mattice and Brian Spitzberg at San Diego State University, USA, 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.


According to Namie, Machiavellians manipulate and exploit others to advance their perceived personal agendas. In his view, Machiavellianism represents one of the core components of workplace bullying.

Health effects

According to Gary and Ruth Namie, as well as Tracy, et al., 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 are not uncommon. Tehrani found that one 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 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. 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.

According to the 2012 survey conducted by Workplace Bullying Institute (516 respondents), Anticipation of next negative event is the most common psychological symptom of workplace bullying reported by 80%. Panic attacks afflict 52%. Half (49%) of targets reported being diagnosed with clinical depression. Sleep disruption, loss of concentration, mood swings, and pervasive sadness and insomnia were more common (ranging from 77% to 50%). Nearly three-quarters (71%) of targets sought treatment from a physician. Over half (63%) saw a mental health professional for their work-related symptoms. Respondents reported other symptoms that can be exacerbated by stress: migraine headaches (48%), irritable bowel disorder (37%), chronic fatigue syndrome (33%) and sexual dysfunction (27%).


Workplace depression can occur in many companies of various size and profession, and can have negative effects on positive profit growth (McTernan, Dollard & LaMontagne, 2013). Stress factors that are unique to one’s working environment, such as bullying from co-workers or superiors and poor social support for high pressure occupations, can build over time and create an inefficient work behavior in a depressed individual (Evan-Lack & Knapp, 2014). In addition, inadequate or negative communication techniques can further drive an employee towards feeling of being disconnected from the company’s mission and goals (Hidzir, et al., 2017). One way that companies can combat the destructive consequences associated with employee depression is to offer more support for counseling and consider bringing in experts to educate staff on the consequences of bullying. Ignoring the problem of depression and decreased workplace performance is creating an unsustainable path towards intergroup conflict and lasting feelings of disillusionment (Fischer, et al., 2014). References: Evans-Lacko, S., & Knapp, M. (2014). Importance of Social and Cultural Factors for Attitudes, Disclosure and Time off Work for Depression: Findings from a Seven Country European Study on Depression in the Workplace. Plos ONE, 9(3), 1-10. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091053, referenced in Week 2. Fischer, S., Wiemer, A., Diedrich, L., Moock, J., & Rössler, W. (2014). Hell Is Other People? Gender and Interactions with Strangers in the Workplace Influence a Person’s Risk of Depression. Plos ONE, 9(7), 1-9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103501, references in Week 3. Hidzir, N. ‘., Jaafar, M., Jalali, A., & Dahalan, N. (2017). An Exploratory Study on the Relationship between the Personal Factors of the Perpetrator and Workplace Bullying. Jurnal Pengurusan, 49105-121. McTernan, W. P., Dollard, M. F., & LaMontagne, A. D. (2013). Depression in the workplace: An economic cost analysis of depression-related productivity loss attributable to job strain and bullying. Work & Stress, 27(4), 321-338. doi:10.1080/02678373.2013.846948, referenced in Week 2.

Financial costs to employers

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

  • According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), mental illness among the workforce leads to a loss in employment amounting to $19 billion and a drop in productivity of $3 billion.
  • In a report commissioned by the ILO, Hoel, Sparks, & Cooper did a comprehensive analysis of the costs involved in bullying. They estimated a cost 1.88 billion pounds plus the cost of lost productivity.
  • Based on replacement cost of those who leave as a result of being bullied or witnessing bullying, Rayner and Keashly (2004) estimated that for an organization of 1,000 people, the cost would be $1.2 million US. This estimate did not include the cost of litigation should victims bring suit against the organization.
  • A recent Finnish study of more than 5,000 hospital staff found that those who had been bullied had 26% more certified sickness absence than those who were not bullied, when figures were adjusted for base-line measures one year prior to the survey (Kivimäki et al., 2000). According to the researchers these figures are probably an underestimation as many of the targets are likely to have been bullied already at the time the base-line measures were obtained.

Research by Dr. Dan Dana has shown organizations suffer a large financial cost by not accurately managing conflict and bullying type behaviours. He has developed a tool to assist with calculating the cost of conflict. In addition, researcher Tamara Parris discusses how employers need to be more attentive in managing various discordant behaviours 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.

By country

Workplace bullying is known in some Asian countries as:

  • Japan: power harassment
  • South Korea: gapjil

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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