Workplace Bullying

Published: May 02, 2007

By Sheng Wang

Last year, my friend "Irene" encountered a nightmare of a boss. Her boss frequently yelled at his staff, sometimes flew into a rage for no reason, and threatened physical assault on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, Irene's situation is not uncommon. A 2000 study of Michigan residents found that one in five workers has experienced destructive bullying in the past year, and the phenomenon of workplace bullying is starting to receive some well-deserved attention.

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as "repeated illegitimate mistreatment of a targeted employee … which impair[s] the target's psychological and physical health, and economic security." Such mistreatment can take the form of verbal abuse, work interference, and threatening, humiliating, or offensive actions against the target. The U.S. Hostile Workplace Survey 2000, conducted by the WBI, found that bullying was two to three times more common than illegal harassment based on gender, race, religion, or other factors. The same survey showed that bullying is a prolonged attack that lasted 16.5 months on average. The victim's confidence and ability to work productively are gradually destroyed, and many are forced to change jobs.

Workplace bullying has been called a "silent epidemic," since it often goes unrecognized, or is dismissed as a personality conflict or aggressive management style. In actuality, bullying is a form of psychological violence that inflicts long-lasting mental, physical, and financial damage on its victims, and poisons the workplace as a whole. Since there are few policies that address the problem directly, it can be very difficult for victims to defend themselves from bullying.

The Nature of a Bully

The WBI's survey found that 81% of bullies were bosses, 14% were the victim's coworkers, and 5% of workers bullied their higher-ups. Bullying behavior transcended gender, and half of all workplace bullies were women.

Bullies are motivated by selfishness, insecurity, and a desire to advance themselves regardless of the cost to others. They often feel threatened by capable individuals, and attempt to undermine their victims through verbal assault and humiliation. Bully bosses tend to be autocratic and overly controlling. They do not permit meaningful discussion or collective decision-making, and often take credit for others' work.

Bullies use various strategies, including:

  • Destroying the victim's reputation. The bully may ostracize the target at work, slander the victim behind his or her back, pressure coworkers into taking sides, and make the victim look bad in the eyes of the victim's superior.

  • Constant verbal assaults. The bully systematically destroys the victim's confidence through negative criticism, ridicule, and insults.

  • Work interference. Bullies deny victims the resources required to do their job properly. Bully bosses may assign demeaning tasks to their target or set unrealistic work goals that doom the victim to failure.
  • Public confrontations. Bullies may yell at their target, become extremely competitive, or publicly humiliate their victim.

    Unfortunately, most bullies get away with their mistreatment of others. Many workplaces turn a blind eye to their behavior and some bullies are even promoted. In their survey, the WBI found that only 7% of bullies were punished, transferred, or terminated.

    Targets of Bullying

    The majority of victims are capable, experienced, and well-educated employees. Targets of bullying tend to be excellent workers with a cooperative and non-confrontational personality. The WBI's survey found that 77% of victims were women, and that women were the preferred targets of both male and female bullies.

    Bullies may target a victim because they feel threatened by that person's abilities, in retaliation against whistle-blowing and other ethical behavior, or simply at random. Whatever the cause, victims are never responsible for their bullying.

    Cost of Bullying in the Workplace

    Victims of bullying live in a state of constant fear, and often suffer serious physical, psychological, and financial harm. In the WBI's survey, 94% of victims reported severe anxiety, 84% experienced sleep disruption, 41% were diagnosed with depression, and many exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims of bullying also reported high incidences of physical ailments such as stress headaches, exhaustion, and chest pains.

    The victim's work also suffers. Employees who are bullied are unproductive for 10–52% of their workday as they attempt to defend themselves from harassment. Victims often become hyper-vigilant at work and many fear that they are going crazy. Workers who were once capable and ambitious often become timid and submissive in an effort to avoid further abuse. The constant abuse eventually erodes the victim's self-confidence and leads to poor job performance.

    Unfortunately, bullies often succeed in driving good employees out of a workplace. The WBI's survey found that 82% of victims left their job due to harassment.

    General harassment affects not only the bullies and their victims, but the workplace as a whole. Bullying leads to decreased employee morale and loyalty, along with increased sick days and higher staff turnover. Factions often form among staff members, and this leads to poor cooperation among workers. Bully bosses stifle creativity and innovation in the workplace, which results in poor decision making. Victims may also subject their workplaces to lawsuits. All of these factors translate into heavy losses in productivity. For example, the Australian state of Victoria estimates that in 2001–2002, businesses lost $57 million due to workplace bullying.


    Although workplace bullying is more common than sexual harassment or racial discrimination, there is little legislation that addresses the problem directly. To date, the province of Quebec in Canada is the only place in North America with an anti-bullying law. The amendment to Quebec's Labour Standards Act was passed on June 1, 2004. Under sections 81.18 to 81.20, workplace psychological harassment is defined as "any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affects an employee's dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee."

    Since 2003, 12 different states have introduced 26 variations of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill: WBI HWB. So far, none of them have become law.

    Victims Fight Back

    Some experts recommend the following three-step plan for victims of bullying:

    1. Identify what is happening to them as bullying or psychological harassment. Recognizing the situation makes it easier for victims to take action. Some victims choose to stand up to their bullies by calmly confronting them whenever individual incidents occur.

    2. Gather evidence. Get a physical exam to check for stress-related complications and find a therapist for counseling. Document all incidents of bullying, check existing labor laws and employer policies that deal with harassment, and collect information on the damage that bullying has caused the employer.

    3. Present the case to the highest-ranking individual at the workplace.

    Victims should, however, keep in mind that taking action can produce unpredictable or undesired consequences. The WBI's survey found that the majority of victims were ignored or reprimanded when they sought help from their coworkers, their bully's boss, or the human resources department. A relatively small percentage of victims choose to take legal action against their bully or their workplace. While some have succeeded when taking legal action, the majority have failed, due to lack of legislation and difficulty in proving their cases.

    Although these statistics sound discouraging, as more workplaces become aware of the seriousness of bullying the situation is improving. By exposing their bullies, victims can prevent them from harassing others in the future. Many support groups encourage victims to make their own recovery the primary goal, taking action helps victims regain confidence and shore up personal resolve. The vast majority of victims report that friends and loved ones were a great source of help during their recovery. Allies at work, unions, doctors, therapists, and workers' compensation boards are also potential sources of help.

    The Role of Management

    Managers can make their workplaces healthier by identifying bullying as an unacceptable behavior, by educating workers about psychological harassment, and by creating and enforcing strict anti-bullying policies. It is crucial to establish an effective system for investigating, recording, and resolving incidents of bullying.

    Most importantly, managers need to establish a workplace culture that ensures the physical and psychologically safety of all workers and treats each employee with respect.

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