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Workplace bullying

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Sometimes, at work, individuals are tormented, undermined, intimidated, and frightened by other employees or managers. That is, they are bullied.

Behaviors may be designated as bullying if they fulfill three criteria. First, these behaviors must cause harm, or potentially cause harm, to the target or victim. Second, these behaviors must be deemed as unsuitable in that context. Third, these behaviors must be repeated over time rather than isolated incidents (e.g., Caponecchia & Wyatt, 2009;; for discussions of definitions, see Saunders, Huynh, & Goodman-Delahunty, 2007).

To illustrate examples of bullying, managers may assign unachievable or tedious activities to an employee. Employees may ridicule, insult, or ignore a colleague. They may spread rumors about this person, criticize the work of this individual unfairly, or threaten violence (e.g., Einarsen, 1999). Roughly, between 5 to 10 per cent of employees have been subjected to bullying over the past 6 months.

In general, bullying is more prevalent in some workplaces than in other workplaces. Specifically, when leaders are uninvolved or autocratic, roles are ambiguous, productivity is prioritized over health, changes are prevalent, job security is limited, and workload is extensive, bullying is more common.

Incidence of workplace bullying

Obviously, the incidence of bullying cannot be determined precisely. Definitions of bullying vary across organizations and states. In addition, the exact distinction between behaviors that are deemed as bullying and behaviors that are not deemed as bullying is hazy instead of exact. In addition, the incidence varies across occupations, organizations, and states.

Despite these qualifications, many scholars have attempted to estimate the incidence of bullying. A review, conducted by Caponecchia and Wyatt (2011), indicated that between 5% and 10% of the working population at any time are targets of bullying.

To illustrate, Zapf, Einarsen, Hoel, and Vartia (2003) reviewed a series of studies, conducted throughout Europe. They discovered that about 8 to 10 per cent of employed individuals claimed to be targets of bullying, although only 1 to 4 % of these respondents deemed the bullying to be severe. Similarly, in a survey of 5000 British employees, 10% claimed they had been bullied in the last dsix months, equivalent to about 18 million days of absenteeism (Keelan, 2000).

Bullying has been shown to be rife in the public sector of Australia as well. The People Matters Survey, administered to all employees of the public service in Australia, showed that 21% of respondents claimed they had been the target of bullying or harassment in the last year (State Services Authority of Victoria, 2006, 2007). The percentage was slightly higher in Tasmania, reaching 26% in 2005 (Tasmanian State Services Commissioner, 2005). In 2007, the percentage of federal public servants who claimed to have been bullied in the last 12 months was 15% (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007).

Across their life, many employees have been bullied at one stage. A study that was conducted by Rayner and Cooper (1997), for example, showed that 53% of respondents claimed they had been bullied at work during their life.


Furthermore, many incidents of bullying are not reported. The behaviors are sometimes subtle rather than tangible and overt. Consequently, employees may not feel they can easily report or describe these incidents (Caponecchia & Wyatt, 2011). In addition, people often feel embarrassed about incidents or fearful of the repercussions or consequences of reporting (Rayner, 2008, 2009;; Services Authority of Victoria, 2006). Finally, individuals often feel that management is unlikely to redress the bullying and, therefore, are reluctant to report these incidents (Zapf, 1999).

Indeed, bullying is often managed inadequately. Managers frequently dismiss complaints from employees. Even when bullying is addressed in courts, the outcomes of over 73% of cases were found to favor the employer as the defendant.

Antecedents to bullying

Stress at work

A variety of workplace characteristics have been shown to correlate with the incidence of bullying. Many if not most of these characteristics have also been demonstrated to elicit stress and anxiety. Therefore, stress and anxiety might tend to mediate the relationship between workplace characteristics and the incidence of bullying. Presumably, under stress, individuals may be more inclined to act defensively to preserve their status or identity.

One pivotal study was conducted by Hague, Skogstad, and Einarsen (2007). This study showed that role conflict, in which individuals are assigned competing demands, often from different managers, is positively associated with workplace bullying. Role conflict has been shown to provoke stress and anxiety, and these states may provoke bullying.

Stouten, Baillien, Van den Broeck, Camps, De Witte, and Euwema (2010) examined two other antecedents to stress. The first antecedent was workload, epitomized by items such as "Are you short of time". The second antecedent was inadequate working conditions, which could include limited room, excessive noise, uncomfortable temperatures, and so forth. Both workload and inadequate working conditions were correlated with self report measures of bullying.

Notelaers, De Witte, and Einarsen (2010) reported one of the most comprehensive studies into the relationship between work stressors and bullying. They surveyed over 6000 Belgian employees. This study confirmed that role clarity and workload are vital determinants of bullying. In addition, when roles are ambiguous or uncertain, the skills of employees are not utilized, job security is limited, feedback about tasks is deficient, and decisions are reached without consulting employees, workplace bullying is more prevalent.

Some of these stressors are amplified by workplace changes, such as retrenchments or reassignment of responsibilities. For example, Baillien and De Witt (2009) showed that workplace changes increase the likelihood of role conflict or job insecurity. In turn, role conflict or job insecurity were associated with elevated levels of bullying.

Leadership style

The incidence of workplace bullying also depends on the leadership style of senior managers. When these senior managers are very passive, avoidant, and uninvolved, sometimes called laissez faire leadership, bullying behaviors are more likely to be prevalent in these organizations (Hague, Skogstad, & Einarsen, 2007). However, autocratic or tyrannical leaders also increase the likelihood of bullying behavior (Hague, Skogstad, & Einarsen, 2007).

Stouten, Baillien, Van den Broeck, Camps, De Witte, and Euwema (2010) showed that ethical leadership diminished the incidence of bullying. In particular, ethical leaders attempt to enhance the ethical and moral behavior of employees as well as demonstrate ethical and moral behavior themselves. The scale of ethical leadership includes such as items as "My manager sets an example of how to do things the right way in terms of ethics". Participants who felt their manager was an ethical leader were less likely to report they had been bullied recently.

In particular, when managers were ethical, workload tended to be reasonable rather than excessive. Furthermore, if managers were ethical, the work environment was better. That is, participants felt the work environment facilitated their completion of tasks and was physically pleasant. A reasonable workload and pleasant work environment tends to reduce stress, curbing the incidence of bullying.

Psychosocial safety climate

Related to leadership is the degree to which managers attempt to cultivate a climate that supports the psychological wellbeing of employees. Law, Dollard, Tuckey, and Dormann (2011) showed that psychosocial safety climate does indeed reduce the incidence of bullying.

Specifically, their measure of psychosocial safety climate comprised four subscales. The first subscale represented the extent to which managers are committed to the psychological health of employees (e.g., "Senior management acts decisively when a concern of an employees' psychological status is raised"). The second subscale represented the degree to which managers prioritize health and safety over productivity (e.g., "Senior management considers employee psychological health to be as important as productivity"). The third subscale represented the extent to which managers communicate the importance of health and safety to employees (e.g., "There is good communication here about psychological safety issues which affect me"). Finally, the fourth subscale represented the degree to which employees are encouraged to become involved in matters that relate to health and safety. When psychological safety climate was elevated, individuals were not as likely to claim they had been bullied over the last six months.

Presumably, a psychosocial safety climate might curb the magnitude and prevalence of stress, a key determinant of bullying. In addition, psychosocial safety climate may reduce competitiveness as well as stem other precursors to bullying. Finally, psychosocial safety climate might increase the likelihood that managers introduce policies, practices, and procedures to resolve, deter, and prevent bullying.

Therefore, this concept of psychosocial safety climate is consistent with diverse accounts of the causes and antecedents to bullying. The importance of psychosocial safety climate, for example, aligns to the perspective that stress evokes bullying. However, the importance of psychosocial safety climate also aligns to the proposition that bullying represents unresolved and escalated conflict to secure power and status.

Social climate and trust

In some workplaces, individuals tend to be competitive. Employees do not trust one another, and conflicts are not resolved effectively. In contrast, in other workplaces, conflicts are managed effectively whenever they arise, but employees tend to be cooperative, considerate, and trustworthy.

Skogstad, Torsheim, Einarsen, and Hauge (2011) examined whether this social climate does indeed affect the incidence of bullying. Participants evaluated the extent to which the social climate of their department is characterized by cooperation, consideration, and trust as well as effective resolution of conflicts. In addition, participants were asked to specify the degree to which they have witnessed bullying in their department. A positive social climate was indeed negatively associated with bullying.

Similarly, Salin (2003) showed that a competitive culture was positively related to bullying. According to Salin (2003), because of globalization, organizations need to be more efficient. To enhance efficiency, organizations are often restructured, diminishing the frequency of management positions. Competition for these scarce positions becomes even more intense. As a consequence of this competition, individuals often attempt to undermine each other, increasing the likelihood of bullying.

Many other findings align to these conclusions. Vartia (1996), for example, showed the incidence of bullying was elevated in workplaces in which employees are not granted opportunities to contribute to decisions, shape the goals or objectives of the department, or help resolve conflicts.

Status inconsistency

Heames, Harvey, and Treadway (2006) argues that many of the established determinants of bullying can be ascribed to status inconsistency. According to this model, some traits represent whether people are high or low in status. For example, in some workgroups, education, ethnicity, gender, or experience might determine status. Often, individuals may feel deficient on these traits. If they feel they can address this deficiency, they will undertake activities that enhance these traits. They might enroll in a course, for example, to improve their education.

Sometimes, however, individuals do not feel they can override these deficiencies. Because of these deficiencies, they are not certain they will be accepted. They are also not sure whether or not they can complete their work effectively. Stress and anxiety ensues. Consequently, they may leave the organization. Alternatively, they might attempt to diminish the status of other members. They might denigrate these individuals, for example, manifesting as bullying .

Strategic beliefs

In some work environments, some people believe that bullying may represent a legitimate means to fulfill desired outcomes. To illustrate, in some instances, individuals may feel that an employee or manager should be dismissed. Nevertheless, for various reasons, the legitimate channels might not be sufficient to fulfill this goal. For example, in many organizations, managers are reluctant to dismiss employees. These individuals may be bullied instead, to ensure they choose to leave (e.g., Salin, 2003).

In addition, some managers believe that employees are likely to work productively only if treated harshly. They might, for example, assume that employees will respond to strident and constant criticism. These behaviors may sometimes evolve into bullying (e.g., Cranshaw, 2007).

Traits of the target

Any employee can be bullied. That is, targets or victims do not demonstrate a specific profile but are diverse. Nevertheless, people with specific traits may be more likely to be targets or, at least, more likely to report instances of bullying.

Gandolfo (1995) administered the MMPI-2 to people who had claimed compensation from insurance companies. This study compared the individuals who claimed to be bully victims with individuals who did not claim to be bully victims. Levels of depression and somatization were elevated in the participants who did claim to be targets of bullying (see also Matthiesen & Einarsen, 2001). Arguably, personality may influence the strategies that people use to cope with bullying.

Glaso, Matthiesen, Nielsen, and Einarsen (2007) examined whether personality, as gauged by the five factor model, differentiates people who have been bullied from people who have not been bullied. The bullied individuals seem to belong to one of two clusters. The first cluster, representing 64% of the targets, did not differ from participants who had not been bullied on personality. The second cluster, however, did exhibit some distinct characteristics. Overall, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability were lower in this cluster, although some of these characteristics could reflect consequences, rather than causes, of bullying.

Consequences of bullying

Unsurprisingly, many studies have shown that bullying damages the psychological health of targets. Targets experience severe distress and exhaustion, for example (e.g., Law, Dollard, Tuckey, & Dormann, 2011). Concentrations of cortisol upon awaking is lower in bullied individuals, usually indicative of low positive affect (Hansen, Hogh, Persson, Karlson, Garde, & Orbaek, 2006). Both targets and even witnesses are more likely to experience symptoms of depression as well (Niedhammer, David, & Degioanni, 2006).

Workplace bullying can manifest in many behaviors and symptoms. Niedhammer et al. (2009), for example, showed that workplace bullying can impair sleep. Even individuals who had merely observed bullying were more likely to report disturbances in their sleep. These effects of bullying were observed even after age, education, number of children, working hours, health, and symptoms of depression were controlled.

In addition to psychological symptoms, physical symptoms have also been shown to be associated with bullying. For example, Kivimaki, Virtanen, Vartia, Elovainio, Vahtera, and Keltikangas-Jarvinen (2003) showed that bullying is associated with cardiovascular disease. The odds ratio is 1.6: that is, the odds of cardiovascular disease is 1.6 times higher in people who have been bullied, even after controlling weight, age, sex, and income.


Questions and techniques have been developed to measure levels of workplace bullying (e.g., Notelaers, Einarsen, De Witte, & Vermunt, 2006;; for a four item measure, see Simons, Stark, & DeMarco, 2011). To illustrate, in a study conducted by Law, Dollard, Tuckey, and Dormann (2011), participants first received a definition of bullying, derived from the General Nordic Questionnaire for Psychological and Social Factors at Work (Lindstrom et al., 2000). According to this definition, offensive behaviors can be designated as bullying if they recur over a period of time and if the target cannot defend themselves easily, because their power is limited. Next, participants were merely asked whether or not they feel they have been subjected to bullying over the last 6 months.

As evidence of validity, participants who conceded they had been bullied experienced more psychological distress, which entails symptoms of anxiety and depression. In addition, they felt more exhausted at work (Law, Dollard, Tuckey, & Dormann, 2011).

Negative Acts Questionnaire

The Negative Acts Questionnaire has also been devised and utilized to gauge exposure to bullying (see Notelaers and Einarsen, 2008, as cited in Stouten, Baillien, Van den Broeck, Camps, De Witte, & Euwema, 2010;; see also Nielsen et al. 2009). Some of the behaviors revolve around interpersonal acts, such as spreading vicious rumors. Other behaviors revolve around work issues, such as withholding information from people. A typical item is "If you look back over the past six months, how often did it happen that people insulted you?"


Many researchers have described interventions that can be introduced to prevent bullying (e.g., Altman, 2009). In general, most scholars argue that a more cooperative culture, in which problems are addressed constructively rather than penalized harshly, may reduce bullying. Furthermore, workshops that enhance the self efficacy and emotional intelligence of individuals have also been recommended (e.g., Sheehan, 1999).

According to Zapf and Gross (2001), people who have been bullied tend to recommend that targets leave the organization as soon as possible, seek social support from friends and colleagues, or both. As 20 interviews uncovered, many targets initially attempted to resolve the conflict initially but then often realized these attempts were futile. Then, they attempted a variety of strategies, often striving to escape the situation, by leaving the workgroup or organization. Targets who sought justice were often the least effective in coping with the situation.

Saam (2010) recommends that interventions need to be conducted at the dyadic, group and organizational level. Mediation is not recommended for severe conflicts, such as bullying. The two parties are not equal in power and thus cannot negotiate effectively. Furthermore, mediation does not address broader issues, such as the environment that provoked the problems. Indeed, confidentiality undermines this role of mediation.

Coaching may be applicable. For example, bystanders, colleagues, managers, and other parties involved may be encouraged to cultivate a suitable and cohesive environment.

Organization development is vital as well, to introduce new standards, policies, and procedures. Ultimately, these measures should be undertaken to construct a cooperative rather than competitive environment.


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Last Update: 7/18/2016