Workplace Bullying

Updated: April 20, 2010

What is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined in many ways, depending upon the context. While the legal definition for purposes of pending legislation is being crafted to parallel Title VII descriptions of protected class harassment (see later section on legal issues), the most oft-cited working definition is:

"‘…the repeated malicious, health-endangering mistreatment of one employee (the target) by one or more employees (the bully, bullies). The mistreatment is psychological violence, a mix of verbal and strategic assaults to prevent the target from performing well. It is illegitimate conduct in that it prevents work getting done. Thus an employer's legitimate business interests are not met.[1]" Recently, to provide greater guidance in separating true bullying from one-off or isolated bad behavior, Britain adopted definitional criterion stating that bullying occurs when the conduct is persistent and frequent, lasting more than six months and occurring at least once a week.[2]

The Manifestation of Workplace Bullying:

Workplace bullying occurs in a wide variety of settings. It is particularly prevalent in the professions, where focusing on individual contributions and competitiveness are so integrated into the culture that individuals may become inured to conduct that would be considered unacceptable or abusive in other, more team-based or collaborative professional settings. The lawyer, physician, shareholder, financial advisor and highly compensated sales professional's stereotype of the brilliant-but-volatile producer is just a shade away from a bully who does harm to organizations and employees It must be emphasized, however that no workplace is immune from bullying and bullies can be found at every pay grade.

Bullies are effective because they tend to bully along power lines, and sustain productive relationships with superiors and clients. Because their bullying behavior is subtle, hidden, or both, the extent of their abusiveness is only seen by those targeted. When the bullying is brought to the attention of superiors or human resources, it is not unusual for the complainant to be told the bully's "bark is worse than his/her bite" or "You just need to stand up to him/her," amplifying the helplessness of the complainant.

Gender: Bullies are both women and men. Women comprise 58 percent of those found to be bullying, while men represent 42 percent. Research also shows that when the targeted person is a woman, she is bullied by a woman in 63 percent of cases; when the target is male, he is bullied by a man in 62 percent of incidents. Overall, women comprise the majority of bullied people (80 percent)[3]. Female bullies tend to use covert techniques, such as spreading rumors, providing conflicting instructions, making negative statements to others and being emotionally intrusive, while male bullies tend to use more overt strategies, such as yelling, public criticism, mocking and direct disparagement. As with any gender difference, however, these tendencies are just that. Bullying strategies vary from individual to individual.

The Lone Bully: A solo bully is an individual who targets other individuals, usually subordinates. He or she is likely a serial bullier with a history of treating others badly until they depart the organization, change jobs, or stand up to the bully effectively. Introverted bullies may create a tense, fearful or abusive environment for others by spreading misinformation, triangulating information, using nonverbal intimidation, making veiled threats and sharing information about the target inappropriately. More extroverted bullies may yell, publicly criticize, find fault constantly, publicly humiliate and physically threaten targets. While the extroverted bully is easily spotted by observers (and may bring others around to group bullying, see below,) the introverted bully operates below the radar, causing the target to seem to be overreacting or overstating the problem.

Group Bullying, or "Mobbing:" Mob bullying happens when an individual is targeted by one or more people, and other people are enjoined or compelled to engage in similar conduct. Mob bullying often happens when an individual is identified as "expendable" by leaders, has been made a scapegoat for a problem in the workplace, or is in some manner different from those bullying him or her. The differences inciting the bully need not be related to a protected class[4]. Non protected class differences include weight, social skills, political beliefs, personal style or attire or general physical appearance. The group engaged in bullying may include those who feel their own social status and "insider" position is heightened by joining in the dominant group's behavior, as well as those who recognize they must join the activity lest they be targeted next. The bullying behavior becomes virtually habitual, and may involve individuals from every level of the organization. At times, HR becomes an agent of the bullying, supporting engaged in "hyper-supervision" of an employee, or not questioning unsupported reprimands or questioning Performance Improvement Plans that are objectively unreasonable or disproportionate.

It should be noted that during periods of organizational instability or intentional change, bullying is often a tool used by emerging leadership to devalue previous leaders or to rid the organization of those representing the pre-change regime. Often the pretext for the bullying is prior failures or lack of adequate performance; however the difference between managing performance and bullying is that the bullied employee will not be coached, counseled or even fired, but belittled, badgered, blamed and ostracized, usually ending in their resignation.

Bullying Culture: A bullying culture (an organizational culture that is conducive to bullying) can be characterized by certain basic factors, such as internal competitiveness, strong hierarchy, a high level of dissatisfaction with work (i.e. low engagement), unearned privilege and low behavioral accountability. When this culture is made unstable by organizational change, restructuring, or changes in leadership, the propensity for bullying becomes even higher. If such instability causes layoffs, cutbacks or a reallocation of resources, the environment becomes even riper for bullying.[5] In bullying cultures, bullying flourishes over long periods of time and is subtly or overtly rewarded. The bullying becomes "invisible," in that the pattern of conduct is so much a part of the fabric of the organization that it does not raise any concerns, and those who cannot "handle it" are viewed as a poor "fit," rather than a target.

What do Bullies Do?

A comprehensive list of bullying behaviors is impossible. It can include everything from verbal abuse to sabotage to violating confidentiality to physical intimidation. While some behaviors, such as screaming, yelling, throwing objects, teasing and harassment are obvious, some are quite insidious, and can include:

  • Constant criticism, both public and private and direct and through others - explanations and proof of achievement are ridiculed, overruled, dismissed or ignored
  • Undermining, especially in front of others - raising doubts or concerns about someone's credibility, expertise or knowledge, causing others to doubt their competence.
  • Omission from essential conversations, resulting in incomplete work or work that fails to incorporate group decisions.
  • Isolation and exclusion from social interaction.
  • Discipline for behavior others are not disciplined for.
  • Subjection to unrealistic goals and deadlines which are unachievable or which are changed without notice or reason.
  • Abandonment by one's own management, unable to have conversations or speak with their supervisors.
  • Denial of resources, even when others have plentiful or an oversupply of same.
  • Overwork or denial of meaningful work, sometimes given menial assignments instead.
  • Being given direction only in terse, written form.
  • Being the subject of complaints by others at the suggestion of management.
  • Failure to provide a clear job description, or provide one that is exceedingly long or vague; the bully often deliberately makes the person's role unclear
  • Invitations to "informal" meetings which turn out to be harangues or administration of discipline.

Bullying can make any employee look like a bad employee. For those attempting to unravel bullying situations, it can be difficult to determine whether or not the behavior being complained of is merely an overstated part of a legitimate attempt to manage performance. The key is that the workplace bully treats his or her targets as incompetent, lazy, ineffective or weak, but offers no legitimate manner for the employee to ever be viewed as a "good" employee. Bullies will often suggest that they have done everything they can to help the struggling employee; however this pretense will often crumble if they are pressed to provide specifics details about the manner of such help, such as coaching, training, and mentoring or other positive interventions. Targets will report only criticism, humiliating comments to others, condescension and being further set up to fail.

The Effects of Workplace Bullying

The Individual: Recent research on bullying suggests that the psychiatric diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the complex of psychological injury resulting from a traumatic event, will hold with many targets of bullying. PTSD focuses on major traumas, rather than the cumulative trauma of workplace bullying. To distinguish the injury resulting from many small events that are not in themselves life threatening, practitioners may refer to this as "Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," or Complex PTSD. Interestingly, some newer research suggests that the most traumatic part of workplace bullying may not be the conduct itself, but the sense of being in "captivity," or unable to escape the situation over a prolonged period of time. [6] It is not surprising, then, that coworkers of bullies may demonstrate the same syndrome, albeit a milder version.

PTSD symptoms include hyper vigilance, fatigue, persistent anger, fearfulness, fragility, numbness, forgetfulness, hypersensitivity and somatic symptoms such as loss of sleep and heart palpitations. British research suggests targets of bullying use far more sick leave than average workers and are more likely to engage in dysfunctional use of licit or illicit chemicals[7].

The Organization: Bullying behavior in the workplace may be isolated or widespread, and as such, the impact on the workplace varies. Certainly, given the emotional and psychological injury to the target, declining productivity, loss of morale and increased absenteeism are logical consequences of bullying. Interestingly, it appears that witnesses to bullying may, in the short term, increase productivity in order to evade being bullied themselves. Nevertheless, the more widespread the bullying, the greater the cost to the organization based on direct harm to individuals.

On a more functional level, bullying by managers or leaders in the corporation creates a climate of fearfulness and distrust which stifles creativity, innovation, risk taking and teamwork. The autocratic bully in a leadership role will find his or her subordinates compliant but short on initiative and highly risk averse. To the extent this is precisely what the bullying leader wishes, this may seem to be a perfect match of the hearty and the timid, but bullying leaders often set up their bullying opportunities by railing against those subordinates who cannot "thinking for themselves." As such, business can be paralyzed by individuals walking on eggshells and waiting for the next outburst.

Bullying that has been permitted to flourish in organizations can also "leak," resulting in clients or customers becoming unhappy with the business. As a steady stream of employees departs the bullying environment, organizations get a reputation as a "tough place to work, "affecting recruitment and hiring.

Legal Status of Workplace Bullying

There are two predominant legal approaches to workplace bullying. One, supported by the Workplace Bullying Institute and other public policy advocates, is to advocate for specific legislation defining and prohibiting workplace bullying, and the other, largely advocated by the legal community, is to take advantage of laws already in place to litigate when workplace bullies damage others. This document does not propose to fully explain the debate between the two approaches, but to simply familiarize the reader with the two perspectives.

Proposed Legislation: The Healthy Workplace Bill, introduced, but not yet passed in 16 states, defines workplace bullying in the context of an "abusive work environment," defined as follows:

"…an abusive work environment exists when the defendant, acting with malice, subjects an

employee to abusive conduct so severe that it causes tangible harm to the employee."[8]

Abusive Conduct is defined as

"..conduct, including acts, omissions or both that a reasonable person would find hostile based on the severity, nature and frequency of the defendant's conduct. Abusive conduct may include but is not limited to: repeated infliction of verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets; verbal or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating or humiliating nature; the sabotage or undermining of an employee's work performance; or attempts to exploit an employee's known psychological or physical vulnerability. A single act normally will not constitute abusive conduct, but an especially severe and egregious act may meet this standard."[9]

The reasonableness standard is drawn from the Supreme Court's 1993 decision in Harris v., Forklift Systems, Inc,[10] which is intended by drafters to overcome the severe strictures of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, which requires the complained-of-behavior to be "outrageous" and "beyond the bounds of civilized society in order to be actionable."[11]

Existing Law: The Healthy Workplace Bill is controversial. Some argue its passage will increase frivolous litigation and result in every disciplined or terminated employee bringing claims against employers. Others argue it will chill employer capacity to demand fair performance from employees. A less ideological argument posits that protections already exist via workers compensation, common law remedies for negligent of emotional distress, assault, battery, negligent hiring and supervision and other related claims as well as state and federal prohibitions against discrimination and harassment. Some point out that courts have already recognized that "rude, overbearing, obnoxious, loud, vulgar and generally unpleasant" conduct directed at both male and female employees can be actionable as employment discrimination under Title VII when a particular protected class is disproportionately harmed by the conduct.[12]

Workplace bullying is becoming an issue with an increasingly high profile in the legal sphere, potentially leading to more tort claims. In 2008, the Supreme Court of Indiana upheld a $325,000 jury verdict awarded to an employee who claimed to have been subjected to workplace bullying. The plaintiff sued his employer for assault, testifying that during an argument at work, his employer became red faced and angry, walked towards him with his fists balled up, and walked out after yelling, "You're over, you're history. You're finished." The employer appealed the jury verdict, in part arguing that the trial court should not have permitted an expert witness to testify that the employer was a "workplace bully," On appeal, the court rejected the employer's challenge and upheld the jury verdict for the plaintiff.[13] This case is viewed by some as opening the door to a more aggressive, non statutory approach to bullying, and represents recognition by the court that the term "workplace bullying" is a recognizable phenomenon.

Preventing Workplace Bullying

Anti-bullying Policy Section 1: Purpose, Statement, & Examples

Purpose of policy. The purpose of the policy should clearly reflect the values of the organization.

Statement. Describe the definition of workplace bullying. Also include the organization's position and how the behavior hinders company goals and negatively affects employee health.

Examples. Indicate examples such as (humiliation, character attacks, isolating an employee, name calling, etc.), but be sure to acknowledge that this type of workplace abuse is not limited to the behaviors listed.

Anti-bullying Policy Section 2: Complaint and Resolution Process

Identify appropriate contact people. Identify the people to contact if there is a problem. The contact list should be across all levels of the organization.

Informal resolution. This should be an option as long as all parties involved agree to it. It can be an open dialogue between parties to work through the problem. This option would require the person charged to be receptive to information about the affects of their abusive behavior.

Anti-bullying Policy Section 3: Action

Formal process. Clarify the procedures on how workplace abuse complaints are handled by the organization from beginning to end.

Privacy. Ensure that complaints will be handled in a manner respectful of individual privacy.

Timing. Indicate that the investigation will be conducted in the shortest time possible.

Anti-bullying Policy Section 4: Consequences

Accountability. Discuss the personal and organizational consequences when an investigation has confirmed workplace abuse.

Anti-Bullying Policies: Policies for the workplace can take the form of a specific anti-bullying policy or the promulgation of a general non-harassment or "Respectful Workplace Policy."Proponents of a specific anti-bullying policy argue the approach supports a specific discussion of workplace bullying with employees and prompts subject-specific training and education on the subject, rather than simply encouraging people to be civil. The elements of such a policy can include:

A more comprehensive approach would involve the establishment of a policy that affirmatively supports respectful conduct or expands a workplace anti-harassment policy to include abusive treatment not based on protected class status. Formatted in a manner similar to the bullying specific policy, above, "Respectful Workplace Policies" incorporate a statement of positive expectations and culture, a prohibition against harassing, abusive and violent conduct, both unlawful (i.e. protected class harassment, assault) and unacceptable (workplace bullying, abusive language), and the means to address such conduct. In essence, if a company states that no one will be harassed or treated abusively for any reason or for no reason, the company has promulgated an anti-bullying policy without specifically naming it such.

Leadership Behaviors and Competencies:

As with any workplace conduct, the most powerful form of shaping or extinguishing behavior is through the establishment of clear expectations, modeling appropriate behavior and aligning recognition and reward with the standards set.. As such, leaders set the tone for the workplace by declaring an expectation of civility and respect, but can quickly undermine their own moral authority if bullies are ignored or explained away.

In particular, professional firms which rely on individual production are at risk for bullying when there is a tradition or practice of allowing highly productive individuals to behave in an uncivil manner on a regular basis, turning a blind eye when incivility turns into tantrums or abusive conduct. The individual talent or unique value to the firm or group is used to excuse or override any attempt to address the behavior. This "toxic rainmaker" often is managed by carefully screening his or her direct reports for thick skinnedness, but rarely does this completely insulate the organization from the negative effects of the individual's behavior and reputation. Excusing the conduct because the individual is a "perfectionist" or "demanding" serves to demonstrate to those bullied by this individual sends a clear message that bullying will, at least in this case, be tolerated.

Leaders must be visible and vocal about a climate of respect or civility, acknowledge and address visible lapses in such policies, and promote the seeking and giving of feedback through implementation of 360 evaluation process, listening sessions and/or open door policies. Promotion of emotional intelligence, including self-awareness and empathy build the competencies which will have the effect of extinguishing disrespectful conduct before it escalates to bullying.


Training about bullying behavior in the workplace can be worked into regular training on workplace harassment, or dealt with separately. Most important is that the training give examples of bullying behavior that are not so outrageous as to suggest the conduct is outlandish, nor so subtle that it confuses people. As with harassment training, it is often best to begin with the impact of bullying behavior and elicit from employees conduct they have seen or heard about in the workplace that can elicit those results. Training should also provide strategies for direct and indirect self help as well as seeking assistance from others.

Training about bullying, like training about harassment, can give employees and supervisors a working understanding of organizational expectations and processes, but training does not change behavior. Even the most powerful and memorable training is a small step towards what is necessary. Essential skills and training that should be part of a comprehensive bullying and harassment prevention strategy include coaching and training on how to have difficult conversations, assertiveness, giving and getting feedback, and listening skills.

Effective Interventions

Prompt Response to Early Warnings: It is far better to issue a verbal warning to or coach someone being overly stern or vulgar than to have to conduct a full blown investigation into behavior alleged to recur frequently and have a significant duration. Supervisors and managers must address minor infractions in a progressive manner and document all incidents, counseling and coaching, reprimand and further discipline. This is akin to New York City's remarkable reduction of crime in the 80's by emphasizing arrests for misdemeanors, and by doing so, greatly reducing the number of felonies committed.

Coaching Some bullies are coachable. Employers should carefully explore the experience of professional coaches, selecting someone who has had success with bullies, and particularly bullies in the professions. The coaching should be conducted in accordance with a written coaching plan based on the employer's investigative findings and the coach's assessment of the bullying individual. It is an essential prerequisite that the individual whose behavior has been a problem acknowledges a need to change. The plan should include the coach seeking feedback from the superiors, colleagues, and subordinates of the bullying person. The challenge of coaching a bullying individual is to find ways to understand how the bullying occurs and how the individual behaves in the context of the bullying, not in a controlled, one on one setting. While bullies may agree that they occasionally lose their temper or can be difficult to deal with, they often are largely unaware of many of their nonverbal behaviors, the impact of their vocal tone and their use of power, status and authority. Since those things are unlikely to be on display in the coaching context, feedback and detailed descriptions from targets are very valuable.

Accountability: Evidence demonstrates that bullies will pay attention to directives about conduct when they truly believe there will be a consequence for their inappropriate conduct. Consequences can include reduction or denial of bonus, reduction of salary, requiring the bully to reimburse the firm or company for legal fees necessary to address the conduct, or status change, such as demotion or removal of a title. Evidence also demonstrates that absent such consequences, the bullying behavior may go underground or be extinguished for a short while, but is highly likely to recur. Employers must therefore carefully consider whether their hesitancy to anger a productive contributor is likely to result in ongoing, potentially significant costs to the organization, and whether those costs might cumulatively exceed the value of the bullying employee's contribution. Incorporated into those costs are the increased awareness of "spectators" to the bullying that the organization will not protect them should they be the next target. This will reduce a willingness to raise issues and the likelihood of another "crisis" down the road.

Investigations: Because bullies are notoriously effective at "managing up," and are often held in great esteem by their leaders and advisors, complaints of bullying may be brushed aside or minimized. This is particularly important because bullying managers and supervisors make any employee look like a ‘bad' employee. Bullying is, in essence, about undermining confidence, finding fault, sabotage and creating failures. Thus, an employee who has been badly bullied may appear paranoid, may have demonstrated excessive absenteeism, poor work performance or erratic behavior.

Because, as discussed earlier, bullies are often producing effective results and are shrewd about presenting themselves in the best light, executives overseeing the bully or outside boards may believe the complainants to be ‘outliers,' or the motivation for the complaint to be politically motivated or even intransigence. It is essential the organization conduct a neutral and impartial investigation into the concerns of the employee without prejudging based on the comparative credibility of the complainant and subject of the complaint. The organization must also be prepared to accept the results of that investigation despite the preconceptions of high level leaders who might resist negative findings. Conversely, investigators must avoid getting caught up in the emotional state of a complainant to focus on the specific behavior they are alleging and the evidence that supports or refutes their claims.

[1] Namie, Gary;The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job; Sourcebooks, Naperville, IL, 2003

[2] Montalbán, F. Manuel and Durán, Maria Auxiliadora, Mobbing: A Cultural Approach of Conflict in Work Organizations (June 1, 2005). IACM 18th Annual Conference. Available at SSRN:

[3] Namie, Gary; Workplace Bullying, Escalated Incivility; Ivey Business Journal Nov-Dec, 2003

[4] This characterization takes note of the fact that bullying may include protected-class motives or targets for bullying that does not meet the standards of "tangible harm," or the pervasiveness or severity of "hostile work environment," yet still results in psychological and/or emotional damage.

[5] Salin, D. (2003). Ways of explaining workplace bullying: A review of enabling, motivating and

precipitating structures and processes in the work environment. Human Relations, 56 (10), 12131232.

[6] Teherani, Noreen;Workplace Trauma: Concepts, Assessments and Interventions, Brunner Routledge, NY 2004.

[7] Hoel, H.,Sparks, K and Cooper, C; The Cost of Violence/Stress at Work and the Benefits of a Violence/Stress Free Work Environment Geneva, International Labor Organization, 2001

[8] An act addressing workplace bullying, mobbing and harassment, without regard to protected class status, Mass Senate Bill no. 699 (Joan M. Menard, sponsor, 2009-10 session) (hereinafter Mass. Senate No. 699).

[9] Id. Section 2(a)(1)

[10] Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17 (1993)

[11] AMERICAN LAW INSTITUTE, RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS < SEC 46CMT.J(1965) in Yamada, David C., Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment (November 17, 2009). Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, Forthcoming; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 09-49. Available at SSRN:

[12] EEOC v National Education Association, 422 F. 3d 840 (9th Cir. 2005)

[13] Raess v. Doescher, 883 N.E. 2d 790 (2008)

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