Is Your Organization Bullying-Proof?

Bullying is a serious psychological assault. It is relentless. The target is put into a no-win situation.

What form of behavior is legal; costs an organization much in terms of productivity, turnover, top talent, and bottom line; yet is often missed, denied, or simply overlooked? If you guessed bullying, you would be right.

Bullying in an organization can be likened to an insidious deadly disease, wreaking costly havoc before it gets realized. Consider the case of Bill. Bill was a quiet guy, high performer, "nose to the grindstone" type who consciously stayed clear of organizational cliques and politics. Bill's worldview was that if he worked hard, didn't gossip, didn't take sides, didn't stir up trouble, and treated all people with respect, he would be rewarded. He sounds like a great organizational citizen, right? Well, a certain middle manager/supervisor thought differently.

Bill's manager, Dave, had been in the organization for many years. Dave had a charismatic and boisterous personality and knew the strengths and weaknesses of the company. He had been through several reorganizations within the company and stuck it out through the ups and downs, good times and bad times. Along the way, however, he had developed some counterproductive workplace behaviors that sometimes caused trouble for the organization. During his tenure with the company, Dave had formed a coalition of followers who looked up to him. In blind faith, they supported him and his initiatives. These followers made up an "in-group" for Dave, who used his power to help them advance within the organization.

Bill was careful not to get too involved with the "in-group." Bill felt Dave should provide equal help and mentoring to everyone within the organization and not just the "in-group." Whereas Bill respected Dave for all he had endured in the organization over the years, he didn’t believe it was right to favor some over others, especially without regard to performance. In fact, some of those whom Dave helped advance were low performers and would never have been promoted had they not been part of the "in-group."

Bill remained respectful and cordial to Dave and the "in-group" but inadvertently declined membership into the clique by treating everyone in the entire organization with equal regard and not showing preference to the clique. Dave interpreted Bill's independence as a personal threat, especially because it appeared Bill could be promoted on his own merits and would not require help from Dave. One day, while discussing Bill, Dave was overheard telling one of his cronies, "I'll get him!" Thus began the bullying.


Definition of Bullying
Only within the last decade or so have academic researchers in the United States identified bullying as a distinct form of workplace harassment (Lutken-Sandvik et al., 2007). The academic literature defines bullying in terms of negative acts perpetrated toward a target that has some degree of frequency and duration (Lutken-Sandvik et al., 2007; Mikkelsen and Einarsen, 2001). The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as repeated harmful acts that include verbal abuse, which is interpreted through rate of speech, tone, inflection, volume (shouting), body-language (finger in face, invasion of personal space); threats; intimidation; humiliation (public and private); work interference; sabotage of work; sabotage of personal reputation through spreading lies and gossip; other harmful acts; and generalized torment.

It should be noted that bullying is not simply a personality conflict or a scapegoat for being criticized in the workplace. Bullying is a serious psychological assault. It is relentless. The target is put into a no-win situation. Imagine the metaphor of shooting a target: You aim for and try to hit that target, no matter what. If the target moves, you follow it. Now imagine a bully targeting you because he or she wants to "get you," is threatened by you, or simply doesn't like you. Imagine if that person is one’s supervisor or boss. It suddenly becomes clear that if one becomes a target, the work environment will become very stressful and harmful to that individual's health.

The research has long been established documenting the relationship between stress and serious physical disease (cardiovascular, blood pressure, etc.). Work-related stress is no exception. Without a doubt, the cumulative pressure and unknown yet anticipated next assault to be delivered by the bully provoke work stress and compromise health.


Health and Productivity Consequences
Bill began receiving the silent treatment at work. The clique and others began ignoring him, causing isolation and anguish. They knew Dave was not happy with Bill, and the clique wanted to show Dave their support. Dave began questioning Bill's work and scrutinizing his work. With such close scrutiny, Bill began to make small mistakes. When mistakes were made, Dave overemphasized them. When Dave could not find anything wrong with Bill's work, he would change the scope or outcomes of the project, leaving Bill with unclear expectations and ambiguous instructions. In private, Dave would say mean and hurtful comments to Bill. Even though Bill was losing respect for Dave and did not care about Dave's personal opinion, the comments lingered in the back of Bill's head. It appeared Dave was making good on his commitment to "get" Bill.

On the advice of some friends, Bill talked to Dave's boss and subsequently to HR. Dave denied any wrongdoing (his word against Bill's) and through the process, Bill appeared as though he was simply whining and causing trouble. HR simply told Bill he needed to learn to get along with all people and work it out with Dave. As might be expected, going over Dave's head only made the situation worse for Bill.

After months of being targeted, Bill began getting ill. He gained weight, and his blood pressure increased. He felt nauseous when getting ready for work and worse when he arrived there. His work performance began to suffer. He didn't know when Dave would strike again. He felt paranoid.

Taking the advice of his doctor, Bill took some time off. The doctor provided him with a note citing "work-related stress" as the reason. Even though this helped Bill's health, the covert message was that Bill couldn't handle stress well. While on leave, Bill began assembling a chronology of events. He consulted several attorneys who told him he didn't have a case because his experience did not constitute a protected-class violation. Bill would have to take the abuse or quit.


Implementing a Bullying Policy
There are no laws prohibiting bullying in the workplace. There are laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment for people who fall within certain protected classes, but if the target doesn't fall under one of those protected classes and it cannot be proven that the bullying was a result of being in one of the protected classes, then no laws are broken.

What is the cost of bullying to the organization? To answer that question, other questions must be answered. What is the cost of turnover? What is the cost of decreased morale within teams? What is the cost to investigate allegations? What is the cost of lost worker productivity? What is the cost of employee time off? What is the cost to fight a lawsuit? What is the cost of the organization's reputation? It is reasonable to conclude that the cost of bullying to the organization is great and tolerating bullying is costly to the organization’s bottom line.

What can an organization do? An organization by itself will not change the core personality of a bully or a target and is not in position to "change" the essence of people; transformations should be left up to licensed professionals, such as psychotherapists. However, an organization can set up policies and systems that specifically address workplace bullying. The following is a blueprint provided by the Work Doctor® (see and Namie and Namie (2011) that outlines key steps to establishing and implementing a policy:

  • Assess the pre-change prevalence in your organization.
  • Collaboratively create an anti-bullying policy.
  • Design enforcement procedures applicable to all.
  • Train a Safety/Peer Expert Team.
  • Educate the entire organization.
  • Incorporation, Integration, & Impact Evaluation.

An organization has the responsibility to keep employees safe and healthy, and that includes a safe psychosocial workplace environment. Making psychological assault and abuse a culpable offense with enforceable consequences shows the organization is socially responsible and truly cares about its employees.

Corporate social responsibility gives an organization a competitive advantage by improving the company’s reputation and attracting and retaining top, skilled workers (Osland et al., 2007). The cost of implementing a no-tolerance bullying policy is far less than the cost of not having a policy. An organization's silence on the matter is a passive endorsement and reward of the bad behavior. Don't let your organization be under the influence of a bully. The time to change is now.

Workplace bullying facts (WBI, 2007, 2010):

  • Most bullies are bosses.
  • Most targets are women.
  • Anyone can become the target of a bully.
  • Both women and men bully.
  • Women who are bullies mostly bully other women.


1. Lutgen-Sandvik, P., Tracy, S. J. and Alberts, J. K. (2007). Burned by bullying in the American workplace: Prevalence, perception, degree, and impact. Journal of Management Studies 44(6), 837-862.
2. Mikkelsen, E. G. and Einarsen, S. (2001). Bullying in the Danish work-life: Prevalence and health correlates. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 10, 393-413.
3. Namie, G. (2007). WBI workplace bullying survey. Retrieved from /wbiresearch/wbistudies/.
4. Namie, G. (2010). WBI workplace bullying survey. Retrieved from /wbiresearch/wbistudies/.
5. Namie, G. and Namie, R. F. (2011). The bully-free workplace. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
6. Osland, J. S., Kolb, D. A., Rubin, I. M and Turner, M. E. (2007). Organizational behavior: An experiential approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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