Bullying At Work

Bullying is not just a schoolyard phenomenon. It is fast spreading to the workplace – especially in Canada and the United States, where studies show it is on the rise. Six million American employees are verbally threatened and 16 million harassed every year at work.

The Geneva based International Labor Organisation, in its 1998 survey of 32 industrialized countries, found that workplace assaults in the U.S. and Canada were amongst the highest of those nations polled. According to researchers Bella Galperin at the Department of International Business at Rollins College in Florida and Joanne Leck at the School of Management at the University of Ottawa, a survey of 2000 Canadian and American men and women found that in Canada, four per cent of women and five per cent of men reported they were assaulted at work in the last year.

Explanations for why there is a rise in bullying in North America vary. Companies facing intense competition in global markets, or time-starved workplaces are often blamed because of the stresses these factors may cause. Alternately, companies may tend to tolerate bullying or have become desensitized to it. This can be especially true when a bully is a “star” performer.

In our practice, we have observed that all these factors can play a part. Bullying is a serious issue in companies that are unaware of the problem, don’t take the behaviour seriously, or continue to tolerate it once it has been brought to their attention.

Leck and Galperin found that 16 per cent of workers they studied reported being bullied monthly, while six per cent were bullied weekly. When the researchers provided a list of bullying behaviours to workers, close to 58 per cent of staff studied indicated that they were targets of one bullying behaviour on a monthly basis and 25 per cent revealed they were experiencing at least three of these kinds of behaviours per month.

According to Galpering and Leck, there are four types of bullying behaviour:

1. Workplace Aggression

This is the most common form. Bullies using this tactic find ways to make life miserable for staff that are related to work and getting the job done. People targeted with workplace aggression are often assigned meaningless work or are asked to take on other employee’s work. These assignments are not inadvertent mistakes but deliberately designed to make work unpleasant.

Bullies will assign workers more than they are capable of doing in the time provided and don’t give credit when it’s due. Or, they give staff work that sets the person up for failure: assignments are given as tests of the individual’s competency. Bullies using this tactic rationalize their behaviour saying they are “developing” people by making them sink or swim.

The person being bullied in this way may find her work and ideas are consistently ignored and that she’s intentionally left out of decision-making sessions. According to Galperin and Leck, employees who struggle against workplace aggression imagine leaving the job, while some follow through and quit.

Employees suffering this type of bullying are less productive than staff who do not operate in an antagonistic environment. Finally, employees who encounter job-related bullying experience a sense of helplessness. They believe that there is very little they can do to change the situation.

2. Psychological Violence
Staff suffering from psychological violence encounter three types of bullying:

– Ostracization

Employees who are ostracized find themselves excluded from group activities or asked to leave discussions. Bullies intentionally limit the amount of information that targeted staff receive. They use passive-aggressive means to block initiatives of the bullied employee, or plan meetings that bullied staff cannot attend.

– Marginalization

Bullies who marginalize staff find ways to question the bullied employee’s integrity. Bullies have been known to imply that staff have been dishonest or unethical in their dealings with other staff, customers or suppliers. They attempt to undermine the staff person’s credibility by casting doubt on decisions that have been made by the employee, criticizing some aspect of their work or making “off-hand” disparaging comments like “I wouldn’t have done it that way” or “Well, there were a few problems with the way that was done.”

– Harassment

When a worker is psychologically harassed he is often the brunt of rumours, gossip, and cruel or malicious comments. The talk is designed to hurt the target by using unfounded statements. These bullies make discriminatory remarks, can ridicule others in public and intentionally humiliate their target. These bullies may yell, scream, curse or berate staff either behind closed doors or in front of others.

Bullies will lie or bend the truth to suit their ends and actively attempt to get people into trouble. Psychological violence results in worker passivity and decreases productivity.

3. Childish Behaviour

These kinds of bullies intimidate through “humour” designed to undermine targets and belittle them. They tease targets under the guise of fun and often blame other people’s supposed lack of sense of humour to cover themselves. These kinds of bullies mimic others, play hurtful pranks, pick on and gang up on their targets. The behaviours can be immature yet tolerated as playful by organizations that turn a blind eye.

4. Workplace Violence

Physical bullying is the least prevalent type of bullying, say Galperin and Leck. In the extreme, homicide has become the leading cause of on-the-job death for women and the second leading cause for men. The majority of workers killed on the job are victims of an offence such as robbery but the second most common reason is death due to violence by a co-worker. Less lethal manifestations of physical bullying include punching, slapping and kicking. Bullies pinch, shove and scratch, slam doors, throw things, steal personal belongings and slash tires.

Surprisingly, staff who fend off attacks don’t tend to consider leaving the job. Galperin and Leck noted that bullied staff believe there is little they can do to change the situation and targets of on-the-job physical abuse may resemble victims of wife assault in thinking “It’s my fault”, “I can’t get away I need to stay here” and “there’s no where else to go”.

Many workers are unaware they may be being bullied on the job. Bullying and a lack of awareness harms staff health and costs organizations. Galperin and Leck estimate the total cost of workplace violence resulting from lost productivity and legal expenses is approximately $4.2 billion US a year.

The annual cost of dysfunctional behaviour at work is $200 billion. And the direct cost to a single employer of an episode of workplace violence is $250,000 in lost time and legal expenses.

Companies also incur costs when turnover, depression and stress hurt morale, productivity and worker health. The physical effects of being bullied include aches and pains, muscular tension, heart attacks, hypersensitivity, panic attacks and restlessness. Those enduring bullying often have difficulty concentrating. They report feeling dizzy, and suffer from sleeplessness. Nightmares and exhaustion are common.

People targeted by bullies may have suicidal or homicidal thoughts, experience anxiety, insecurity, shame and embarrassment.

The first step in dealing with this growing and costly problem is knowing when bullying is occurring. Staff and employers need to know what the various forms of bullying look like before they can begin to intervene.

Many bullies are in positions of authority which can make them seem untouchable. Organizations may tolerate bullying because they think it gets the job done (which may appear to offset the costs of bullying) or they lack the awareness of what constitutes bullying.

Either way, keeping bullying out of the shadows and remaining aware of the problem is the first step in remedying it.


Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Print Friendly