Strategic Implications of Keeping Workers Safe from Harm – The Impact of Bullying at Work

Recently, the topic of bullying has hit the headlines in a big way. Painful stories of persecuted, harassed, and tormented high school and college students who have committed suicide, have shocked educators, parents, students, and the public-at-large. The emotional, verbal, and physical abuse that constitutes bullying is not anything new. But recent attention to adolescents’ cyber-bullying (e.g. harassing others using Facebook, Twitter, or Utube or by cell phone or e-mail) has taken concerns about protecting victims to a new level.

Last month the federal government told educators that civil rights laws obligated schools to prevent bullying. The ‘Dear Colleague’ letter sent by the Department of Education to school administrators puts into clear words the fact that educators have a legal obligation to protect students from student-on-student racial and national origin harassment, sexual and gender-based harassment, and disability harassment. As a result, school districts and colleges around the country are cracking down on those students who terrorize and intimidate others who are supposed to be their peers. Society and workplaces change over time (Pynes 2009). Will the recent attention to student bullying have strategic management implications for the workplace? Clearly it will for schools. But, what will be the impact be to other employers?

Definition of Workplace Bullying

Bullying at work can range from one extreme:  physical violence and homicide, to verbal insults, threats, teasing, ridiculing, and making false accusations at the other end. Sometimes bullies use name-calling, talking about a person behind their back, ignoring a person, and making false accusations to set a co-worker up for failure. The targeted person may be a boss, insubordinate, or peer. A definition of workplace bullying is as follows:

Bullying at work means harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or
negatively affecting someone’s work tasks. In order for the label bullying (or mobbing)
to be applied to a particular activity, interaction or process it has to occur repeatedly
and regularly (e.g. weekly) and over a period of time (e.g. about six months). Bullying
is an escalating process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an
inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts. A conflict
cannot be called bullying if the incident is an isolated event or if two parties of approximately equal “strength” is in conflict.

Some types of workplace bullying include:

  • Conflict bullying
  • Predatory bullying
  • Scapegoat bullying
  • Sexual harassment
  • Humor-oriented bullying
  • Work related stalking
  • Extreme media exposure bullying
  • Bullying of workplace newcomers
  • The judicial derelicts (secondary bullying)
  • Whistleblowing retaliation bullying


Rates of Workplace Bullying

Research indicates that there is a high level of bullying in the workplace. A study by researchers at the University College Dublin in Ireland involved a survey of the general working population in the southeast of France (Niedhammer 2009). The study population was a random sample of 3,132 men and 4,562 women with a mean age of 40 years. The extent of workplace bullying was assessed using the French version of the Leymann Inventory of Psychological Terror, which measures the experience of 45 forms of bullying. The study;s outcome indicated a high prevalence of workplace bullying. Hostile behavior was experienced at work at least weekly and for at least six of the prior 12 months by 11% of women and 9% of men. In addition, a significant number of employees surveyed indicated that they’d observed workplace bullying in the prior 12 months, 32% of women and 31% of men.


Examples of Workplace Bullying

An accountant in California said that after recently joining a company, she was immediately frozen out by two women working there. One even pushed her in the cafeteria during an argument. The accountant said, “It’ss as if we’re back in high school. A female senior executive said she had finally broken the glass ceiling when another woman competed for her job by telling management repeatedly, ‘I  can’t work for her, she’s passive-aggressive’. The strategy worked. Soon the executive had lost the job to her accuser.

After accepting a dream job as a chef, a man’s the situation turned ugly. Name-calling, verbal abuse and innuendo about his sexuality were common. The main bully was the manager of the kitchen, but following his lead, other employees would join in and pile on. The man’s mental health deteriorated sharply until he was using drugs and alcohol and, finally, he quit. One woman was openly called “that bitch” by her superiors, who complained that they had to find a way to get rid of her. If any other employees even raised an eyebrow in disagreement, they were told that their careers would be over.

A nurse was bullied to the point that she suffered from depression. The bullying stopped her from leaving her home, prevented her from filing a legitimate workers compensation claim for an injured back, and she was even forced to do personal work, such as sewing, for her antagonist. She was isolated from other workers who were “turned against her” by the bully – a supervisor in a health related field. She quit. After five years, the woman still cannot bring herself to visit the town where she had worked and been bullied. A manager belittled his staff in front of everyone and took credit for the work that everyone did. He repeatedly trapped one woman in his office screaming at her. Every morning, when the woman would wake up, her stomach would turn into knots and she felt anxious. But, she had no choice at that time; she had to go to work. She did not want to have to face her boss; he made her life miserable. She informed the people that she thought could help her and they did nothing.

A gay financial analyst notices that his employer is promoting less-qualified employees who are not gay or lesbian; he keeps getting passed over for promotion. When he complains to his supervisor, he’s told that he’s lucky that he has a job. After this, the boss makes derogatory comments about the man’s style of dress, mannerisms, and way to talking every time he sees him. A woman is a Jehovah’s Witness; she reads her Bible every day at lunch. The other employees make fun of her. One employee told them to stop, and when they didn’t, he complained to human resources. Afterwards, he was victimized for standing up for her.

Impacts of Bullying for Workers and Employers

Harassed workers, and those who witness their peers being tormented, show signs of depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and experience other mental health effects. The Swedish researchers found that bullied respondents reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and changes in mental health than non-bullied respondents experienced. The study researchers report that workplace bullying victims experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And, they point out that the negative effects of bullying may also alter the targeted employees’ behavior, which may result in increased sick time.

The results of the University College study, after adjusting for age, occupation, weekly work hours and symptoms of depression, indicated that exposure to bullying was significantly associated with self-reported sleep disturbances. Men who were currently experiencing workplace bullying were two times more likely to have disturbed sleep. And, men who had observed bullying had a 60% increased likelihood of experiencing sleep disturbances while women who observed others being tormented were 20% more likely to have disturbed sleep. The rate of sleep disturbances was more than two times higher for men and nearly two times higher for women who both observed and experienced bullying.

According to a U.K. National Workplace Bullying Survey, the majority of victims (87.5%) said that the bullying they experience in the workplace caused them to be worried about coming to work. Over 60% said that the bullying affected the quality of their work, and 51% actually took time off work as a result.

Legal Implications for Victims and Employers

Looking at bullying from a victim’s point of view, the current legal and regulatory framework provides some protection. The Civil Rights Act and its amendments call for nondiscrimination in employment. But, is being bullied the same as being discriminated against? Does it matter if the harasser is another employee or a manager? Can the employer’s response be different if the victim is Muslim, mentally ill, transgender, old or overweight? Do the protections of equal opportunity, affirmative action, constitutional rights, and the additional safeguards for employees, spelled out in Pynes, go far enough to protect workers that are being physically and/or emotionally attacked? From an employer perspective, should hiring organizations have to ensure that all workers are safeguarded from bullies? Is this even possible?

In the Swedish study, the employees being bullied at work reported lower support from both supervisors and coworkers, while employees witnessing bullying tended to report lower support from supervisors, but not lower support from coworkers. The researchers reported that indicates that bullying is most often found in workplaces having a negative social climate and where the style of management is experienced a negative or unsatisfactory.

No matter who is being targeted, bullying in the workplace decreases morale amongst all workers, and if allowed to continue, bullying detrimentally impacts business results, possibly in material ways. Yet, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, most workplace harassment is completely legal; a hostile work environment is actionable, meaning illegal, in very few situations. Can anyone be effective in getting any work done in a hostile work environment? Sixteen states have introduced legislation that would allow employees who have been physically, psychologically or economically abused while on the job to file charges against their employer, direct managers, and bystanders. However, no legislation has been enacted to protect workers from bullying.

Implications for Human Resource Managers

To identify the skills that high performing HR professionals need, Pynes refers readers to research conducted by Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockband of the University of Michigan. Urlich and Brockband executed the 2007 Human Resource Competency Study for the Society of Human Resources. They concluded that HR professionals need to be credible activists, cultural stewards, manager/organizational designers, strategy architects, business allays, and operational executors.

As it relates to managing and preventing bullying at work, looking at the definition of the skills identified by the Michigan researchers, HR managers need to build relationships of trust, help craft the workplace culture, help employees personalize the workplace culture, foster communication, and implement workplace policies to prevent bullying. When HR managers build relationships of trust, this means they are seen as not taking sides without first performing a full assessment of a workplace issue. Management and employees alike perceive them as fair. If an employee (whether a manager or a worker) comes to the HR manager with a complaint of harassment or bullying, a truly professional HR manager doesn’t take sides, they open an impartial investigation.

Sarah Tracy, the Director of the Project for Wellness and Work-Life at Arizona State University, suggested several tactics for HR managers can use when communicating to workplace abuse to decision makers (also holds true for dealing with victims and abusers):

  • Be rational
  • Express emotions appropriately
  • Provide consistent details
  • Offer a plausible story
  • Be relevant
  • Emphasize your own competence
  • Show consideration for others’ perspectives
  • Be specific

When it comes to crafting and helping employees personalize the workplace culture, HR manages diversity at work through promoting personal growth and team development. Organizational development efforts are designed to improve personal relations between members of different groups. Efforts might include sensitivity training, team-oriented work designs, and the use of surveys for employee and management feedback (e.g. 360 feedback initiatives). Culture change initiatives may involve gender diversity, diversity of national cultures within a global organization, different social and socio-economic backgrounds, racial diversity, or other compelling cultural issues. In some cases, HR develops general policies that departments or business units are expected to adopt. Other times, HR acts as steward while departments and business units develop their own diversity related initiatives.

Fostering communication is critical to a positive work environment. HR professionals need to assist employees in developing means of dialoging between and among each other. According to Edgar H. Schein, a leading expert on culture and a professor at MIT, promoting positive communication goes beyond sensitivity training. In sensitivity training, the learning emphasis is focused on how to give and receive feedback. Schein says this process is countercultural because of our need to maintain face. To protect everyone’s face and to be polite, we are likely to say what we believe is the most appropriate and least hurtful. Therefore, sensitivity training elicits high levels of emotionality and anxiety as we try and figure out how to communicate in a civil and respectful way. Schein says that when companies promote dialogue they focus more how employees think and how workers’ perceptions and understandings are pre-formed by past experiences. Scheinâ’s assumption is that if employees are more aware of how their thought process works, they will think better collectively and communicate better with each other as a group. The goal of dialog is to help the entire group reach a higher level of awareness and creativity through the creation of a shared meanings and a common thinking process. An example would be McDonald’s value of “the customer is always right. This has a shared meaning at all levels and in all geographic regions of the world and by customers and workers alike. And, the phrase has existed for many years across different business conditions and varying circumstances, creating more opportunity for dialog than one could even imagine.

HR managers should ensure that organizations are proactive in establishing a zero tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior. As a partner of the business, HR managers should realize that it isn’t good for business if the company is in the press for allowing employees to be discriminated against, intimidated, or tormented for any reason. And, losing discrimination or bullying case can be more costly than establishing zero tolerance in employment all along the way. Take Abercrombie & Fitch, for example. In 2005, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California required the retail clothing giant to pay $50 million to Latino, African American, Asian American and female applicants and employees who charged the company with discrimination. The settlement also required the company to institute a range of policies and programs to promote diversity among its workforce and to prevent discrimination based on race or gender. Recruitment, hiring, job assignment, training, and promotion of Abercrombie & Fitch employees had to be monitored by outside party well into 2009.

Various solutions to settle conflicts can be developed, including mediation procedures which may help identify conflicts early so plans can be developed to resolve them. Using active listening, reframing the concerns raised, identifying commonalities and clearly defining decisions, conflicts can be settled so the entire organization can go on, knowing that harassment or bullying will not be tolerated.

Lastly, HR needs to stay on top of the ever-changing legal landscape in this area. Take sexual orientation discrimination, for example. While there are no federal laws making discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal, protection is provided for federal government employees. Some states and municipalities provide protection as do some private organizations. However, the gay rights movement is on the move, and more protections are likely in the near future. Remaining current with the law is a daunting task when it’s a constant moving target, so HR departments need to develop ways to keep up with the legal environment around diversity and its related implications.


It is our hope at WorkingNights, that the public’s renewed focus on bullying will cause more managers and employees to unite efforts and insist on a no-tolerance policy of bullying in the workplace. There is no place for bullying, anywhere. No one should be harassed and tormented.

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©2010 Circadian Age, Inc. ˜WorkingNights”

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