Workplace Bullying — Part 2: Digging Deeper


Why Does Workplace Bullying Happen?

In 2012, the Workplace Bullying Institute did a poll asking why workplace bullying happens. The majority of people experiencing bullying blame the bully who is responsible, which is a totally normal response. However, the poll also found that 56 percent of responses to why workplace bullying happens  were about the workplace environment and culture. Let’s dig deeper into what some of those issues are.

A big part of solving any problem is recognizing what has caused it, but most companies and organizations have no direct policy on workplace bullying. What does that mean? It means that many workplaces do not even recognize bullying as an issue. Employers often respond to accusations of bullying by relying on “code of conduct” policies. As you may be aware, these policies are often fluid, (more like guidelines); for the most part, they are not legally binding. In addition, while companies like to say that everyone plays by the same rules, these policies are administered by bosses who can manipulate them however they like. So, a boss who is a yeller might just be labeled a “hard motivator” or someone who brings a lot of “intensity” to the job. Until employers attempt to address bullying behaviors through contract language or hard policy, a lack of recognition of the issue will continue to plague workers and allow abuse to continue.


In our first article in this series, we noted that the workplace bully is most often an employee of a higher status, and likely a boss. When a boss is the bully, it’s fair to say many people will look at that situation and think, “Oh, that’s how you get ahead here” or “The boss is doing this — it must be okay.” In fact, one of the top responses to the WBI survey on why bullying happens, was that “bullies are not punished, they thrive.” Not only do most companies not have enforceable policies on bullying in the workplace, most people polled think bullies are the ones who thrive in a workplace.

Can you guess how many states have laws making workplace bullying illegal? If you guessed zero, you are correct. Not a single state in the nation currently has any laws against workplace bullying. (There are laws about the harassment of workers in protected classes, but those are different and do not provide the universal protection that is needed against workplace bullying.) Not only do few workplaces recognize bullying as an issue, not a single state has given workers protections against it.

Power, by its very nature, can be a corrupting force in any workplace (and elsewhere). As long as organizations are run as top-down enterprises, there will almost always be an element of those with some power and control abusing that power. Sadly, in the short-term, bullying can be an effective management strategy to control the workplace. However, the long-term cost to workers’ mental and physical health and to organizational integrity is usually not worth the short-term gain.

What Does Workplace Bullying Look Like?

 Much worksite bullying looks like a slightly grown-up version of the playground variety. There tend to be two kinds of bullying: overt and covert. Overt bullying includes yelling, screaming and pushing, in a manner that doesn’t really hide the behavior. Covert bullying is a bit slyer — manipulating a work group, making hurtful jokes, giving an employee an assignment that’s impossible to complete and otherwise playing mind games. In general, dealing with an overt bully is far easier — the bullying behavior is often out in the open, so it is harder for someone to deny that it’s happening or for an organization to look away. Covert bullying, on the other hand, is obviously much tougher to identify and, therefore, harder for an organization to deal with.

The Australian Human Rights Commission compiled the follow list of workplace bullying behavior:

  • Repeated hurtful remarks or attacks or making fun of your work or you as a person
  • Sexual harassment (particularly unwelcome touching, sexually explicit comments and requests that make you uncomfortable)
  • Exclusion or or stopping you from working with people or taking part in activities that relate to your work
  • Mind games, ganging up on you or other types of psychological harassment
  • Intimidation (making you feel less important and undervalued)
  • Assignment of pointless tasks that have nothing to do with your job
  • Assignment of impossible jobs that can’t be done in the given time or with the resources provided
  • Deliberate alteration of your work hours or schedule to make it difficult for you
  • Withholding of information you need for getting your work done properly
  • Physical abuse: pushing, shoving, tripping or grabbing you in the workplace
  • Attacks or threats with equipment, knives, guns or any other object that can be turned into a weapon
  • Initiation or hazing (where you are made to do humiliating or inappropriate things in order to be accepted as part of the team)

This is not a “be-all and end-all” list, but it is a good starting point.

How Does Bullying Impact Workers and Society?

 The impact of workplace bullying on the victim and on society as a whole is serious, but the economics are fundamentally hard to calculate. Let’s focus on the impact to the individual first and begin to draw the larger connections from there.

An employee being bullied in the workplace is dealing with an incredible amount of stress. Unfortunately, people who are under high stress are more susceptible to a variety of health issues, particularly mental health issues. Those under prolonged stress can experience damage to memory and emotional regulation. Again, the Workplace Bullying Institute surveyed those who have been bullied at work and found reports of the following health issues:

  • Debilitating anxiety (80%)
  • Panic attacks (52%)
  • Clinical depression (new or exacerbation of a previously controlled condition (49%)
  • Post-traumatic stress from deliberate human-inflicted abuse (30%)

One thought on “Workplace Bullying — Part 2: Digging Deeper”

  1. I really resonate with the “bullying” series of posts. Thanks for posting them and bringing them to our attention. Based on my OHSU career of over a decade, I can personally relate to (and have experienced) many of the bullying behavior listed in this thread, and still deal with PTSD-like symptoms. I’ve been subjected to these behaviors by both AFSCME colleagues and former managers.

    This begs the questions: What is being done at OHSU to bring to attention these behavioral issues? I hope that both management AND union members all go through some form of workplace bullying awareness training. But do others at OHSU feel that this is even important?

    Luckily I transferred to a different team with a positive team culture, but many others at OHSU are not so fortunate. What can we all do together–union and management–to clean up environments where bullying happens? Will there be real accountability for those who refuse to clean up their toxic behaviors?

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