Workplace Bullying Is a Problem for Organizations

Workplace bullying depicted as a downward spiral staircase in light green and white.

Helen Green was a bank employee who experienced an emotional breakdown requiring hospitalization after extended bullying at work. The company was found liable for failing to protect and support her and was ordered to pay more than $1.5 million in damages. Although few bullied employees wind up hospitalized, workplace bullying is a problem for organizations that has important consequences for employees and their employers.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying is a pattern of mistreatment experienced by an employee from one or more other employees. What distinguishes bullying is that it occurs over time—it isn’t a one off where someone is having a bad day and says something unkind. It can include both emotional abuse and physical aggression. Some bullying behaviors include:

  • Attacks on one’s character
  • Being pushed, shoved, slapped, or worse
  • Being told you are stupid
  • Criticized in a meeting in front of others
  • Ethnic slurs
  • Insults

Sometime bullies target more than one person. A supervisor, for example, might bully all of their subordinates. In some organizations, an individual might be the target of bullying from a group of other employees that including peers and supervisors. This can happen in settings where the target is different in some way from everyone else. Sometimes there is no obvious reason why a bully chose the target other than perhaps the bully felt they could get away with it.

Workplace Bullying Is a Problem for Organizations

Bullying can be an extreme stressor for a target that harms physically and psychologically. In the extreme it can harm mental health and bullying has been noted as a factor in suicide. More commonly bullying can lead to a number of outcomes for employees and organizations.

  • Avoiding work through absence and lateness
  • Burnout
  • Physical illness
  • Poor job performance—both quality and quantity of work can suffer
  • Safety—bullied employees are more likely to have accidents and be injured at work
  • Turnover–sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to quit the job

What Can Management Do?

It is the responsibility of management to provide a safe environment free of physical and psychological hazards. Maintaining safe environments is important as they allow employees to be engaged and perform to their potential. There are a number of steps that can be taken.

  • Start with policies. Many organizations have policies that employees treat one another professionally and respectfully. Such policies are important as statements of organizational values, but policies alone are just words. To be effective they need to be enacted.
  • Managers need to pay attention. Each manager should pay attention to how employees treat one another. Those who manage managers need to be sure that their manager direct reports are not being bullies. This part is often overlooked as mid-level managers often allow manager direct reports a high level of autonomy.
  • Managers should take corrective action. If a manager observes bullying behavior, they should immediately discuss the incident with the actor who was doing the bullying. The goal of these discussions is first to understand what happened and why, and then to come up with a remedy to avoid repeats of the behavior. First instances should be dealt with differently from repeated patterns. Repeated behaviors require a formal and increasingly harsh approach, ending in termination for individuals who do not correct their behavior.
  • Model correct behavior. One of the most powerful tools a manager has is modeling—engage in the behavior you wish others to emulate. If leaders treat everyone with kindness in their unit, chances are followers will behave similarly.

Bullying can be a difficult problem, in part because often bullies are highly aggressive and can be intimidating. It is important to identify and remedy this type of behavior early before much damage is done rather than letting it continue over time and create a toxic work environment. Workplace bullying is a problem for organizations with solutions that control it so occasional employee conflicts do not escalate to destructive patterns.

Photo by Mithul Varshan from Pexels

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3 Replies to “Workplace Bullying Is a Problem for Organizations”

  1. Ethnic slurs are usually considered Human Rights violations in most countries. Pushing shoving, slapping etc. is usually considered assault and covered under criminal law.
    The most important action in addressing workplace bullying is early intervention; intervention by bystanders, managers, and human resources. Allowed to percolate, workplace bullying can destroy a person’s life and career and this applies both to the target and the actor.

  2. Interesting read, Professor Paul. Our recent article on workplace bullying discusses how bullying is detrimental to the internal employability and work engagement of employees. Further, we found that organisational-based self-esteem mitigated the negative effects of workplace bullying on the internal employability and work engagement of employees.

  3. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a friend who was conducting a little
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