Is Workplace Bullying Still Alive and Well?

Ray Williams
13 min readMay 19, 2024
Image: The Guardian

Workplace bullying is still prevalent in North America despite efforts to create civilized workplaces, and it has substantial hidden costs in terms of employee well-being and productivity. Also known as psychological harassment or emotional abuse, bullying involves the conscious repeated effort to wound and seriously harm another person, not with violence but with words and actions. Bullying damages the physical, emotional and mental healthy of the person who is targeted.

The workplace bully abuses power, brings misery to his/her target and endeavors to steal the target’s self-confidence. Bullies often involve others using many tactics such as blaming for errors, unreasonable work demands, insults, putdowns, stealing credit, threatening job loss, and discounting accomplishments.

How Serious is the Bullying Problem in the Workplace?

In two surveys by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and Zogby International, where bullying was defined as “repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation and humiliation,” 35% of workers experienced bullying first hand, and 62% of the bullies were men. A Harris Interactive poll conducted in 2011 revealed that 34% of women reported being bullied in the workplace.

Who are These Bullies?

The WBI concluded that while perpetrators can be found in all organizational ranks, the vast majority are bosses — managers, supervisors, and executives.

What’s the Impact of Bullying Behavior?

Bullies take a terrible toll on an organization. Their behavior leads to increased stress levels among employees, higher rates of absenteeism and higher-than-normal attrition. Because bullies often get results by getting more short-term production out of employees, they are tolerated. One study by John Medina showed that workers stressed by bullying performed 50% worse on cognitive tests. Other studies estimate the financial costs of bullying at more than $200 billion per year.

A study by Dr. Noreen Tehrani, who counselled victims of violence in Northern Ireland and soldiers returning from overseas combat and victims of workplace, concluded that bullying exhibited similar psychological and physical symptoms, extreme anxiety, and a variety of physical ailments.

Swedish researchers, led by Anna Nyberg at the Stress Institute in Stockholm, have published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine on the issue of leaders’ behavior and employee health. They studied more than 3,100 men over a 10-year period in typical work settings. They found that employees who had managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative, the employees were 60% more likely to suffer a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition. By contrast, employees who worked with “good” leaders were 40% less likely to suffer heart problems. Nyberg said, “for all those who work under managers who they perceive behave strangely, or in any way they don’t understand, and they feel stressed, the study confirms this develops into a health risk.”

A study of 6,000 British office workers found employees who felt that their supervisors treated them fairly had a 30% lower risk of heart disease. A 2008 meta-analysis of the connection between health and leadership by Jana Kuoppala and associates concluded that good leadership was associated with a 27% reduction in sick leave and a 46% reduction in disability pensions. The same study concluded that employees with good leaders were 40% more likely to report the highest levels of psychological well being including lower levels of anxiety and depression.

In an article by Richard Williams, Wallace Higgins and Harvey Greenberg, published in the Boston Globe, they cited numerous research studies regarding leadership style and the health of employees. They concluded “your boss can cause you stress, induce depression and anxiety or even trigger the onset of serious illnesses. It is not just bad managers who can negatively affect employee health, but it is also the halfhearted and mediocre who put employees on the sick list.”And the cost is huge in terms of lost productivity, healthcare costs and employee turnover. The authors argue that a whole new field of litigation in the U.S. is developing-”lawsuits against ‘bad bosses’ and the organizations that negligently allow them to supervise.”

According to the WBI, 40% of the targets of bulling never told their employers, and of those that did, 62% reported that they were ignored. According to Dr. Gary Namie, Research Director at WBI, and author The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job, 81% of employers are either doing nothing to address bullying or actually resisting action when requested to do something.

What are the Reasons for this Bullying Behavior?

Dr Robert Sutton of Stanford University and author of The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t argues that in business and sports, it is assumed that if you are a big winner, you can get away with being a jerk. And overwhelmingly, these “jerks” [his word is stronger] are bosses. Sutton claims this behavior affects the bottom line through increased turnover, absenteeism, decreased commitment and performance. He says the time spent counselling or appeasing these people, consoling victimized employees, reorganizing departments of teams and arranging transfers produce high hidden costs for the company.

What Kind of People are Bullies in the Workplace?

Lisa M.S. Barrow, author of In Darkness Light Dawns: Exposing Workplace Bullying, says “Bullies typically possess a Type A personality; they are competitive and appear driven, operating as they do from a sense of urgency. This has its advantages in the workplace but the shadow side of Type A is the tendency to become frustrated and verbally abusive when things don’t go according to plan. Impatience and temper tantrums are common for Type A individuals who haven’t engaged in t the personal growth required to gain self-awareness, maintain emotional stability and consider situations from multiple points of view. Because of the bully’s “two-faced nature” — considerate if things are going well and abusive if not — his/her presence in an organization can cause the work environment to become tense. People feel as if they are walking on eggshells around the bully. They feel he/she is a sleeping giant, who could, upon waking, explode with rage. Above all, bullies crave power and control, and this craving underlies much of what they do, say and fail to do and say. Bullies use charm and deceit to further their own ends and seem oblivious to the trail of damage they leave behind, as long as their appetites for power and control are fulfilled.”

Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, writes in an article in Psychology Today reports that a 5 year national study of bullying from 2004–9 of psychological traits of bosses, showed that “self-oriented” spiked by 50% to claim the top spot over other characteristics. Taylor reported that 70% of Americans in her survey said “bosses and toddlers with too much power, act alike.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the targets of office bullies are not the new, inexperienced and less confident employees. The targets, according to research, are the highly competent, accomplished, experienced and popular employees. And making them targets makes it harder for them to get notice or reprieve. Independent, experienced workers pose the greatest threat to the bullies. And when bullies find targets that refuse to be controlled and intimidated, they escalate their behavior.

It’s possible, as well, that bullying is part of a larger issue of a growing culture of incivility.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California have found that bosses who are in over their heads are more likely to bully subordinates. That’s because feelings of inadequacy trigger them to lash out at others. The researchers found a direct link among supervisors and upper management between self-perceived incompetence and aggression. The findings were gleaned from four separate studies published in Psychological Science.

Is there a relationship between bosses’ bullying behavior and narcissism? The incidents of narcissistic bosses such as Bernard Madoff or Ken Lay are on the increase. According to Jim Moral, Professor of Management at Florida State, 31% of employees surveyed reported that their boss was prone to exaggerate his or her accomplishments and downplay the contributions of others. The study concluded that narcissistic bosses created toxic environments, declining productivity.

The 2008 economic downturn, with layoffs and financial pressures on managers to perform, may have exacerbated the bullying problem. Research by Wayne Hochwarter and Samantha Englehardt at Florida State University concluded that “employer-employee relations are at one of the lowest points in history,” with a significant decline in basic civility.

Is bullying a reflection of a general decline in civility? In poll after poll, Americans have voiced concern over the erosion of civility. According to a poll by Weber Shandwick, 65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem in the country and feel the negative tenor has worsened during the financial crisis and recession.

Pier M. Forni, author of The Civility Solution: What To Do When People Are Rude and director of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University says, “In today’s America, incivility is on prominent display: in the schools, where bullying is pervasive; in the workplace, where an increasing number are more stressed out by coworkers than their jobs; on the roads, where road rage maims and kills; in politics, where strident intolerance takes the place of earnest dialogue; and on the web, where many check their inhibitions at the digital door.”

According to a 2008 study published in the Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, allegiance to many old public virtues such as the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Convention and the rule of domestic and international law is now commonly mocked or dismissed as quaint by significant people in power.

Some also suggest that there is a “blame the victim” mentality developing in the nation that somehow contends that the victims of crime, domestic violence, poverty, workplace conflict, and foreign civilian populations “had it coming,” rationalized by the artificial justification of “toughness” or “responsibility.”

So What’s Being Done About It?

Sutton encourages organizations to take action. Among the companies that keep the jerks out are Google’s “no jerk” policy and business software company Success Factors, which instituted a similar rule. The rule includes lengthy job interviews and probing questions designed to uncover brow-beating tendencies.

Robert Mueller, author of Bullying Bosses, and Marilyn E. Veincentotzs, author of How Organizations Empower the Bully Boss contend that both organizations and employees need to confront bully bosses and refuse to accept their bullying behavior.

In the U.S. 20 states are now exploring legislation that would put bullying on the legal radar screen. In Canada, the provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec have passed legislation that addresses workplace bullying, although both countries are far behind countries in Europe and New Zealand.

One thing is for sure; the problem of workplace bullying will not go away anytime soon and may never be fully remedied until enough people call for a return to a culture of civility, and demand that governments and organizations take action.

Workplace Bullying Affects the Boss Too

If you’ve ever had a boss whose management style seemed inspired by The Devil Wears Prada or Office Space, you might assume that bullying bosses enjoy exerting their authority. As Mel Brooks famously said, “It’s good to be king.” However, new research from a team at the University of Florida indicates that behaving like a tyrant has significant consequences for leaders.

Researchers Trevor Foulk, Klodiana Lanaj, Min-Hsuan Tu, Amir Erez, and Lindy Archambeau tracked over 100 business leaders. They found that those who engaged in abusive behavior at work were more likely to experience negative thoughts and difficulty relaxing after work. This behavior was also linked to feeling less competent, respected, and autonomous in the workplace.

“This flips the script on abusive leadership,” Foulk said in a press release. “We tend to assume that powerful people just go around and abuse and they’re fine with it, but the effect of power on the power holder is more complex than that.”

Foulk and colleagues further noted, “Our integrative framework helps us to think differently about abusive behavior by showing that actors may be wounded by their abuse. That is, our study shows that abuse is not consequence-free for the abuser, but rather that engaging in abuse can ultimately come back to haunt the abuser.”

Previous research published in Psychological Science has shown that feelings of power can make leaders more sensitive to threats to their ego. These leaders may perceive normal, neutral interactions as threatening or rude, leading them to react aggressively.

Authors Nathanael J. Fast and Serena Chen highlighted this issue, stating, “A startling 37% of American workers — roughly 54 million people — have been bullied at work, primarily having been sabotaged, yelled at, or belittled by their bosses. This statistic resonates with research showing a link between social power and aggression.”

Instead of alleviating stress, Foulk and colleagues hypothesized that negative interactions worsen bosses’ day, leaving them worried, disrespected, and disliked.

“Although there is clear and compelling evidence that interacting with powerful individuals can harm the powerless, little is known about how power-induced negative behaviors and perceptions affect powerholders themselves,” Foulk and colleagues wrote.

The research team recruited 108 senior business leaders enrolled in an executive MBA course to test their theories. Data was collected through daily surveys emailed to participants thrice over ten consecutive workdays.

For half of the study, participants were primed with a “power” condition, while the other half involved a control condition. In the power-priming tasks, participants completed word fragments related to power (e.g., “p o w _ r” for “power”) and wrote short paragraphs about experiences of wielding power. In the control condition, the tasks were neutral.

In the afternoon surveys, participants reported whether they had engaged in abusive behaviors at work that day, such as yelling, swearing, or being rude. They also indicated whether they had been targets of negative behavior. Evening surveys measured feelings of relaxation and leisure.

The results confirmed the researchers’ suspicions: People who felt powerful were more likely to engage in abusive behavior and to perceive rudeness from others. By the end of the day, these leaders felt less relaxed, less competent, and less respected.

Interestingly, psychological power didn’t affect all leaders equally. Leaders with high agreeableness scores were far less likely to engage in abusive behavior, even when primed with power.

Foulk and colleagues suggest that organizations consider placing more agreeable individuals in leadership positions. “Even though your boss may seem like a jerk, they’re reacting to a situation in a way many of us would if we were in power,” Foulk said. “It’s not necessarily that they’re monsters.”

Bullying Effects are Long-Lasting

A new study shows that serious illness, struggling to hold down a regular job, and poor social relationships are just some of the adverse outcomes in adulthood faced by those exposed to bullying in childhood.

It has long been acknowledged that bullying at a young age presents a problem for schools, parents and public policy makers alike. Although children spend more time with their peers than their parents, there is relatively little published research on understanding the impact of these interactions on their lives beyond school.

The results of the new study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, highlight the extent to which the risk of problems related to health, poverty, and social relationships are heightened by exposure to bullying. The study is notable because it looks into many factors that go beyond health-related outcomes.

Psychological scientists Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick and William E. Copeland of Duke University Medical Center led the research team, looking beyond the study of victims and investigating the impact on all those affected: the victims, the bullies themselves, and those who fall into both categories, so-called “bully-victims.”

“We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up,” says Wolke. “We need to change this mindset and acknowledge this as a serious problem for both the individual and the country as a whole; the effects are long-lasting and significant.”

The ‘bully-victims’ were at greatest risk for health problems in adulthood, over six times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke regularly, or develop a psychiatric disorder compared to those not involved in bullying.

The results show that bully-victims are perhaps the most vulnerable group of all. This group may turn to bullying after being bullied themselves as they may lack the emotional regulation or support required to cope with it.

“In the case of bully-victims, it shows how bullying can spread when left untreated,” Wolke added. “Some interventions are already available in schools but new tools are needed to help health professionals to identify, monitor, and deal with the ill-effects of bullying. The challenge we face now is committing the time and resources to these interventions to try and end bullying.”

All the groups were more than twice as likely to have difficulty in keeping a job, or committing to saving compared to those not involved in bullying. As such, they displayed a higher propensity for being impoverished in young adulthood.

However, the study revealed very few ill effects of being the bully. After accounting for the influence of childhood psychiatric problems and family hardships — which were prevalent among bullies — the act of bullying itself didn’t seem to have a negative impact in adulthood.

“Bullies appear to be children with a prevailing antisocial tendency who know how to get under the skin of others, with bully-victims taking the role of their helpers,” explained Wolke. “It is important to finds ways of removing the need for these children to bully others and, in doing so, protect the many children suffering at the hand of bullies — they are the ones who are hindered later in life.”

Although they showed no real difference in the likelihood of being married or having children, all groups showed signs of having difficulty forming social relationships, particularly when it came to maintaining long term friendships or good ties with parents in adulthood.

The research assessed 1,420 participants four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16 years and adult outcomes between 24–26 years of age.

More Reading

You can read more about workplace bullying in my book Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders, available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others