Bullying in Organizations

  • Frank L. K. OhemengEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3425-1



A situation in which one or more persons, over a long period, perceive themselves to be on the receiving end of systematic negative treatment by one or more other persons, and where the person or persons exposed have difficulty defending themselves (Matthiesen and Einarsen 2007: 735).

Bullying is an escalated process, where the person confronted ends up in an inferior position, and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts (Einarsen et al. 2011: 22).

A repeated, health-harming, mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators, that is, threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work-interference, that prevents work getting done (The Workplace Bullying Institute).


The past few years have witnessed the rise of workplace bullying in both public and private sector organizations. It has led to the development of social movements, such as Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and a few others, which call for an end to it. Not only have these movements brought these issues to life in the public domain; in both developed and developing countries, continuous scholarly attention has resulted in growing interest in workplace bullying and other forms of interpersonal conflict (Branch et al. 2013). High profile cases involving senior politicians and bureaucrats continue to be reported in the both the print and electronic media in many countries. Yet, as explained by Carbo (2017), “the phenomenon of workplace bullying is still not completely understood. There are still today too many myths and misunderstandings about bullying.”

The rise of workplace bullying, especially in public organizations, has caused governments to institutionalize various mechanisms to address or intervene in what many see as a social cancer. They do so in the wake of serious consequences, including severe effects on workplace health and safety issues that can significantly undermine the performance of both individuals and organizations (Einarsen and Hoel 2010).

According to Suggala et al. (2019), workplace bullying is considered both a direct and an indirect behavior: a spectrum of violence that is not necessarily any one type of misconduct, violence, or incivility. It could comprise unfriendly behavior, impractical deadlines, mocking, separation, dismissal, unachievable goals, sabotaging careers, threats, professional elimination, condemnation, or humiliation. Another important aspect is that it “involves a temporal dimension whereby the behavior is sustained over time, involves regular occurrences, reflects power disparities (not necessarily hierarchical), and is systematic in nature (i.e., thought through or planned by the perpetrator)” (Samnani et al. 2013: 339). Workplace bullying thus means behaviors that are negative and are unwanted by the victim and are more often psychological than physical in nature (Einarsen et al. 2011).

Nielsen and Einarsen (2018) identified three main characteristics. First, an employee becomes the target of systematic negative and unwanted social behaviors in the workplace. Second, the exposure occurs over a long time; and third, the target experiences an inability to easily escape the situation or stop the unwelcome treatment. It is thus the persistence, the systematic nature, and the feeling of being trapped and victimized that distinguish bullying from other forms of workplace aggression and mistreatment.

Types of Bullying at the Workplace

While it is clear that workplace bullying is unacceptable behavior, scholars have been unable to come up with a complete or definitive list of precisely what types of behavior constitute it. Consequently, it can be said to take many forms. Here we focus on the categories developed by Carbo (2017), which take into account what others have discussed from a broader perspective.

According to Carbo (2017), workplace bullying can be classified into three main forms: personal level, organizational, and by proxy. Personal level bullying occurs at a micro or personal level. There is no reliance on organizational policies, but that does not mean it is not linked to policies, inasmuch as they allow it to occur or, even, encourage it. The tactics are engaged in through direct interaction between the bully and his or her target. This form of bullying includes the use of any form of communication or lack thereof: yelling, berating, talking down to, threatening, or ostracizing and ignoring (as well as many other tactics the creative bully might come up with). This form of bullying often includes unlawful forms of harassment, such as sexual or race-based harassment.

The second form is organizational policy bullying. Here, the bully directly uses an organizational policy to torment their targets and does not include the reasonable application of reasonable organizational policy. Often the perpetrator exploits ambiguous or subjective policies to demean or degrade. This form of bullying often includes unfair evaluations, overloading with work tasks, assignment of menial tasks, or taking away the voice of the target by stripping them of autonomy. Bullies who have the power to implement organizational policies often indulge in this form of bullying.

The third type of bullying is by proxy, where the bully uses others to achieve their goal of inflicting pain. They may force the proxy to use a policy against the target: or it might be through gathering a mob, where others join in with them; or it might be by allowing and encouraging the proxy to engage in what amounts to personal or organizational policy misbehaviors. Many bullies engage in all of these forms, and many targets experience all of them.

In his study, Namie (2007) has identified four types of bullying behavior. These are: the screaming mimi; the constant critic; the two-headed snake; and the gatekeeper. According to him, the screaming mini publicly humiliates their target to instill fear and paralyze witnesses. Screaming, yelling, swearing, and throwing things may all feature. The constant critic is described as a “hypercritical nitpicker.” Such a person picks on targets by branding them “incompetent” and methodically campaigns to destroy their victim’s career. The third type of behavior is the two-headed snake, a “duplicitous Jekyll-and-Hyde creature,” destroying targets through rumors and engineering divide-and-conquer schemes. Finally, there is the gatekeeper. This bully, according to Namie (2007), is a control freak who withholds resources the target needs. The gatekeeper “steals credit, fawns over favorites, and isolates and torments the unfavored.”

Factors in the Rise of Workplace Bullying

Bullying at the workplace does not just happen. It is deliberate and conscious: a planned attempt by an individual to hurt someone. Scholars have, however, identified various factors that may facilitate its occurrence (Tuckey et al. 2019). First are the characteristics of the workplace environment; the organizational culture may make bullying easy. Einarsen (2005) says that “the quality of the psychosocial work environment seems to be an important cause of bullying. A work situation characterized by role conflict and a lack of interesting and challenging work tasks, combined with a negative interpersonal climate in the work group, seems to be a high-risk situation for bullying” (7).

Some scholars are of the view that an organizational environment that promotes masculinity at the workplace leads to bullying (O’Donnell and MacIntosh 2016; Pauksztat and Salin 2019). The literature points out that most workplace bullying is perpetrated by males on women (Pauksztat and Salin 2019). This does not mean, however, that males are not bullied by their male or female counterparts at the workplace. It is the level of prevalence, which makes it difficult for men.

Social categories are also believed to be instrumental in increased workplace bullying (Pauksztat and Salin 2019), including, say some scholars, gender. A number of studies continue to show that women in particular suffer much workplace abuse (Pauksztat and Salin 2019). Some have reported abuse of men, but males seem less inclined to report it, and to keep such things to themselves. Age is another element, and older workers may endure more bullying, although others maintain that younger workers are more exposed to bullying simply through their overrepresentation in the workforce (Einarsen and Skogstad 1996; Schat et al. 2006).

Organizational power is also thought to figure in the rise of workplace bullying (Zapf et al. 2011). In fact, Hodson et al. have described the workplace as “an arena suffused by power relations,” and such powers are sometimes misused. It is therefore not surprising that bullying has significantly been attributed to supervisors, in what has been called abusive supervision at the workplace (Zapf et al. 2011). Abusive supervision is defined as “subordinates’ perceptions of the extent to which supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact” (Tepper 2000: 178). Workplace supervisors may attribute their abuse of their subordinates to poor performance or violation of norms, or exhibiting other undesirable behaviors.

Impact of Workplace Bullying

There is a consensus that workplace bullying has tremendous negative effects on both employees and their organizations in general. The most critical impact, though, is on the performance of the employee. The literature has consistently identified low performance and productivity as the most obvious repercussions of bullying. On the individual level, bullying can generate significant psychological and physiological problems. For instance, a number of researchers have discovered that bullying impairs sleep. According to Hogh et al. (2012), “targets of bullying are more likely than nontargets to have sleep difficulties, a lower sleep quality, and more often use of sleep-inducing drugs and sedatives compared to nonbullied respondents.” The consequence of such sleep disorders is that such individuals are unable to function as expected in the workplace. They have less energy and may feel disoriented.

One important way scholars have identified to improve productivity is employee engagement (EE), involving “a positive, fulfilling, affective-motivational state of work-related well-being that can be seen as the antidote of job burnout” (Bakker and Demerouti 2008: 187–188). Employee engagement is defined as “the simultaneous expression and employment of a person’s ‘preferred self’ in their work task, thereby promoting connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotional) and active, full role performances” (Kahn 1990: 700).

Workplace bullying, however, significantly undermines EE (Rai and Agarwal 2017; Law et al. 2011): as Meriläinen et al. (2019) explain, both directly and indirectly. To them, bullying decreases engagement through an employee’s unsatisfied needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (1207). Park and Ono (2017) have further explained that exposure to workplace bullying decreases work engagement of employees and increases their health problems due to their perceived high level of job insecurity.

Bullying can also lead to such problems as absenteeism, employee burnout, high employee turnover, and loss of job satisfaction (Einarsen and Hoel 2008; Gordon et al. 2017; Niedhammer et al. 2013; Nielsen et al. 2016). Absenteeism, defined simply as “the failure to report for work as scheduled” (Johns 2008: 160), may be used by the bullied as a means of coping with the resultant trauma. In other words, those who experience bullying may stay home as a way of dealing with what they have gone through. They may be avoiding the perpetrator. Work in general may be affected. Employees who feel unfairly treated may express anger and outrage through subtle acts of retaliation against their employers, including work slowdowns or covertly sabotaging the abuser.

Addressing Workplace Bullying

The negative effects of bullying on both the individual and the organization have led to calls for ways to address this social cancer at the workplace: how to manage as well prevent it. These calls have led to the development of a number of strategies (Caponecchia et al. 2020).

One of the most discussed in the literature is legislation or, simply, passing laws that will stop people doing it (O’Rourke and Antioch 2016; Stephen and Sasi 2017). Although many countries have labor laws that require employers to maintain a safe workplace, many feel that they are too general and broad to go deep enough in addressing bullying and are calling for specific legislation that includes elements of reporting incentives for victims, as well as punishment for perpetrators (Ferris et al. 2018; Stephen and Sasi 2017).

Institutionalizing training on workplace bullying could also go a long way. Not a few organizations have training regimes for their employees to identify bullying behaviors and that may be available to victims, as well as procedures for reporting and addressing such abuses. In addition, they clearly stress punishment for the bully. Thus, training should be about more than providing opportunities for learning and include “what needs to be trained, who needs to be trained, and what type of organizational system you are dealing with” (Salas et al. 2012: 88).

Work or job design is also seen as another way of helping prevent bullying at the workplace. It is perceived as “the content and organization of one’s work tasks, activities, relationships and responsibilities” and has been linked to virtually every important organizational outcome domain, such as performance, safety, well-being, and innovation (Parker 2014: 662). Tuckey et al. (2019) have identified three main ways job or work design can help: the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. According to them, primary interventions attempt to address the causes in work and organizational factors, such as organizational climate, job demands, and job resources. Secondary interventions attempt to reduce the effects of bullying on employees by modifying their reactions to bullying exposure through improving problem-focused coping strategies or environmental coping resources, such as higher autonomy or reduced task complexity. Tertiary interventions focus on managing the resultant mental health symptoms experienced by workers after being exposed to bullying at work, including depression, psychological distress, and emotional exhaustion, by providing professional services to treat the condition (7–8). It is thus believed that addressing issues relating to job design in the organization can help stem workplace bullying.


Workplace bullying has been on the rise for some time now in both developed and developing countries. It exists in both the public and private sectors. Its prevalence has been a source of concern to government, private ownerships, labor unions, and individuals. The epic proportion of employees who continue to experience bullying has therefore led to a call to both government and private ownerships to do more to curb this social cancer. The idea underpinning this call is that bullying impacts both the individual and organizations at large. At the individual level, it may cause significant stress, leading in some cases to marital problems and, even, suicide. At the organizational level, it affects relationships, creating what has been described as a toxic workplace environment, and damaging overall performance.

While various measures, such as training and policies, continue to be undertaken and put in place, it is believed that these are not sufficient. Many have therefore called for effective enforcement of policies dealing with bullying, as well as institutional mechanisms for reporting, and then addressing, such reports. Bullying does not respect age, although it has been noted that different social categories experience bullying differently and at different frequencies. The need to address bullying at the workplace is of critical importance in an era where diversity and inclusion have become essential not only at the societal level, but at the workplace, to create a conducive environment for all.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceConcordia UniversityMontrealCanada