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Industrial & Organisational : Introduction : Personnel : Organizational psychology : Occupations: Work environment: Index : Outline

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Articles related to Abuse

Types of bullying

Forms of bullying


Related concepts

Workplace bullying, like childhood bullying, is the tendency of individuals or groups in the work environment to use aggressive or unreasonable behavior to achieve their ends.

Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute define workplace bullying as "the repeated mistreatment of one employee targeted by one or more employees with a malicious mix of humiliation, intimidation and sabotage of performance.".[1]

When perpetrated by a group, it is often called mobbing.

Unlike the more physical form of schoolyard bullying, workplace bullies often operate within the established rules and policies of their organization and their society. For instance, a workplace bully might use the office's "rumor mill" to circulate a lie about a co-worker. An employee who dislikes a co-worker for personal reasons may incessantly criticize everything that co-worker does. Such actions are not necessarily illegal and may not even be against the firm's regulations. However, the damage they cause, both to the targeted employee and to workplace morale, is obvious.


Statistics show that bullying is 3 times as prevalent as illegal discrimination and at least 1,600 times as prevalent as workplace violence. Statistics also show that while only one employee in every 10,000 becomes a victim of workplace violence, one in six experiences bullying at work. Bullying is also far more common than sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

According to Dr. Gary Namie, workplace bullying can either cause or contribute to severe health problems for the victims. The most prevalent are high blood pressure, heart conditions and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Namie has identified a new health issue related to bullying in the workplace: prolonged duress stress disorder.

Common Motives for Bullying

The most common motives for bullying are laziness, prejudice and fear of being outperformed.

  • Laziness becomes a motive for bullying when a productive employee is coerced into doing the work of one or more less productive co-workers. A lazy worker will try to avoid work by coercing his co-workers into performing his tasks for him. This causes a drop in productivity as more productive team members must spend part of their workday performing the lazy worker's jobs. It also causes predictable personality conflicts as the more productive team members complain about the work load and the less productive member tries to defend his actions. This is the most basic motive for bullying: to enjoy the rewards of having a job without doing the work.
  • Prejudice comes into play when less desirable jobs and special forms of mistreatment are reserved for minority members. Much attention is given to prejudice against blacks and women, but prejudice against Native Americans, homosexuals and the mentally and physically handicappped is also very prevalent. Gender stereotyping is also common.
  • Fear of being outperformed is the most common reason for bullying in an office setting, but it is by no means limited to offices. A person who is afraid of a more competent co-worker will often use obstructionist tactics to impede that person's performance. The bully may withhold information. He may refuse to train new employees. Perhaps the bully will try to monopolize supplies. Most often, the bully will try to hide his own incompetence by sharply and constantly criticizing the performance of a more competent worker.
  • Demonstration of authority is yet another motive for bullying. A manager may assign meaningless, unrewarding or even humiliating tasks to an employee just to prove that people must obey him/her.

Common Tactics of Bullies

(Note: from this point forward, victims of bullying are referred to as Targets.)

  • Constant criticism is the bully's attempt to undermine the Target's self-confidence. By exaggerating the Target's mistakes, the bully intends to a) make the Target look incompetent in the eyes of co-workers, b) make his own work look better by comparison, or c) divert attention from his own mistakes. Often, the bully will expand his criticism to the Target's private and social life. Since criticism can become habitual, the Target will be criticized by the bully no matter how well the Target performs.
  • Isolation is a tactic intended to separate the Target from the workplace's social circles and information networks. Cut off from all social and business interaction, the Target is more vulnerable to the bully's threats and verbal assaults. The bully takes a "divide and conquer" approach.
  • Monopolizing is another tactic. The bully works his way into a position in which he is the only source of certain supplies or information. The Target is thus given a choice between submitting to the bully or doing without necessary facts and supplies. The Target gets what he needs only if the bully gets what he wants.
  • Gossip is perhaps the most common tactic of workplace bullying. Simply put, the bully starts a rumor about the Target. As the rumor moves through the workplace, the Target finds himself the subject of suspicion. Since the bully often controls the Target's contact with co-workers, the Target has no way of knowing what's being said about him behind his back. Co-workers who have little contact with or were hired after the Target may judge him by the bully's gossip rather than by his performance. By spreading rumors about the Target, the bully is turning his co-workers against the Target. This is a form of mobbing.
  • False documentation, also called the ghost gripe, is an effective tool for the bully. The bully claims that complaints have been filed about the Target's behavior or performance. The bully will either fabricate an incident or misdocument a real event to place the blame on the Target. He will refuse to identify the complainants, citing the company's confidentiality policy and saying that he wants to prevent retaliation. In reality, he is preventing the Target from investigating the complaint and disproving the allegations. The bully uses the company's policies to achieve control over his co-workers. Countless Targets have been disciplined and even fired over ghost gripes. False documentation is most common in companies that do not have at-will hiring/firing policies, since the manager must give a valid reason for firing employees he personally dislikes.
  • Stealing the credit is a very common bullying tactic. The bully places himself in a position in which he can claim credit for the Target's efforts and ideas. The Target is unable to document his efforts, so the bully gets the rewards while the Target is stuck with all of the work. An excellent example of this occurs in the comedy movie Nine to Five when an abusive boss steals credit for a secretary's idea.
  • Verbal abuse is often used by the bully to attack the Target personally. Verbal abuse includes - but is by no means limited to - profanity, shouting and racial or ethnic slurs. It may consist of giving the Target a disrespectful nickname or subjecting him to a constant stream of insults.
  • Passive aggression is a common tactic of lazy bullies. By leaving certain jobs undone or incomplete, they force the Target to do their work for them. Also, if they discover behaviors which irritate the Target, they will be certain to repeat those behaviors until the Target loses his temper, thus giving the Target an undeserved reputation for violent behavior. Procrastination is a common form of passive aggression.
  • Violence is the bully's last resort. Unlike schoolyard bullying, surprisingly little workplace bullying involves physical violence. Since violence is illegal, such behavior will usually cost the bully his job and perhaps his freedom. While violence makes headlines, most other acts of workplace bullying aren't considered newsworthy. Thus the public is frightened by stories of violence in the workplace while the causes of the violence are ignored.

Note that bullies seldom rely on just one tactic. Most have learned to combine several different tactics in an organized assault on the Target. For instance, many bullies will effectively combine isolation and gossip.

Common Mistakes of Management

  • Appeasement is perhaps the most common mistake managers can make when dealing with bullies. This approach assumes that the bully's aggressive behavior will cease when he is given what he desires. History has proven this approach to be counterproductive. A person who uses aggression to satisfy his desires has no logical reason to stop being aggressive. He may calm down for a while when given what he wants, but he will be resume and possibly escalate his aggressive behavior when he wants something else.
  • Blaming both parties is also a common mistake. When this happens, the manager punishes the bully for aggression, but also punishes the Target for failing to get along with the bully. The manager ignores the possibility that the bully is purely to blame.
  • Blaming the Target is an even more serious mistake. Instead of acting against the bully, the manager may simply order the Target to stop complaining. If the Target continues to complain about the bully's behavior, the manager will discipline the Target and may even come to the bully's defense. Thus the Target is made to suffer twice, once at the hands of the bully and once at the hands of management.
  • Ignoring the issue. Management may believe that problems will vanish if the bully's behavior is ignored. Thus the bully goes unpunished. A bully who goes unpunished has no logical reason to relent. His aggressive behavior will continue, and may even escalate to physical violence. This approach involves wishful thinking on the part of the manager.
  • Emphasizing teamwork and ignoring individual effort plays into the bully's hands. Often, the Target is a creative, productive individual whose ideas often work. In today's workplace, the emphasis is on team effort. Management tends to dislike subordinates who think for themselves, regardless of how good their ideas are. This makes it easy for the bully to accuse the Target of "not being a team player".
  • Believing the group means taking the word of multiple employees over that of the Target. The assumption is that the majority is always right. When a Target comes into conflict with a group of co-workers, the Abilene paradox comes into play. The group may be lying about the Target or acting out of ignorance, but the manager is reluctant to stand against multiple employees. After all, it is easier to discipline one person than it is to discipline a group. In their efforts to appease the group, managers will often ignore compelling evidence supporting the Target.
  • Stereotyping often skews management's judgment. Racial and ethnic stereotyping have fallen out of favor, but other, less obvious forms are still practiced. For instance, companies that have written policies against workplace violence may still allow women to behave violently toward men because "women are weaker" and "men are tougher". A physically large person may be blamed for an accident because "big people are stupid and clumsy". Since the media unthinkingly promotes these prejudices, most people never question them.

Who Gets Targeted by Bullies?

The targets of workplace bullying are usually bright, creative individuals. [How to reference and link to summary or text] In terms of gender, Targets are equally divided; 50% male and 50% female. [How to reference and link to summary or text] Race, nationality, physical handicaps, religion, job position, employment contract duration, rankism and other social factors may contribute to the bullying, but the Target's self-confidence and individuality seem to be the main factors. [How to reference and link to summary or text] These aspects of the Target's personality often contrast sharply with the bully's aggression, incompetence and insecurity. [How to reference and link to summary or text] In academia, low level researchers are targeted by bullies sometimes as an approach to dealing with research conflicts.

Bullying and the Law

Legislation to deal with bullying differs around the world

Main article: Workplace bullying and the law

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Douglas. E (2001) Bullying m the workplace:An organizational tool kit. Aldershot: Gower
  • Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D. & Cooper, C.L (2003). Bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace: International perspectives in research and practice. London:Taylor & Francis.
  • Hoel,H., Zapf,D & Cooper,C L (2005)(Eds.) Bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace: International perspectives in research and practice. London: Taylor & Francis.
  • International Labour Organization.(1999) Safe work. Introduction to Violence at Work. Geneva: Author.
  • Pearson, R (2001). Keeping well at work London: Kogan Page
  • Peyton PR. (2003) Dignity at work: Eliminate bullying and create a positive working environment. London Routledge
  • Rayner, C, Hoel, H. & Cooper, C.L (2002). Workplace bullying. London: Taylor & Francis.
  • Vartia, M. (2003). Workplace bullying.A study of the work environment Helsinki; Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.
  • Westhuses, E. (2004). Work place mobbing in academe. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press


Cartwright, S. & Cooper, C.L. (2007). Hazards to Health: The problem of workplace bullying. The Psychologist. 20 (5) 284-286

  • Coyne, I., Seigne, E. & Randall, P (2000). Predicting workplace victim status from personality European Journal of Work ond Organizational Psychology,9(3), 33S-350
  • Einarsen, S. (l999).The nature and causes of bullying at work. International Journal of Manpower, 20(1/2), 16
  • Hoel, H., Zapf. D & Cooper, C.L (2002).Workplace bullying and stress. In PL Perreuive & DC. Ganster (Eds.) Historical and current perspectives on stress. Amsterdam Elsevier
  • Kelly, D.J. (2005). Reviewing workplace bullying: Strengthening approaches to a complex phenomenon, Journal of Occupational Health ond Safety: Australia and New Zealand, 21(6), 551-564.
  • McAvoy, B.R. & Murtagh. J. (2003). Workplace bullying: The silent epidemic. [[British Medical Journal, 326 (7393), 776-777
  • Quinne, L (l999).Workplace bullying in an NHS community trust British Medical Journal, 318,228-232.
  • Salin, D. (2003).Ways of explaining bullying:A review of enabling, motivating and precipitating Structures, Human Relations, 56(10), 1213-1232.
  • Zapf, D., Einarsen, S.E., Hoel, H. & Vartia. M (2003) Empirical findings on bullying in the workplace. In H. Hoel. D Zapf & C LCooper (Eds.) Bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace: International perspectives in research and practice. London: Taylor & Francis.

Additional material


  • Brodsky, CM. (1976). The Harassed Worker.Toronto: Lexington Books.


  • Google Scholar
  • Ashforth, B.E.(1997)Petty tyranny in organizations: A preliminary examination of antecedents and consequences Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l'Administration, [1]

External links

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