A woman sits at a desk in front of an open laptop with one hand held to the bridge of her nose in an expression of exhaustion. Behind her, out of focus, are a man and a woman in businesswear. They are observing the woman at the desk, and the man is writing in an open book.
Although many anti-bullying programs focus on interactions between individuals, a 2022 study found that workplace bullying often relates to hierarchical structures at work. — Getty Images/praetorianphoto

It’s easy to assume that bullying is an issue only schoolteachers and parents need to worry about. That’s not actually the case, however. Nearly one in three workers report having been bullied at work, according to the 2021 Workplace Bullying Survey, conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Of course, bullying is wrong no matter where it occurs. In the workplace, bullying can undermine an employee's ability to function and ultimately, cut into the company's bottom line. That’s according to researchers at the University of South Australia, University of Queensland, and Auburn University, co-authors of the study, Workplace Bullying as an Organizational Problem: Spotlight on People Management Practices. “It leads to mental health problems, post-traumatic stress symptoms, emotional exhaustion, poor job satisfaction, high staff turnover, low productivity, sleep problems and even suicide risks,” they stated.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying, according to the researchers, is “a form of systematic mistreatment that occurs repeatedly and regularly over time, whereby the target has difficulty defending themselves due to the power imbalance between the parties involved.”

Identifying bullying is important, as is identifying what bullying is not. It isn’t an employee simply being asked to handle difficult work or tasks that he or she prefers not to do, said Baron Christopher Hanson, Principal and Turnaround Strategist with RedBaron Consulting. It doesn’t include arguments—assuming they’re conducted with respect—about how best to conduct business. “You can butt heads. It’s how you treat others when you butt heads,” he added.

Drivers of bullying

In the study, the researchers analyzed 342 bullying complaints lodged with SafeWork SA, South Australia’s regulator for workplace health and safety. Workplace bullying often is viewed as behavioral issues between individuals, the researchers noted. Because of that, many strategies for dealing with it, such as anti-bullying policies or training on bullying awareness, focus on the behavior between individuals.

However, this approach overlooks the role of workplace structures. “It can be tempting to see bullying as a behavioral problem between individuals, but the evidence suggests that bullying actually reflects structural risks in the organizations themselves,” the researchers stated. “Workplace bullying predominantly shows up in how people are managed,” said Michelle Tuckey, one of the study’s authors and Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of South Australia, in a release.

A regime of bullying usually comes from the top.

Baron Christopher Hanson, Principal and Turnaround Strategist with RedBaron Consulting, LLC

Through their analysis, Tuckey and the other researchers found that perceptions of workplace bullying tend to arise in three broad areas of people management. These are coordinating and administrating working hours; managing work performance; and shaping relationships and the work environment.

For instance, in the first category, employees described managers who failed to provide adequate consultation before making schedule changes, those who assigned employees to work on days they’d indicated they weren’t available, and those who assumed employees would complete jobs outside of work hours.

When it came to managing work performance, complaints described managers with unrealistic expectations regarding workloads or deadlines and managers publicly berating employees for mistakes, even though they hadn’t received appropriate training.

Examples of bullying when it comes to shaping relationships include managers having different rules for different employees, ignoring employees’ safety concerns, or engaging in vulgar or crude behavior.

Culture and compensation also contribute to an environment of bullying, Hanson said. “A regime of bullying usually comes from the top,” he added. When leaders regularly bully certain employees or look the other way when top producers bully their colleagues, it leads others to assume this behavior is accepted. Similarly, when bullies are rewarded more than people who collaborate with their colleagues, employees see that bullying is tolerated when it produces results.

Handling bullying

The researchers noted that the risk of employees feeling bullied “increases when frontline supervisors implement people-management practices in ineffective ways, repeatedly and regularly, in pursuit of organizational goals.” As a result, efforts to prevent bullying should focus on optimizing the ways in which supervisors and team members manage and coordinate employees’ work hours, work performance, and workplace relationships, they concluded.

Bullying also needs to be brought into the open, Hanson said. This doesn’t mean publicizing the circumstances outside the company. Instead, a discussion with the instigator of the bullying should occur in a careful, professional manner with at least two or more unbiased witnesses. Depending on the circumstances, the conversation may need to be guided by company policy and/or the advice of a legal professional. “Once any form of bullying is exposed, it begins to vanish,” he added.

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