Workforce Bullying

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Workforce Bullying

The term “bullying” has traditionally been associated with the cruel or violent behavior of schoolchildren toward their classmates. It is only within the last two decades that workforce bullying has been recognized as a global problem with serious negative consequences for organizations and their employees (Yamada, 2008). The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) draws parallels between bullying in the schoolyard and bullying in the work environment (Walter, 2013). In both cases, the bully is driven by a need for control, often to compensate for feelings of insecurity and/or inadequacy. Humiliating the target is a means of displaying power. In the school setting, principals are responsible for establishing the culture and climate. In the workplace, employers have an ethical obligation to intervene and resolve workplace aggression and thus create and sustain a positive work environment. Principles of fairness and justice provide an ethical framework for creating a culture and climate that discourages bullying and encourages prosocial behavior.

Fairness and Justice

Studies of workplace bullying have been criticized for placing excessive emphasis on the personal characteristics of the perpetrators of bullying and downplaying the role of organizational factors (Hauge, Skogstad, & Einarsen, 2009; Rhodes, Pullen, Vickers, Clegg, & Pitsis, 2010; Roscigno, Lopez, & Hodson, 2009). As Rhodes et al. (2009) point out, “Organizations are not just places in which bullying occurs, but are also composed of sets of institutionalized practices, some of which may well include or encourage bullying” (p. 100). Within the context of fairness and justice, perceived injustice is at the center of Beugré’s (2005) cognitive model of workplace aggression. Perceptions of fairness are based on the person’s subjective judgment. At the same time, these perceptions are influenced by relationships between procedural justice and interactional justice (Beugré, 2005; Griffin, 2010), and between procedural justice and distributive justice (J. A. Gilbert, Raffo, & Sutarso, 2013; Griffin, 2010). Procedural justice, distributive justice, and interactional justice are all relevant to the issue of workplace bullying.

Procedural justice encompasses organizational systems and rules and individual managerial decisions that are influenced by organizational systems and protocols (J. Gilbert, 2012). There are six basic rules of procedural justice (Beugré, 2005). First, organizational practices must be consistent to be fair. Second, the practices must be designed and implemented without favoring the individuals or groups that developed them. Third, the practices must be built on accurate information. Fourth, the practices must be conducive to being revised and corrected. Fifth, the practices must incorporate the interests of all those involved in organizational goals and activities. Sixth and certainly not least, the practices must be based on ethical and moral standards. While organizational systems may limit a manager’s discretion in making decisions regarding individual employees, managers must adhere to the principles of procedural justice to create a work environment that is ethically fair and just (J. Gilbert, 2012).

Procedural justice is enacted with the goal of achieving distributive justice, which refers to perceptions that outcomes are fair (Beugré, 2005; J. Gilbert, 2012). Employees often base these perceptions by weighing their own efforts and rewards against those of their coworkers. According to J. Gilbert (2012), “sense of proportionality” (p. 124) is an essential feature of a workplace where similarly situated employees feel they are treated fairly and justly. The most obvious example of this is an incentive system in which rewards such as pay raises, bonuses, promotions, and choice assignments are proportionate to the employees’ effort and performance.

Organizations typically have a mission statement that outlines their strategic business goals and philosophy. A statement that clearly communicates to employees that the organization is based on a strong sense of ethics is likely to produce expectations that they will be treated fairly and justly. Whether these expectations are met depends upon the policies and practices adopted by the organization as well as the culture and climate. Organizational culture has a powerful impact on interactional justice.

Interactional justice is especially relevant to workplace aggression as it “refers to the quality of interpersonal treatment people receive during the enactment of organizational procedures” (Beugré, 2005, p. 1124). Any interpersonal interaction in which the person is not treated respectfully is a violation of ethics. Bullying or harassment by a boss is clearly a violation of interactional injustice. On the other hand, managers who show that they will not tolerate bullying and provide support for the targets of bullying create a sense of interactional justice that can buffer against the detrimental impact of workplace aggression (Griffin, 2010). Management practices, policies, and behaviors that condemn workplace aggression and promote prosocial behavior represent the interaction of procedural justice and interactional justice.

Perceptions of interactional injustice can be a cause as well as a consequence of workplace aggression (Beugré, 2005). Perceived injustice often provokes feelings of anger and resentment that may manifest in aggressive actions. According to Beugré (2005), aggression resulting from perceived procedural injustice is likely to be turned against the organization, whereas aggression arising from feelings of distributive injustice or interactional injustice is more often aimed at individual targets.

Nature and Consequences of Workplace Bullying

Bullying Versus Harassment

J. Gilbert (2012) points out that people in business often equate ethical with legal. The case of workplace bullying in small businesses illustrates that actions can be highly unethical but still not illegal. Rhodes et al. (2010) declare bullying, which they describe as “an intentional violation of and violence to another person,” as “antithetical to the meaning of ethics” (p. 104). The same description applies to harassment. However, harassment is clearly illegal; workplace bullying is not illegal in the United States (Query & Hanley, 2010; Walter, 2013). Although human resources (HR) departments are capable of addressing bullying, without legal protection, employees are often reluctant to report bullying incidents for fear of retaliation. Their fears are not unwarranted. Further complicating the problem, bullying is not as overt as harassment, in which individuals are typically targeted on the basis of characteristics such as race or gender, and subjected to clearly offensive behavior and language. Harassment is generally immediately apparent; bullying can go unrecognized.

Bullying is almost entirely psychological. Common forms of workplace bullying include continually criticizing the person for trivial (or negligible) flaws and attempting to undermine or sabotage his or her work (Query & Hanley, 2010). These detrimental actions can go on for a long time before the individual is even aware of being the target of bullying. This feature of bullying makes it especially insidious. Workplace bullying is typically defined in terms of four key features: intensity, repetition, duration, and power imbalance (Query & Hanley, 2010, p. 4). However, although the power differential is probably the feature people associate most with bullying, in the context of workplace bullying, bullies and targets are found at all levels of the organizational hierarchy (Privitera & Campbell, 2009). Workplace bullying can many forms. Cyberbullying is a recent phenomenon that requires new ways of looking at bullying and new strategies for addressing the problem.


Cyberbullying has become an increasing problem for organizational management. The use of information and communication technology (ICT) for the purpose of bullying means that targeted individuals can be subjected to hurtful messages at any time of day or night. A study of manufacturing organizations in Queensland, Australia, found that roughly one-third of the employees (34%) had been targets of face-to-face bullying and 10.7% experienced cyberbullying (Privitera & Campbell, 2009). A notable finding was that all employees who were subjected to cyberbullying had experienced face-to-face bullying as well. Being aware of this connection may help managers intervene more effectively. Additionally, cyberbullying is more prevalent in male-dominated workplaces.

Cyberbullying is much more challenging to monitor than face-to-face interactions. Privitera and Campbell (2009) use the term “duty of care” to refer to organizational practices designed “to protect the health, safety, and welfare of employees” (p. 399). They specifically state that policies and protocols should be updated to cover the problem of cyberbullying.

Attributes of Bullies and Targets

As previously stated, studies often place undue emphasis on the personalities and individual characteristics of bullies in attempting to understand bullying (Hauge et al., 2009; Rhodes et al., 2010; Roscigno et al., 2009). That is not to say that personal characteristics are not important. Rather, there are certain characteristics that make some individuals more predisposed to perpetuate bullying, and these individual characteristics interact with organizational features that either discourage or aggravate bullying.

Bullies. In Beugré’s (2005) cognitive model of workplace aggression, perceived injustice set into motion a chain of decisions that ultimately determines whether or not these perceptions will culminate in negative actions. There are certain attributes that make some individuals more inclined to take out their grievances on others at work. These include: (a) negative affectivity, which encompasses tendencies to ruminate on mistakes, disappointments, and inadequacies, and in general view life through a negative lens; (b) a tendency to attribute the actions of others to malicious motives; and (c) a tendency to interpret information in ways that are personally threatening to feelings of self-esteem or control. These characteristics are consistent with the idea that bullies desperately need a sense of control to make up for feelings of inadequacy (Walter, 2013). Often, they choose targets they envy because of their superior performance or popularity (Query & Hanley, 2010).

Neuroticism, a personality trait associated with negative attitudes, has been observed in unethical leaders (Xu, Yu, & Shi, 2011). Most employees are bullied by a superior (Query & Hanley, 2010). Unethical managers are more likely to ignore or even encourage bullying while managers with a strong sense of ethics are committed to creating a workplace where employees are treated with dignity and respect (Rhodes et al., 2010; Yamada, 2008).

In some cases, being a victim of bullying may lead individuals to bully others. In their study of bullying and workplace stress, Hauge et al. (2009) found that having been a target of workplace bullying was the most powerful predictor of bullying others. This was true regardless of how often the person was bullied, although being bullied more often increased the chance that the target would turn into a bully. This pattern is consistent with the idea that perceived interactional injustice provokes aggressive workplace behavior (Beugré, 2005). In fact, Hauge et al. (2009) noted that other studies have found an association between bullying and perceptions of unfair treatment. In other words, bullying breeds bullying.

Men were significantly more likely to bully others than women (Hauge et al., 2009). Of the organizational factors Hauge et al. examined, role conflict and interpersonal conflicts were significant factors in workplace bullying. In another study, Roscigno et al. (2009) found bullying to be most common in the chaotic and disorganized environment. A chaotic workplace could easily generate role conflict and interpersonal conflicts. An environment without clear-cut guidelines for roles, responsibility, and behavior may also breed job insecurity. Job insecurity has been linked with being a target and a perpetrator of bullying (De Cuyper, Baillen, & De Witte, 2009).

From the perspective of fairness and justice, bullying seems to thrive in environments where systems for procedural justice are absent or ineffective and incivility is more the norm than interactional justice. Left unchecked, even small instances of incivility can escalate into widespread aggression (Hauge et al., 2009).

Targets. Female employees are more likely to be targeted by bullies than male employees (J. A. Gilbert et al., 2013). Often, the women targeted are assertive women who are perceived as a competitive threat. Although Query and Hanley (2010) claim that while bullies are often prejudiced, the main source of threat is the target’s competence rather than gender or race, many of the men in the study of J. A. Gilbert et al. (2013), an experimental study involving students, expressed attitudes reflecting hostile sexism. On an encouraging note, the presence of an anti-bullying policy seemed to exert a positive impact. Ethically responsible employees are also often the targets of bullies. In particular, employees who report bullying run the risk of becoming targets themselves (Walter, 2009).

Impact of Bullying on the Organization

Stress, anxiety, and depression are all documented negative consequences of bullying (Promislo & Giacalone, 2013). Workplace bullying leads to higher medical and workmen’s compensation costs as a consequence of work-related stress, as well as litigation arising from hostile work situations (Yamada, 2008). Employee productivity is further diminished by a climate in which employees feel intimidated about reporting bullying, which enables bullying and aggression to escalate. The fact that observers who report bullying are likely to experience retaliation (Walter, 2009) adds to the challenge of stemming aggressive behavior and creating a prosocial workplace. Incompetent or unethical leaders exacerbate bullying to the detriment of the organization and its employees (Query & Hanley, 2010; Wiedmar, 2011).


Rhodes et al. (2010) view ethics as “embedded in the everyday activities of people at work,” as opposed to “something ‘added on’ to other organizational activities” (p. 101). Even more significant, they characterize bullying antithetical to the nature of ethics. Managers who tolerate bullying inherently violate principles of fairness and justice. In an ethical workplace, all employees are treated with dignity and respect (Yamada, 2008). Expectations for fairness and justice should be clearly stated in organizational policies and communicated to employees at all levels of the organization. Procedural, distributive, and interactional justice should be guiding principles for creating organizational systems, structures, culture, and climate that promote fair and ethical decision-making and prosocial behavior.

An explicit policy that prohibits bullying and emphasizes the importance of treating employees with dignity and respect represents an important first step in eradicating workplace bullying. All policies and procedures should be geared toward creating an organization where civility is the norm (J. A. Gilbert et al., 2013; Griffin, 2010). This effort must go beyond the reliance on formal rules and concentrate on establishing organizational norms, culture, and climate institutionalizing prosocial behavior (Rhodes et al., 2010). Leadership by example exemplifies the concept of ethical leadership. Managers must demonstrate that they will not tolerate workplace aggression. They must reach out to support employees who have been targets of bullying. Furthermore, they must show that employees who take the initiative in intervening in incidents of workplace bullying are to be commended not punished.

The relationship between managerial ethics and organizational features can be conceptualized as bidirectional. Managers’ ethical decision-making is influenced by organizational structures, culture, and climate (Langlais, 2012). At the same time, managers have the ability to influence the organization by virtue of their decisions. There should be no tolerance for organizational features that allow bullying and aggression to thrive. Courageous managers make it clear that they are dedicated to promoting a culture defined by fairness and justice. Aristotle described courage as the first virtue. By definition, an ethical manager has the courage to act in the best interest of the organization and its employees. The result should be an organization characterized by high performance, high productivity, and prosocial behavior.


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