The Bullying Dilemma: It’s Time For Organizations to Get Serious About It

Second of two parts

Bullying is on the verge of coming into its own as an organizational issue.

I have no doubt that 30 to 40 years ago, senior managers would have made similar comments about sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Their focus on their current reality would not have given them the foresight to see what was on the horizon and that these would be become mainstream issues.

Currently, a number of states have proposed laws to address bullying in the workplace some going back as far as 2000. Consequently, it is simply a matter of time before there is a breakthrough state that passes one of these laws and this the issue will then mushroom across other states.

Beyond this issue becoming a societal and political issue, the financial aspects of bullying will also play an important role in this issue getting onto the corporate and organizational agenda. As U.S. businesses continue to focus on finding ways to squeeze out every ounce of fat, eliminate waste, streamline their process, and to compete in a world economy where many other countries have significant cheaper labor pools, the wisdom of addressing this issue will become clearer.

Why should companies pay attention?

A study by Joel H. Neuman, director of the Center for Applied Management at the State University of New York in New Paltz, shows bullying results in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in terms of absenteeism, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, product quality and productivity.

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that one in four of every companies surveyed reported some form of bullying the previous year. In most cases — 55 percent — employees were victims, while customers and supervisors made up another 11 percent and 7 percent, respectively. National statistics are alarming: As of 2004, an average of 33,000 employees a week were subject to some form of abuse and 17 were killed, NIOSH said.

The Andrea Adams Trust survey on bullying indicated that “One in four people are bullied in the workplace, according to new research. The Andrea Adams Trust survey found that 60 percent of those bullied said it affected their quality of work, with more than half having taken time off because of it.”

Most victims say their immediate managers are the biggest culprits, with unfair criticism being the most common complaint. It is thought that 18.9 million working days a year are lost due to stress caused by bullying. This costs companies 8-10 percent of their annual profits.

Aaron Schat, assistant professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, Michael R. Frone of the State University of New York at Buffalo, and E. Kevin Kelloway of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax conducted a comprehensive national survey of workers on the prevalence of U.S. workplace aggression that was published in the Handbook of Workplace Violence. The survey found more than 40 percent of American workers – about 47 million people experienced acts of psychological aggression, such as being screamed at, insulted, or threatened with physical violence while at work.

  • Nearly one-quarter of respondents indicate they were victims of aggression from members of the public (customers, clients or patients), while 15 percent report being victims of aggression from other employees and 13 percent experienced aggression from supervisors or bosses.
  • Exposure to aggressive behavior at work is associate with a wide range of negative consequences for individuals and organizations, including negative work attitudes, reduced well being and in cases of physical violence, bodily injury or death. The fact that such a large percentage of the American population has experience workplace aggression demonstrates the need to address it.”

According to John Gray, CEO, Challenger, Gray & Christmas in the article, Workplace Bullying is Widespread, “statistically, bulling is far more prevalent than sexual harassment, workplace violence or racial discrimination and the long term costs to the organization are significant.” Yet bullying remains one of the most overlooked problems by management and the courts, he said.

Nearly 1-in-3 human resources executives has seen one or more employees quit as a result of workplace bullying according to a Challenger Gray survey of 100 human resources professionals. One third of the human resource executives surveyed said they personally witnessed or experience workplace bullying.

What should organizations do?

One of the most important initial steps is to establish a “No Bullying” policy. It can be incorporated as part of your Workplace Violence Prevention policy or a stand alone policy.

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  • Establish an anti-bullying policy that explains what bullying is and that it is unacceptable behavior. Include a provision that explains how to get help if you have the tendency to behave in unacceptable ways.
  • Train managers and all other employees on the policy.
  • Establish processes for reporting, investigating and resolving complaints.
  • Conduct periodic employee attitude surveys to determine if workplace bullying is not being reported.

Since bullying behaviors are one of the problematic behaviors that fits under the rubric of workplace violence, Human Resources professionals should make sure that the organization incorporates relevant information on “undesirable behaviors” to watch for during the hiring process. Identifying and screening out applicants that have either demonstrated bullying in the past or believe this is an acceptable way to treat other people will save a lot of headaches down the road.

More that organizations can do

Some more things that you can do:

  • Ensure that assessing the respectful treatment of others is one of the questions that is ask when references are checked on job applicants. Remember past behavior provides powerful insights to future behavior.
  • Include treating all employees, customers, vendors and visitors in a respectful manner as part of the organization’s “Mission and Goals.” Communicate this to new employees during their orientation and as part of the onboarding process. Publicly state and communicate it in as many ways as possible to reinforce the message and then “practice what you preach.”
  • Make abuse of power and authority by management an absolute no-no. The organization should have zero tolerance for this type behavior and should subject violators to disciplinary action up to, and including, termination.
  • Build civil and respectful communications into all training courses especially Supervisory, Communication and Conflict Resolution courses.
  • Incorporate treating people in a respectful manner into the performance management process for every manager, supervisor and employee. Make it a cornerstone of the process by defining it as a ‘must pass’ factor to quality for a pay increase or bonus. Also make it clear that repeated failure on this competency and performance factor will lead to termination.

In this two part series, we have attempted to further the discussion about bullying by creating a working definition that encompasses business practicalities that will provide guidance to supervisors and employees regarding appropriate behaviors in the workplace and an abusive work environment.

Time for management to wake up

The research on bullying establishes that this is a huge problem in the American workforce and that 40 percent of American workers – about 47 million people — experience acts of psychological aggression, such as being screamed at, insulted, or threatened with physical violence, while at work.

This is an astonishing number that U.S. employers cannot continue to ignore because it has the potential to derail their competitiveness in the world marketplace by slowing productivity, increasing turnover, absenteeism, employee engagement, employee strife and stress all of which have cost associated with them. It is time for employers to wake up and to recognize that by addressing bullying in the workplace they are exercising good business judgment and helping to increase their organizations’ competitive position.

Bullying is to the 21st century what sexual harassment was to the 20th century. The sooner organizations realize it is a deeply rooted issue in their workplaces that is not going away without out progressive, sustained and affirmative actions the quicker we will move to resolve the problem.

A version of this article was originally published in WVP News. © The National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, Inc., All rights reserved. 

Did you see Part 1 of this? Check out The Bullying Dilemma: Is It Behavior Entrenched in Corporate Culture.

W. Barry Nixon, SPHR, is the Executive Director of the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, Inc., a company focused on assisting organizations effectively address the emerging issue of workplace violence from a comprehensive and multi-disciplinary viewpoint. He is the author of "Zero Tolerance is Not Enough: Making Workplace Violence Prevention Really Work," publishes The Workplace Violence Prevention eReport, and is a frequent speaker on workplace violence. Contact him at


2 Comments on “The Bullying Dilemma: It’s Time For Organizations to Get Serious About It

  1. All this is excellent information but if the CEO is a bully and doesn’t see anything wrong with it, then what’s the point of doing any of this?

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