Helping Targets & Their Employers Effectively Resolve Workplace Bullying

By Mattice, Catherine M. | The Journal of Employee Assistance, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Helping Targets & Their Employers Effectively Resolve Workplace Bullying


Mattice, Catherine M., The Journal of Employee Assistance


Workplace bullying has become a hot topic in the media and among human resources professionals. As attention on the subject increases, so will requests for expertise in this area. Providing coaching, training, and consulting in conflict management and communication skills are common practice among EA professionals. However, bullying is not about conflict as conflict implies disagreement. Bullying, on the other hand, constitutes psychological abuse.

EAPs that educate about bullying are in a unique position to assist targets of bullying, as well as to provide guidance to organizational leaders. Without specific knowledge about bullying, EAPs are likely to provide insufficient or even inaccurate advice to targets and their employers. This mistake can result in physical, psychological, and psychosomatic symptoms such as anxiety, depression, stress, lack of sleep, stomachaches, headaches, and a host of other negative consequences.

Post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide are also potential consequences of unresolved bullying at work. Furthermore, bystanders are affected when they witness a co-worker's torment, as well as spend their own days in fear of being targeted next.

This article will provide a research and evidence-based understanding of workplace bullying, offer information about the bullied target, and provide insights to assist employers in eliminating bullying.

Prevalence of Workplace Bullying

Between the two largest studies conducted in the United States, it is clear that bullying at work is pervasive. The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI)/Zogby International study (2007) found in interviews with 7,740 Americans that 37% of respondents reported being bullied, and an additional 12% had witnessed it. CareerBuilder found in a 2011 survey of more than 5,600 full-time American workers that 27% of respondents felt bullied. Beyond these studies there are hundreds more published in peer-reviewed academic journals, all of which make it devastatingly clear that bullying at work is very real.

Workplace Bullying Defined

Workplace bullying involves systematic and perpetual aggressive communication, manipulation, and acts aimed at degrading individuals. This creates an unhealthy power imbalance between the bully and targets, resulting in harmful consequences for targets, co-workers, and the organization (Mattice & Garman, 2010). Examples of bullying include gossip, threats, assigning work that is beyond the target's level of competence (or continually changing assignments without reason), using performance evaluations to cite the target as a low performer without providing the resources necessary for improvement, persistent criticism, and excessive micromanagement.

Certainly, any or all of these behaviors may happen at one time or another in anyone's work life. However, when they occur at least once per week over a period of at least six months it is considered bullying (Leymann, 1996). That's because it's over this period of time that a mixture of these behaviors wears down an individual's self-esteem. The average length of a bully-target relationship is approximately two years (Hoel & Cooper, 2000), after which time the target generally quits or is fired.

Bullying creates a severe and unhealthy power imbalance. The bully understands that he or she is more competent and powerful than the target, and the target believes he or she has no recourse. Over time the aggression becomes more frequent and belligerent, pushing the target further into a state of helplessness. It is this power imbalance that makes mediation, a traditional conflict resolution strategy, inappropriate for handling bullying.

In addition, in approximately 70% of cases the bully is a supervisor (Hoel & Cooper, 2000; Rayner, 1997); a peer or subordinate in the other 30% of bullying incidents.

Bullying does not exist in a vacuum. Organizational norms and structures such as competitiveness, bureaucracy, downsizing, high-stress environments, and weak leadership allows bullying to occur. …

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Helping Targets & Their Employers Effectively Resolve Workplace Bullying
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