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New research sheds light on bullying in the workplace

A recent survey on workplace bullying conducted by scientists at the University of New Mexico found that nearly 3 in 10 U.S. workers are bullied at work, but only about 1 in ten would self-identify as being the victim of a bully. The survey authors listed a set of negative acts and asked how frequently respondents had experienced those acts in the past six months. Bullying was defined as experiencing “at least two negative acts, weekly or more often, for six or more months.”
Survey authors attributed the discrepancy to several things:

“Bullying, by definition, is escalatory. This is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to prevent it, because it usually starts in really small ways,” said study team member Sarah Tracy, director of the Project for Wellness and Work-Life at Arizona State University.

Another factor might be that bullying is a phenomenon just creeping into people’s vocabulary as the research and education on the topic burgeons. For instance, Tracy explained, before the term “sexual harassment” was in the American lexicon, people didn’t identify the behavior as such.

Until recently, the term “bully” has been used to describe the schoolyard tyrant, which is kid stuff. So identifying yourself as a victim of a playground act can make a person feel weak and childish.

The survey also addressed the matter of witnesses to bullying behavior. Participants were asked if they had witnessed bullying behavior, learning that those who had found the experience to be very stressful:

“Witnesses describe seeing others psychologically terrorized as the equivalent to watching a mugging every day and being unable to stop it,” Lutgen-Sandvik told LiveScience. “They feel deep pain for their colleagues. Some get involved and try to help and are either targeted as a result or feel deep disappointment, anger, and shock that little is done to stop the abuse.”

Study authors suggest that the best way to fight back against a bully is to learn how to tell a compelling, detailed story about the behavior so that it can be reported to human resources or other managerial staff. features a detailed article that lists 8 Tactics to Bust the Office Bully. These tactics were developed by Sarah Tracy, director of the Project for Wellness and Work-Life at Arizona State University, after analyzing narratives told by bully victims. Although these tactics are aimed at employees, HR managers might find both the tactics and the research helpful to use as a methodology when investigating worker complaints.

2 Responses to New research sheds light on bullying in the workplace

  1. Jerome Alexander May 1, 2007 at 8:45 pm #

    Tell a compelling story? I’ve got a million of them. These are not blatant acts of thuggery or verbal abuse. It’s much more subtle but just as vicious and just as damaging in its effect.
    I believe that all forms of “bullying” are a result of a corporate culture of ignorance, denial and excuse. It is the leadership that must recognize the problem and address it. Doubtful in today’s business world.
    Until then I’ll continue to be one of the voices in the wilderness.
    And they wonder why I became “The Corporate Cynic.”

  2. robert edward cenek, RODP May 1, 2007 at 10:46 pm #

    I have had the opportunity to lead interventions in organizations due to issues with bullying. Almost always, it’s a manifestation of deeper organizational issues – i.e., dysfunctional leadership, an angry workforce, etc.
    robert edward cenek, RODP
    Uncommon Commentary on the World of Work