Bullying behaviours in the workplace

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  • Updated.jpg This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, October 2018


  • bullying research; aggressiveness, harrassment; power imbalance in workplace; legal, ethical concerns; lateral violence
  • “cyberbullying” and “cyber-harassment”; Internet bullying; social media, virtual worlds; email, cell phone, text messages


See also Conflict resolution | Critical thinking | Digital citizenship | Managing health libraries | Medical oddities | Research Portal for Academic Librarians

"...A dynamic body of knowledge about workplace bullying and burnout in academic libraries exists; however, there is a significant shortage of library and information science (LIS) literature regarding the related problem of low morale in any library environment..." - Kendrick, 2017

Bullying is defined as the "...use of superior strength and influence in the workplace to coerce or intimidate others.... it is typically undertaken by supervisors but also by peers against each other...." A recent Canadian study estimates that bullying in the workplace is three to four times more common than sexual harassment or racial discrimination. Many bullying behaviours in the workplace have a psychological component where the bullying boss or individual seeks to undermine someone and their work.

The prevalence of bullying in health care settings and within organizations such as libraries suggests that it is a severe and persistent human resources and societal problem. If workplace bullies continue their intimidating, abusive tactics, they can exact a toll on employees. Where bullying becomes a modus operandi for upper administration, morale can also be severely damaged. In much of workplace bullying, the experience is often emotionally confusing to victims, and may at first be subtle enough to workers, even to those who witness the behaviours, that nothing can be done initially to stop them. In others cases, nurses at the frontlines of care have reported lateral bullying behaviours which can escalate to harrassment and aggressive behaviours, or violence. Research shows that bullies have specific personality profiles, and select victims based on some of the following:

  • being good at your job, often excelling
  • being popular with colleagues, clients, students, etc.
  • more than anything, the bully fears exposure of her inadequacy and incompetence; your presence and popularity unknowingly and unwittingly fuel her fear
  • being an expert and person to whom others come for advice, either personal or professional
  • having well-defined set of values which you are unwilling to compromise
  • having strong sense of integrity (bullies despise integrity, for they have none, and seem compelled to destroy anyone who does)
  • having at least one vulnerability that can be exploited
  • being older or too expensive (usually both)
  • refusing to join established clique
  • showing independence of thought or deed
  • refusing to become corporate clone /drone

Jealousy (of relationships and perceived exclusion) and envy (talents, abilities, circumstances) are strong motivators for workplace bullies. Research also shows that there are strong associations between exposure to bullying behaviours and poorer health and wellbeing. Those who report being victims of bullying also report higher rates of absenteeism and psychological problems.

Conflict in modern organizations

Sometimes, conflict is so much a part of the workplace that employees cannot recognize the building blocks of bullying behaviours. The conflict can begin in meetings with an eye roll, an intimidating glare, a dismissive retort, nasty remark or even a joke at someone's expense - these are just some of the subtle tactics of the workplace bully. The problem is that while these behaviours happen in all workplaces some can escalate and create a toxic work environment.

Several important factors underlie a toxic environment which are also linked to bullying. Two important determining factors are power and control. It is critical that mutually-agreeable compromises are found when two (or more) parties disagree and that appropriate solutions are found. Sometimes a neutral third party can help to move employees beyond their rigidly-held positions. It also appears that the more important someone is effective at their job, the more likely they are to disagree when changes are made without their consultation or agreement. The potential for disagreement seems to be high during periods of economic restraint and organizational change. Often, the most difficult organizational conflicts begin between two workers who hold rigid views cannot relinquish power or find compromise / middle-ground. Some supervisors will use their power to silence those who disagree with them.

There are two approaches to resolving conflicts that have components that one would recognize as bullying. One is to suggest working with the bully to solve your differences which may be as simple as agreeing to a compromise or solution. However, often it is necessary to bring in an arbitrator or third party to help. This may include mediation or even cognitive-behavioural therapy. Regardless of the method or solution, several issues and themes emerge in the conflict or bullying resolution process. These include cooperation, accepting diversity and problem-solving. One key is to ask those to summarize their views for the other person with whom they disagree. The goal is to lead to mutually-acceptable compromise.


The rise of online learning tools and social media has created a number of potential avenues for bullying. Cyber-bullying is the term used to describe this form of incivility in the electronic environment, and is characterized by posting misinformation, gossiping and/ or publishing materials that are meant to defame and humiliate others. In the legal sense, cyberbullying is defined as actions that use information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviours intended to harm others. Some examples that constitute cyberbullying include actions are making threats, encouraging the defamation of others, belittling and using profanity. Cyberbullying has been defined by the National Crime Prevention Council as “when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person. A cyberbully may be someone known to the victim or a stranger. Cyberbullies are often anonymous and may solicit involvement of other people online who do not even know the target.

Some events that trigger bullying

Bullying starts after one of these events:

  • your knowledge, skills and abilities highlight, expose or invite comparison with the bully's lack of ability
  • in the workplace, if you work to address some issues and are successful, the bully is apt to become more insecure and find additional ways to control the situation
  • you may become a focus for the respect of others whereas this is what the bully seeks (often occurs with female bullies) - most are emotionally immature
  • the bully is envious of the respect you have from co-workers
  • refusing to obey orders; standing up for colleague who is bullied - ensures you will be next; sometimes bully drops their current target and turns attention to you
  • blowing whistle on incompetence, fraud, breaches of procedure, safety regulations etc
  • challenging status quo; gaining recognition for your achievements, eg. winning award or publicly recognized; promotion

Personal qualities bullies find irresistible

Targets of bullying usually have these qualities:

  • popularity (stimulates jealousy)
  • competence (stimulates envy)
  • intelligence and intellect
  • honesty and integrity
  • you are trustworthy, trusting, conscientious, loyal and dependable
  • a well-developed integrity which you're unwilling to compromise
  • willing to go that extra mile and expect others to do the same
  • successful, tenacious, determined, courageous
  • sense of humour; displays of quick-wittedness
  • imaginative, creative, innovative
  • idealistic, optimistic, working for improvement; ability to master new skills
  • ability to think long term and to see bigger picture
  • sensitivity (values to be cherished including empathy, concern for others, respect, tolerance etc)
  • helpful, willing to share knowledge; diligent
  • tackle and correct injustice wherever you see it
  • high moral standards which you are unwilling to compromise
  • unwilling to lower standards; strong defined set of values
  • high expectations of those in authority and dislike of those who abuse power
  • a strong sense of fair play and a desire to always be reasonable

Typical sequence of events

  • acceptance of manipulating, intimidating or belittling remarks by the bully
  • the bully's target is then selected and bullied for months, perhaps years
  • at some point, the victim is assertive and demands not to be bullied; filing a complaint with personnel
  • human resources interview the bully, who uses charm to tell a story that may disparage the victim
  • with few witnesses and little evidence, HR supports bully - serial bullies excel at deception and evasion of accountability
  • HR is serially deceived by bully, and adept at winning
  • eventually, new targets are selected (bullying is compulsive behaviour and serial bullies are unable not to bully)
  • HR may realize they have not supported victim; they are unlikely to admit this due to liability
  • if legal action is taken, HR will try to keep victim quiet; may offer out-of-court settlement with a comprehensive gag clause
  • employers are more frightened of bully than target; and go to enormous lengths to avoid bully

Recommendations to combat bullying

In the workplace, all employees are responsible for contributing to an atmosphere of trust and support in order to reach the organization's long-term goals. Respect, understanding and tolerance are the basic building blocks that are used to ensure that we work as a team and create harmony. If you witness bullying behaviour, be prepared to question it or report it.



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