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Bullying at Work

Author(s): Aisha Abdulrahman, Khadija Chauhan, and Laiba Israr

Bullying is generally a very broad term that refers to a variety of aggressive and

intimidating behaviours. Workplace bullying is defined as the ongoing process within the

workplace where an employee is repeatedly exposed to abusive behaviour by one or more

co-workers or a supervisor. In these situations, the victim is usually in a position where it is

difficult to defend themselves and provided with little support from their workplace (Cason et

al., 2020). Particularly relevant now, workplace cyberbullying refers to negative behaviour

that occurs online within a work context (Vranjes et al., 2018). Workplace bullying, in any

form, has a number of negative consequences on the victim, bystanders, and the overall

organization (Cason et al., 2020). Much of the responsibility to provide employees with a

positive work environment falls on the human resource department in their response to

incidents. This responsibility includes appropriately handling bullying incidents, being

impartial, and most importantly, working to eliminate workplace bullying (Bullying in the

Workplace, 2017).

Bullying Effects on Employees and Organizations

Workplace bullying is categorized as a severe stressor for victims and witnesses alike.

Being the direct target of bullying is associated with a variety of psychological, physical, and

work-related problems. Victims may experience symptoms like increased anxiety, depression, burnout, and a negative attitude on work. Bullying is also understood as a very interpersonal phenomenon, meaning it has impacts beyond the victim. Studies indicate that witnesses to bullying may experience symptoms of guilt, insomnia, and headaches. When workplace bullying is consistent, victims and bystanders could interpret this as a psychological contract violation. This refers to the perceived non-fulfillment of the organizational promise to provide employees with respectful treatment and a safe workplace (Salin & Notelaers, 2020). Workplace cyberbullying in particular can be damaging to victims due to anonymity, high accessibility, and potential audience. Victims may feel they are unable to escape online abuse and this can intrude on their home/personal life resulting in a variety of health problems (Vranjes et al., 2018).

The physical and psychological impact workplace bullying has on employees has a

number of negative consequences on the organization. Bullying results in lower

performance/productivity from employees, lower job satisfaction, and lower organizational

commitment. This results in higher turnover intentions and in some cases increases overall

turnover (Salin & Notelaers, 2020). Bullying behaviour in the workplace is also a contributor

to employee absenteeism. This is an efficiency issue for organizations because it directly

affects productivity. Absenteeism resulting from bullying is often due to the health

impairments and lack of work engagement bullying causes. Bullying is a stressor that

contributes to poorer physical and mental health, when these symptoms are severe they can

affect an employee’s overall ability to attend work. Employees may also choose to be absent

from work as a way to escape a toxic, stressful work environment. Poor health also impacts

an employee's motivation and drive to do meaningful work which is associated with worse

attendance. These effects impact the overall well-being of employees and the entire company (Magee et al., 2017).

Human Resources and Employee Response to Bullying

The way employees and organizations respond to incidents of bullying will influence

much of the personal and organizational effects that follow. The HR departments in

organizations have a major role to play when bullying occurs because they hold much of the

responsibility in creating a positive work environment. Since bullying can have severe negative effects on victims and the organization, it is crucial for HR to take action and settle

the issue in as timely and effective a manner as possible. An effective response from the

organization will reduce the possibility of bullying incidents in the company going forward.

In order for HR personnel to respond to bullying complaints efficiently they must have proper

knowledge and skills. Ideally, HR personnel should conduct an unbiased investigation,

communicate throughout to keep everyone involved informed, and ensure the complainant is

supported and aware of their options. When a complaint is made, HR personnel should first

gather information to make sense of the accusation and determine if investigation is needed

(Bullying in the Workplace, 2017). Perception of what constitutes bullying will differ,

especially when the intensity of the perpetrators actions are ambiguous, this can complicate

the response process (Carson et al., 2020). HR response is also largely influenced by

organizational culture. A culture of bullying may be the reason for inadequate or no HR

action. Timely response is important because victims often become frustrated when they

perceive a lack of progress. HR personnel should inform victims about the outcome of their

complaint once a decision is reached. Perceived inadequate HR response can have a number of negative consequences on the organizaton and victims (Bullying in the Workplace, 2017).

Individual responses to workplace bullying are often influenced by their coping style. Employees who are victims of bullying learn to cope using their own methods and this influences the effects these incidents have on them. Coping strategies are what victims use to respond to the negative mental, emotional, and physical tolls that bullying has on them. These strategies occur when victims make mental and behavioural attempts to either reduce, or accept workplace stressors (Van den Brande et al., 2020). Bystanders also respond to bullying situations differently depending on their coping style. They may choose to avoid situations of bullying instead of intervening or offering support. Some witnesses may cope by intervening, this is common when bystanders are immersed in the incident and may include direct confrontation (Cason et al., 2020). Sometimes coping strategies can fluctuate depending on the situation, in other cases coping responses can be relatively stable over situations and time. These coping strategies for victims can be problem-focused and thus oriented at facing and overcoming the issue, or emotion-focused by managing emotions resulting from the stressor. Active coping, planning for incidents, and seeking support from the community are important strategies that can be beneficial responses to bullying. Others may respond by venting their frustrations or disengaging entirely, which can be effective emotionally (Van den Brande et al., 2020).

Recommendations for Organizations

Organizations can greatly benefit and strengthen their anti-bullying position from

acknowledging workplace bullying and working to develop methods to help resolve these

issues. This includes working toward prevention of bullying and addressing these incidents

effectively when they do occur.

In regards to prevention, developing and communicating a zero tolerance policy for

bullying will reassure employees that support is available and that their workplace cares to

prevent bullying. To promote a positive work environment and prevent incidents,

organizations should ensure all employees are aware of what constitutes bullying and how to

communicate with coworkers appropriately. This extends to online communication because,

as we know, workplace bullying extends to cyberbullying and can have severe consequences on employees (Vranjes et al., 2018). Organizations should implement bullying awareness and prevention seminars to educate all their employees on these concepts. This demonstrates responsibility and care for employee wellbeing on the part of the organization. Organizations that fail to educate their employees on what constitutes bullying may be the cause of victims to feel more vulnerable due to the perceived lack of support. Implementing employee mental health programs to build better methods for handling work stressors will provide employees with guidance and support on handling stressful situations. The programs can focus on helping employees identify different coping mechanisms and ways to address stressful and confrontational workplace situations (Van den Brande et al., 2020). Additionally, encouraging communication between HR personnel and employees will help foster a more positive workplace where victims feel supported. This extends to creating a system for victims to bring their complaint to HR. It also may be helpful for HR personnel to work with different employee units and teams and ensure the cultures within those teams are supportive and reflective of the zero tolerance bullying policy. This kind of interaction between HR and employees is important in keeping HR personnel involved and aware of bullying incidents so they can intervene early (Bullying in the Workplace, 2017).

If successful in fostering a safe, positive workplace, incidents should be rare and

when they do occur employees should feel supported when making complaints. When these

complaints are made, it is HR’s responsibility to address these issues in a timely, supportive,

and impartial manner. HR personnel should be properly trained and equipped with the skills

necessary to address complex incidents of bullying. There should be a procedure in place

when these issues occur that ensures evidence is gathered in a timely manner while victims

are supported, and all parties are communicated to throughout the process. Delaying the

process will only complicate the issue further and potentially enable more toxicity (Bullying

in the Workplace, 2017).


Bullying in the workplace: How HR practice can be improved. (2017). Human Resource

Management International Digest, 25(4), 16–18.

Dal Cason, Casini, A., & Hellemans, C. (2020). Moral Courage Fostering Bystander

Intervention Against Workplace Bullying: Findings from an Exploratory Study with a

Video-Vignette Procedure. International Journal of Bullying Prevention, 2(1), 53–64.

Magee, Gordon, R., Robinson, L., Caputi, P., & Oades, L. (2017). Workplace bullying and

absenteeism: The mediating roles of poor health and work engagement. Human

Resource Management Journal, 27(3), 319–334.

Salin, & Notelaers, G. (2020). The effects of workplace bullying on witnesses: violation of

the psychological contract as an explanatory mechanism? International Journal of

Human Resource Management, 31(18), 2319–2339.

Van den Brande, Baillien, E., Elst, T. V., De Witte, H., & Godderis, L. (2020). Coping styles

and coping resources in the work stressors-workplace bullying relationship: A

two-wave study. Work and Stress, 34(4), 323–341.

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