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Workplace Bullying Is Costly
Bullying used to be considered issue mostly impacting children. That’s no longer true. More and more adults report experiencing mistreatment and hostility at work, turning into a costly problem for employers.
What is Workplace Bullying?
Workplace bullying involves multiple, repeated, intentional acts of aggression, hostility, social isolation, or disrespect. These acts often happen in person but also can occur through email, text messaging, and social media. Between 15-19% of working adults are victims of workplace bullying.1,2 Perpetrators are usually male (70%) and in supervisory positions (61%), while 60% of targets are women.2
Here are common examples of workplace bullying:3
- Intentionally sabotaging or undermining a coworker’s performance
- Giving a coworker constant and unwarranted criticism
- Cursing at, threatening, or humiliating others
- Spreading gossip or rumors about a person
- Willfully excluding or ignoring a colleague
- Suggesting a coworker quit or transfer to a different department in the company
Certain work environments are more likely to foster bullying, such as those with high stress, demanding workloads, and those in which employees feel high levels of job insecurity or boredom.4,5,6,7
Workplace bullying can harm a company's reputation, weaken employee morale, and strain finances.
Hostility at work is often a significant source of physical and emotional stress, leading to higher healthcare costs and absenteeism. Individuals targeted for mistreatment at work can experience increased rates of:8,9,10
- Insomnia and other sleep problems
- Gastrointestinal distress
- High blood pressure
- Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder
The Impacts of Workplace Bullying
People who work in hostile environments are more likely to leave the company, be absent from work, and feel dissatisfied with their job.3,11,12
These factors seriously impact a business’s bottom line in multiple ways. Consider these alarming facts:
- Bullying results in companies losing more than $250 million every year. This results from lost productivity, employee turnover, healthcare insurance claims, worker’s compensation disputes, employee recruitment and retraining, and litigation.3
- Workplace bullying costs businesses approximately $14,000 per employee in lost job performance.13
- Nearly 18 million work days are lost each year to workplace bullying.14
Effective Ways to Eliminate Workplace Bullying
Bullying is a manageable problem. Despite its cost, employers can take action to stop workplace bullying.2 Rather than turning a blind eye, employers should adopt these strategies to effectively stop workplace bullying:10,15,16,17
- Acknowledge that workplace bullying exists, is real, and is a problem. Being dismissive and unsupportive only exacerbates the problem.
- Don’t normalize bad behavior by dismissing it as “healthy aggression” or competitiveness between coworkers. If the phrase “survival of the fittest” describes your company’s culture, it’s probably time to adopt a new approach.
- Develop guidelines identifying acceptable company standards of conduct that defines bullying and the consequences. These should:
- Be clearly written and shared with all employees.
- Include procedures for responding to and reporting bullying.
- Include a “zero-tolerance” policy toward aggressive behaviors.(To view a sample anti-bullying workplace policy, check out the Resources section below.)
- Provide employee and management training programs on workplace aggression. Topics to address should include:
- Maintaining a civil and pleasant work environment.
- Resolving conflict in a respectful and productive manner.
- Identifying and responding to bullying by a coworker or supervisor.
- Reporting bullying to management.
- Disciplining bullying by those you supervise.
- Consider a workplace mediation team for incidents involving employees with a clear power imbalance (such as supervisors and those they supervise) to ensure all parties are treated fairly. This team could be internal—made up of employees and supervisors trained in conflict resolution—or could be a neutral third party, like professional workplace mediation consultants.
- Foster a positive and supportive work culture so employees that have been bullied feel safe raising incidents with their supervisors or Human Resource specialists. Many workers feel ashamed or embarrassed about being targets of workplace bullying and are afraid to report incidents.
- Remind employees about your organization’s Employee Assistance Program and how to access these services. EAP programs provide individuals with counseling, support and stress management solutions.
- Develop social media policies that protect employees from cyberbullying and clearly state the consequences for employees that violate these policies.
- Know the difference between bullying and harassment. The distinction is important because each has different legal consequences and should impact how a company responds to employee complaints.
Bullying vs. Harassment
Harassment involves targeting victims based on their membership in a protected class, such as gender, race/ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, or disability. Harassment is illegal. When harassment is reported, Human Resources should conduct an investigation and explore methods of resolving the dispute internally. The police must be notified if criminal activity is alleged to have occurred.
Bullying typically targets an individual without focusing on the person’s membership in a protected class. While inappropriate and unacceptable, there are currently no laws in this country that address bullying outright. But bullying is illegal when employees engage in or violate state or federal discrimination or harassment laws.
Despite these differences, companies should treat bullying and harassment with equal swiftness and seriousness. Bullying is costly, can lead to litigation, seriously damage a business’s reputation, and even worse, have long lasting negative effects on employees’ lives.
Bullying is not always preventable, but employers can significantly reduce the incidence and create a healthier work environment for all. Creating a supportive work environment may require time and resources up front but is a small price to pay with a high rate of return.
About the Author
Emily A. Kuhl, Ph.D., owner and operator of Right Brain/Left Brain, LLC, is a consultant to the Center for Workplace Mental Health and a medical writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., area.
Last Update: December 2017
- The Healthy Workplace Bill - This anti-bullying, grassroots legislative initiative is active in 30 states and 2 territories and has hundreds of sponsors.
- The Society for Human Resource Management Sample Workplace Bullying Policy (SHRM Membership Required) - This sample bullying workplace policy contains simple, clear language about bullying in the workplace and procedures for reporting and disciplining such acts.
- The Workplace Bullying Institute - This advocacy group offers extensive tools to help businesses manage bullying, including webinars, DVDs, tutorials, and professional coaching.
- United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Harassment - This page includes a description of the laws, regulations, and guidance pertaining to workplace harassment.
- Nielsen MB, Matthiesen SB, Einarsen S. The impact of methodological moderators on prevalence rates of workplace bullying. A meta-analysis. J Occup Organizational Psychol. 2010; 83, 955–979.
- Namie G. 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. Workplace Bullying Institute, June 2017.
- Hershcovis MS, Reich TC, Niven K. Workplace Bullying: Causes, Consequences, and Intervention Strategies. White paper for the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2015.
- De Cuyper N, Baillien E, De Witte H. Job insecurity and workplace bullying among targets and perpetrators: moderation by employability. Work Stress. 2009; 23, 206–224.
- Baillien E, De Cuyper N, De Witte H. Job autonomy and workload as antecedents of workplace bullying: A two-wave test of Karasek’s job demand control model for targets and perpetrators. J Occup Organizational Psychol. 2011; 191–208.
- Bowling NA, Beehr TA. Workplace harassment from the victim's perspective: a theoretical model and meta-analysis. J Appl Psychol. 2006; 91(5):998–1012.
- Bruursema K, Kessler SR, Spector PE. Bored employees misbehaving: The relationship between boredom and counterproductive work behavior as it is critical to the success of any business. Work Stress. 2011; 25(2), 93–107.
- Bonde JP, Gullander M, Hansen ÅM, Grynderup M, Persson R, Hogh A, Willert MV, et al. Health correlates of workplace bullying: a 3-wave prospective follow-up study. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2016; 42(1):17–25.
- Vie TL, Glasø L, Einarsen S. How does it feel? Workplace bullying, emotions and musculoskeletal complaints. Scand J Psychol. 2012; 53(2):165–173.
- Grimm JP. Workplace bullying: Its costs and prevention. The National Law Review. August 27, 2015.
- Nielsen MB, Einarsen S. Outcomes of exposure to workplace bullying: A meta-analytic review. Work Stress. 2012; 26, 309–332.
- Nabe-Nielsen K, Grynderup MB, Conway PM, Clausen T, Bonde JP, Garde AH, Hogh A, et al. The Role of Psychological Stress Reactions in the Longitudinal Relation Between Workplace Bullying and Turnover. J Occup Environ Med. 2017; 59(7):665–672.
- Pearson CM, Porath CL. The cost of bad behavior: How incivility damages your business and what you can do about it. New York: Portfolio, 2009.
- Handy A. The cost of absenteeism in the workplace and how to control it. December 21, 2016.
- >Curry L. Arm Your Workplace Against Cyberbullies. Society for Human Resource Management. September 15, 2014.
- Society for Human Resource Management. Managing Workplace Conflict (SHRM Membership Required). November 4, 2015.
- Yamada, D. Workplace bullying and the law. In: Einarsen S, Hoel H, Zapf D, Cooper CL, editors. Bullying and harassment in the workplace. 2. New York, NY: CRC Press; 2011, 469–483.