Bullying at work

an ethical and leadership dilemma for project managers

Paul Pelletier, LL.B., PMP


“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

— Desmond Tutu, Social Rights Activist and retired Archbishop, South Africa


Exhibit 1: Neutrality isn't an option.

This quote applies to bullies as well as it applies to elephants. Bullying can be as harmful in the workplace and on projects as it is in schools and other areas of society, causing the well-understood personal emotional impacts plus a long list of challenges for project managers and the organizations where it is taking place. Sadly, the rates of workplace bullying across the globe, despite efforts to eliminate it, are increasing dramatically. Projects are subsets of workplaces and since project management is, for the most part, an activity that involves working very closely with others, the impact of a bully in a project is potentially lethal to project success.

To complicate matters, workplace bullies are often hard to identify clearly. They can be highly skilled, yet socially manipulative, targeting “weaker” employees while adept at charming those they deem will serve their career path well. Thus, a senior manager or their supervisor may say, “That person seems great to me.”

The good news is that the world appears to be trending toward changes that may eventually see much better anti-bullying policies, strategies, and increased public awareness. Further, expanding illegalization of workplace bullying is helping open doors for efforts to prevent it. Employers are becoming more acutely aware of the human, legal, ethical, and financial costs associated with workplace bullying. In order to directly and proactively address this issue, organizations, project managers, and their organizations need to take action. Fortunately, there are many sources of information and tools available to assist them.

For the sake of brevity, references to bullying in this paper refer to workplace and/or project bullying. As already noted, bullying can be harmful to both the project and the people in the workplace. It is mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker's health, jeopardize his or her job and career, and strain relationships with friends and family. It is a laser-focused, systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It has nothing to do with work itself. It is driven by the bully's personal agenda and actually prevents work from getting done. After all, that is precisely what project managers are responsible for doing – getting project work done through the efforts of others. It begins with one person singling out the target. Before long, the bully easily and swiftly recruits others to gang up on the target, which increases the sense of isolation.

Workplace Bullying is mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute (WBI) defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment, verbal abuse, or conduct which is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or sabotage that interferes with work, or some combination of the three.” The WBI is an excellent resource for anyone wishing to learn more about workplace bullying and their website also includes a page with a list of excellent reference materials

Workplace bullying includes behaviors that can be categorized into three types, as outlined below. (This is a list of examples and is not exhaustive).

Aggressive Communication

  • Insulting or making offensive remarks
  • Shouting, yelling, angry outbursts
  • Going around coworkers in order to avoid communicating with them
  • Harsh finger pointing, invasion of personal space, shoving, blocking the way
  • Staring others down, giving dirty looks
  • Sending angry emails or other e-communication

Manipulation of Work

  • Removing tasks imperative to job responsibilities
  • Giving unmanageable workloads & impossible deadlines
  • Arbitrarily changing tasks
  • Using employee evaluations to document supposed poor work quality without setting goals or providing the tools needed to improve
  • Withholding pertinent information needed to do one's job effectively
  • Leaving employees out of communication
  • Excessive micromanagement
  • Failing to give credit, or stealing credit for others’ work
  • Preventing access to opportunities like promotions or raises
  • Sabotaging work


  • Humiliating or ridiculing, excessive teasing
  • Spreading rumors or gossip
  • Ignoring peers when they walk by
  • Playing harsh practical jokes
  • Taunting with the use of social media
  • Hinting that someone should quit, nobody likes them, or the boss thinks they are incompetent
  • Consistently pointing out mistakes, however little or long ago they occurred

Who Gets Targeted?

Unlike schoolyard bullying, you were not targeted because you were a “loner” or weakling without friends to stand up to the bullying gang. Most likely, you were targeted (for reasons the instigator may or may not have known) because you posed a “threat” to him or her. The perception of threat is entirely in his/her mind, but it is what he/she feels and believes. In the writer's opinion, project managers are a perceived threat because by definition, they are bringing about change or because they are drawing resources toward their project – likely away from the bully or other projects.

WBI research findings from the 2000 WBI Study and conversations with thousands of targets have confirmed that targets appear to be the veteran and/or most skilled person in the workgroup. Some of the common attributes of targets often include the following: Targets are independent. They refuse to be subservient. Bullies seek to enslave targets. When targets take steps to preserve their dignity or their right to be treated with respect, bullies escalate their campaigns of hatred and intimidation to wrest control of the target's work.

Targets are more technically skilled than their bullies. They are the “go-to” veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance. Insecure bosses and coworkers can't stand to share credit for the recognition of talent. Bully bosses steal credit from skilled targets – there are likely many project managers who have experienced such “credit theft.”

Targets are better liked; they have more social skills, and quite likely possess greater emotional intelligence. Colleagues, customers, and management typically appreciate the warmth that the targets bring to the workplace.

Targets are ethical and honest. This is particularly true for Project Management Institute (PMI) members – all of whom have committed to follow the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Targets are often people with personalities founded on a nurturing and social orientation – with a desire to help, heal, teach, develop, and nurture others.

How is bullying different from harassment?

Bullying certainly looks and feels like harassment. It is harassing, as commonly understood (defined as systematic, annoying, and continued actions which include threats and demands; creating a hostile situation by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct). But at work, harassment is a special term. Often, workplace harassment connotes sexual misconduct and a hostile work environment.

Some countries have state and federal civil rights laws that are designed to protect workers from discriminatory and disparate mistreatment. If, and only if, you are a member of a protected status (grounds) group and you have been mistreated by a person who is not a member of a protected group, you might be able to claim that you were harassed (only a local legal professional can advise you on this).

HR must respond to your complaint and the entire anti-discrimination procedure can then begin. According to the WBI, illegal discriminatory harassment is estimated to occur in only 20% of bullying cases - which means that 80% of bullying is “legal.” It is also estimated that 61% of bullying occurs within the same gender. Woman bullies famously target other women in 80% of cases, and it is completely “legal” unless race, age, or another status group membership characteristic can be claimed.

Project Impacts of Workplace Bullying


Exhibit 2: 80% of bullying is legal.

There is a wide range of direct negative and financial impacts which bullying has on projects. The most obvious are impacts on project success, team performance, budgets, and timelines. In a 2014 Guardian article on the problems created by workplace bullying, writer Ian Erickson, references an article on Stuff.com, in which New Zealander, Shane Cowishlaw, writes that workplace bullying costs his country “hundreds of millions” of dollars (Erickson, 2014). Australia reports losses in the billions. Not surprisingly for companies in the much larger United States, workplace bullying's related costs are estimated to be over US$200 billion. According to New Zealand News, workplace bullying affects about one in five employees.

Erickson also discusses how workplace bullying harms profits. He notes that: “The Workplace Bullying Institute describes workplace bullying in part, as behavior that prevents work from being finished. Losses are caused by staff members struggling to cope at work, high rates of absenteeism, and talented employees leaving in favor of a more harmonious place of employment.”

Many project managers would say that bullying is wrong, but not all recognize that it has tangible costs. Targets of bullying often punish their offenders and the organization, although most hide or bury their feelings and don't necessarily think of their actions as revenge. Through a WBI poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, we learned just how people's reactions play out. “Among workers who've been on the receiving end of bullying:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.

  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.

  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.

  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.

  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.

  • 66% said that their performance declined.

  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.

  • 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.

  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers”

Experiments and other reports offer additional insight about the effects of bullying. The following are some examples of what can happen.

a) Project Team and Individual Creativity Suffers.

In an experiment that the WBI conducted with Amir Erez, a professor of management at the University of Florida, participants who were treated rudely by other subjects “were 30% less creative than others in the study. They produced 25% fewer ideas, and the ones they did come up with were less original. For example, when asked what to do with a brick, participants who had been treated badly proposed logical, but not particularly imaginative activities, such as ‘build a house,’ ‘build a wall,’ and ‘build a school.’ We saw more sparks from participants who had been treated civilly; their suggestions included 'sell the brick on eBay,’ ‘use it as a goalpost for a street soccer game,’ ‘hang it on a museum wall and call it abstract art,’ and ‘decorate it like a pet and give it to a kid as a present.’”

b) Performance and Team Spirit Deteriorate.

WBI survey results and interviews indicate that simply witnessing bullying has negative consequences. In one experiment WBI conducted, they reported “people who'd observed poor behavior performed 20% worse on word puzzles than other people did. We also found that witnesses to bullying were less likely than others to help out, even when the person they'd be helping had no apparent connection to the uncivil person: Only 25% of the subjects who'd witnessed bullying volunteered to help, whereas 51% of those who hadn't witnessed it did.”

iii) Customers Turn Away.

People are less likely to do business with a company with an employee they perceive as a bully or rude, even if the bullying isn't directed at them. Disrespectful behavior makes people uncomfortable, and they're quick to cease business relations with an organization that permits bullying.

iv) Employee Turnover.

Bullied people often end up quitting for one reason or another. This has a significant negative impact on projects, especially when the organization has to replace the best and brightest (the bullied ones). Turnover costs include employer contributions to retirement plans for the departed worker, expenses to announce the job opening, head hunter/recruiting firm fees to recruit worthy replacement candidates, time spent by managers and staff to meet all candidates at meetings while getting no work done, hiring bonuses/incentives, and the harder-to-calculate lost production during the entire process that must be made up by coworkers.

v) Lost Opportunity Cost.

We know that adults targeted for bullying at work pose a threat to their bullies. Envy and jealousy are two powerful motives for bullying. That means that when the more talented target is driven from work, either through termination or constructive discharge or quitting, the company loses the value that worker created. For project managers, the loss of top talent can be fatal to project success.

Health Impacts of Workplace Bullying

According to the 2007 WBI-Zogby Survey, 45% of targeted individuals suffer stress-related health problems. Additional findings regarding targets’ health can be found in WBI research and the PTSD-related research by others posted at this site.

There are many documented negative health impacts that can be attributed to bullying. These impacts often slowly creep up, likely due to prolonged stress experienced by targets that deteriorate their physical or mental health. Unfortunately, most targeted people try to “tough it out.” This rarely solves the problem or stops the bullying, and it allows the overwhelming stress to build. The stress will not stop until the bullying stops, or the target is separated from the source, the stressors – the bully and his or her executive friends and sponsors.

Bullying affects both the brain and body. Stressors, aspects of the work environment, and the behavior of people working there can generate stress. Bullies are stressors, but so are coworkers, HR, and senior management who often do nothing when one expects them to help or exacerbate problems.

Stress is the biological human response to stressors. It is physiological and real, not just imagined. Low-level stress may be necessary to compel people to act. However, severe stress, which prevents rational, controlled action, has overwhelmingly negative consequences.

Distress, which is often experienced by targets, is the harmful variety of stress. Distress triggers the human stress response that is an automatically coordinated release of glucocorticoids andcortisol (being the most prominent hormone), that flood the brain and body. Prolonged exposure of brain tissue to glucocorticoids leads to atrophy of areas responsible for memory, emotional regulation, and an ability to sustain positive social relationships.


Exhibit 3: Emotional impacts of bullying.

We have broken the discussion of the health impacts of bullying into two categories: physical injuries and psychological-emotional-mental injuries.

a) Physical Injuries:

Stress-related diseases and health complications from prolonged exposure to the stressors of bullying as reported by the WBI:

  • Cardiovascular problems: hypertension (60%) to strokes, heart attacks
  • Adverse neurological changes: neurotransmitter disruption, hippocampus and amygdala atrophy
  • Gastrointestinal: Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), colitis
  • Immunological impairment: more frequent infections of greater severity
  • Auto-immune disorders
  • Fibromyalgia (21%), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (33%)
  • Diabetes (10%)
  • Skin Disorders (17%)

The source of the statistics above is the WBI 2012 Impact on Employee Health Survey.

b) Psychological-Emotional-Mental Injuries

Bullying is often called psychological harassment or violence. What makes it psychological is bullying's impact on the person's mental health and sense of well-being. The personalized, focused nature of the assault destabilizes and disassembles the target's identity, ego strength, and ability to rebound from the assaults. The longer the exposure to stressors like bullying, the more severe the psychological impact upon the target. When stress goes unabated, it compromises both a target's physical and mental health.

Psychological-emotional injuries as reported by the WBI (2012) include:

  • Debilitating anxiety (80%)
  • Panic attacks (52%)
  • Clinical depression: new to person or exacerbated condition previously controlled (49%)
  • Post-traumatic stress (PTSD) from deliberate human-inflicted abuse (30%)
  • Shame (the desired result of humiliating tactics by the bully) - sense of deserving a bad fate
  • Guilt (for having “allowed” the bully to control you)
  • Overwhelming sense of injustice (Equity - the unfairness of targeting you who works so hard; and Procedural - the inadequacy of the employer's response to your complaint)

c) Bullying and Suicide

Sometimes, the violence is turned inward. When the “way out” seems unattainable and no alternatives can be imagined, some people contemplate suicide. In the WBI 2012-D Study, 29% of bullied targets considered suicide and 16% had a plan.


Workplace Bullying is Increasing

According to a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, over the last few decades, the number of people who've admitted to being the target of workplace bullying has increased drastically. The article notes that in 2011, half of employees in one survey said they were treated rudely at least once a week, an increase of 25% from 1998. Further, the Workplace Bullying Institute notes that many people who have experienced bullying have developed health issues including anxiety and depression. Some have even left their jobs in an attempt to escape the situation, often feeling they have no one to turn to for support in the organization or in fear of retaliation. These statistics and the harm bullies can cause has a direct impact on projects and project managers – if there is a bully operating in a project, the impact on the project team can be toxic, which inevitably has negative impacts for the team members and the project.

How many people are bullied at work? Recent research indicates that 35% of the workforce is bullied (CareerBuilder.com, 2012). Other international research has found that 53% (Rayner, 1997) and even up to 75% (Einarsen & Raknes, 1997) of the workforce is bullied. The percentage of people bullied will vary based on country, industry, gender, organizational culture, and many other factors.

Employer Responsibility

Employers define all work conditions— employee selection, job descriptions, work assignments, creation of the management group, compensation, leave policies, and termination without cause (except in rare circumstances). So, bullying—the system—can only be sustained or eliminated by employers. However, everyone employed within an organization can play an anti-bullying advocate role to encourage change.

Stopping bullying requires nothing less than turning the workplace culture upside down. Bullies must experience negative consequences for harming others. Punishment must replace promotions. And only executives and senior management can reverse the historical trend. Stopping bullying requires employers to change the routine ways of “doing business” that have propped up bullies for years. Bullies are too expensive to keep, but convincing executives, often the bully's best friends and supporters, is difficult.

In conclusion, the ultimate solution fixes responsibility for both the cause and cure squarely on the shoulders of senior management and executives. They put people in harm's way and they can provide safety by undoing the culture that may have inadvertently allowed bullying to flourish. Of course, if executives instruct others to bully from the top, targeted employees can never be safe.


Exhibit 4: A bullying action plan.

A Bullying Action Plan

We divided options for addressing workplace bullying into two groups: employers/organizations and project managers/leaders. We have provided a separate bullying toolkit for targets as an addendum to this paper.

a) What Can Employers/Organizations Do About Bullying?

Business-savvy organizations are taking increasingly proactive steps to confront workplace bullying, reinforcing the value of ethical awareness and policies predicated on building trust, protecting employees, and instilling confidence in those who work for the organization and those who do business with them.

Anti-bullying advocates and experts offer tips to companies and project managers. Some of the most practical, proactive tips are the following:

1. Create organizational anti-bullying policies, effective methods to report and investigate alleged bullying, and make training mandatory: All organizations should establish clear and effective bullying policies and procedures for addressing bullying allegations. Training, awareness, and education are critical to the success of such policies. If your organization has no anti-bullying policy, project managers should lobby hard for change.

2. Consider long-term project and organization wellbeing when addressing bullying: While bullies create many negative, long-term problems, they are often highly intelligent, manipulative, and laser focused professionals that appear to get the job done where others have failed. Since workplace bullies often get short-term results, employers (particularly senior management level staff), too often tolerate them. Thus, in spite of their negative qualities, bullies often get away with abuse and even receive positive evaluations from their supervisors. However, it is far better to proactively and directly address the bullying than to permit spreading poison throughout the organization.

3. Lead by example from the top: From the organization's highest levels, it should be made clear that bullying isn't acceptable. Even the slightest hint that it might be tolerated is often enough for a bully to cause damage. So, from the CEO and project managers all the way down to lower-ranking staff, the message must be one of zero tolerance for bullying.

4. Respond to all types bullying behavior: Bullying often begins with small actions such as eye rolling, sneering, or demeaning a colleague, either in private or publicly. While such behavior may seem insignificant, it is unprofessional and project managers must address it immediately. The effects of bullying arise from these types of indignities and often lead to more serious problems if left unchecked.

5. Take bullying claims seriously, but tread carefully: Assuming a bullying allegation is merely a conflict between two coworkers who should sort it out between themselves represents a misunderstanding of bullying. It's much more one-way and requires authoritative intervention. Take bullying allegations seriously, but don't assume they're true – that is for the investigation process to determine. Ensure that you take the initiative to respond and report and let the experts take over.

6. Bullying investigations must be impartial, fair, and fulsome: In order for a project team or the organization as a whole to feel safe and have faith that it takes this issue of bullying seriously, it is essential that investigations are unbiased, free from political interference, and result in appropriate responses if allegations are proven. An impartial investigator should be engaged to conduct this sensitive work and be permitted to speak to anyone who may have witnessed the activity. Fair treatment for all victims, bullies, and witnesses is needed to engender trust in the process.

b) What Can Project Managers/Leaders Do About Bullying?

There are a number of important steps project managers can take to confront project bullying and protect their team members. As a starting point and reminder, PMI members commit to act ethically and professionally when they become and renew their membership (PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, 2006). They must meet the manditory elements within the code to demonstrate responsibility, respect, fairness, and honesty, and are strongly encouraged to adhere to the aspirational sections of that document as well. PMI members also have a five-step Ethical Decision-Making Framework (EDMF) they can use to guide them when confronted with an ethical dilemma involving bullying (PMI, 2012). The EDMF can help to frame bullying problems, clarify goals, examine assumptions and options, discern hidden values, evaluate evidence, and assess conclusions.

It can take constant vigilance to keep the workplace civil and free from bullying; otherwise, rudeness tends to creep into everyday interactions. Project managers can use several strategies to keep their own behavior in check and to foster civility among others.

1) Managing yourself: Project managers set the tone, so you need to be aware of your actions and of how you come across to others.

2) Model good behavior: In a survey, the WBI found that “25% of managers who admitted to having behaved badly said they were uncivil because their leaders—their own role models—were rude. If employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace bullying behavior, they’re likely to follow suit. So turn off your iPhone during meetings, pay attention to questions, and follow up on promise.”

3) Ask for feedback: You may need a reality check from the people who work with or for you. Such feedback can prove very insightful and helpful.

4) Teach civility: It's amazing how many project managers don't understand what it means to be civil. One quarter of the manager offenders WBI surveyed said that they didn't recognize their behavior as uncivil.

5) Create group norms: Start a dialogue with your team about expectations. Ask your project team to produce and take ownership of concrete norms for civility, such as arriving on time and ignoring email during meetings.

6) Reward good behavior: Collegiality should be a consideration in every performance review, but many companies think only about outcomes and tend to overlook damaging behaviors. What behavior does your review system motivate? All too often, we see organizations badly miss the mark. They want collaboration, but you'd never know it from their evaluation forms, which focus entirely on individual assessment, without a single measure of teamwork.

7) Penalize bad behavior: Even the best companies occasionally make bad hires, and employees from an acquired firm may be accustomed to different norms. The trick is to identify and try to correct any troublesome behavior. Companies often avoid taking action, though, and most incidents go unreported, partly because employees know nothing will come of a report. If you want to foster respect, take complaints seriously and follow up.

A warning to those who think consistent civility is an extravagance: Just one habitually offensive employee, critically positioned in your organization, can cost you dearly in project delays and costs, lost employees, lost customers, and lost productivity.


The good news is that increased global organizational and public awareness, recent research, and expanding illegalization of workplace bullying are having positive impacts. Project managers and employers around the world are becoming more informed of the many negative impacts and costs associated with workplace bullying. If employers, project managers, and senior executives take initiative in addressing bullying early on, much larger financial, ethical, legal, human resource, and project problems will be avoided. Eventually, these initiatives will lead to wider support for zero tolerance for bullying in the workplace regardless of circumstance, societal norm, or jurisdiction.

You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.” - Winston Churchill, Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom


Exhibit 5: Winston Churchill.


Cardemil, Alisha R., Cardemil, Esteban V., & O‘Donnell, Ellen H. (2010, August). Self-esteem in pure bullies and bully/victims: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25(8), 1489–1502.

CareerBuilder.com (2014). Office Bullying is Harming Workers Across all Demographics. http://advice.careerbuilder.com/posts/office-bullying-is-harming-workers-across-all-demographics

Cowlishaw, Shane (20/02/2014) Workplace Abuse Costing us Millions. Stuff.co.nz http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/better-business/9741808/Workplace-abuse-costing-us-millions

Einarsen, Ståle. (2003). Bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace: International perspectives in research and practice. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis. www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/references/

Einarsen, Ståle., Raknes, B. I., Matthiesen, S.B. (1997). Bullying and harassment at work and their relationships to work environment quality: An exploratory study. http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/references/

Erickson, Ian.(2014, February 1) Bullying in the workplace a problem for employers. Guardian. Retrieved from http://guardianlv.com/2014/02/bullying-in-workplace-a-problem-for-employers/#jVfFzPGYWtSlXGdq.

Habib, Marlene. (2011, December 19). Bullies can make workplace intolerable. Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/bullies-can-make-workplace-intolerable/article4201840/

Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. (2008). The leadership challenge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

O‘Brochta, M. (2013, October). Great project leadership: Five essentials - how leadership and ethics sank along with the Titanic. PMI Global Congress 2013, North America, New Orleans, LA.

Porath, Christine and Pearson, Christine. (2013, January 1). The price of bullying in the workplace. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2013/01/the-price-of-bullying/ar/1

Project Management Institute. (2006). PMI code of ethics and professional conduct. Newtown Square, PA: Author. Retrieved from http://www.pmi.org/About-Us/Ethics/Ethics-Resources.aspx

Project Management Institute. (2012). PMI ethical decision-making framework. Newtown Square, PA: Author. Retrieved from http://www.pmi.org/About-Us/Ethics/Ethics-Resources.aspx

Project Management Institute. (2007). Project manager competency development framework - Second Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Raynor, Charlotte. (1997). The Incidence of Workplace Bullying. The Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. Volume 7 Issue 3 pages 199 – 208. June 1997 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/%28SICI%291099-1298%28199706%297:3%3C199::AID-CASP418%3E3.0.CO;2-H/abstract

Stephens, Tina & Hallas, Jane. (2006). Bullying and sexual harassment: A practical handbook. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier.

The Workplace Bullying Institute. (2012). The WBI definition of workplace bullying. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/individuals/problem/definition/

The Workplace Bullying Institute. (2000) The Target Selection Factors of workplace bullying. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbistudies/

The Workplace Bullying Institute. (2012) WBI Survey: Workplace Bullying Health Impact. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbistudies/

The Workplace Bullying Institute. (2007) WBI and Zobby Survey: US Workplace Bullying Survey. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2007/

The Workplace Bullying Institute's list of reference books. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/recommended-books/

Additional Tools for Targets/Victims

Are you being bullied on a project or at work?

One of the greatest tragedies is that the best and brightest individuals are the most frequently selected targets. You somehow posed a threat to a person who does not have a fully-developed set of morals. He or she may possess skills, their favourites being the ones involving manipulation and control of other people and winning at the game of political sabotage at work. The fact that bullies are threatened speaks volumes about them, not about you. But don't waste time feeling pity for them. Focus on finding relief and addressing your needs.

If you are being bullied on a project, it is likely that you are experiencing many emotions and challenges. You are miserable. You are harassed. Your work is sabotaged, blocked, or stolen. Perhaps you didn't think of calling it bullying because that's what happens to kids in school, not to adults. Wrong! Workplace bullying is experienced by more than one-third of the U.S. workforce.

The following is a checklist of things that the Workplace Bullying Institute noted as common victim experiences in project and workplace bullying situations:

Experiences Outside Work

  • You feel like throwing up the night before the start of your work week
  • Your frustrated family demands that you stop obsessing about work at home
  • Your doctor asks what could be causing your skyrocketing blood pressure and recent health problems and tells you to change jobs
  • You feel too ashamed of being controlled by another person at work to tell your spouse or partner
  • All your paid time off is used for “mental health breaks” from the misery
  • Days off are spent exhausted and lifeless, your desire to do anything is gone
  • Your favourite activities and fun with family are no longer appealing or enjoyable
  • You begin to believe that you provoked the workplace cruelty

It feels as bad as it looks.

Experiences at Work

  • You attempt the obviously impossible task of doing a new job without training or time to learn new skills, but that work is never good enough for the boss
  • Surprise meetings are called by your boss with no results, other than further humiliation
  • Everything your tormenter does to you is arbitrary and capricious, working a personal agenda that undermines the employer's legitimate business interests
  • Others at work have been told to stop working, talking, or socializing with you
  • You are constantly feeling agitated and anxious, experiencing a sense of doom, waiting for bad things to happen
  • No matter what you do, you are never left alone to do your job without interference
  • People feel justified screaming or yelling at you in front of others, but you are punished if you scream back
  • HR tells you that your harassment isn't illegal, that you have to “work it out between yourselves”
  • You, finally, firmly confront your tormentor to stop the abusive conduct and you are accused of harassment
  • You are shocked when accused of incompetence, despite a history of objective excellence, typically by someone who cannot do your job
  • Everyone—coworkers, senior bosses, HR—agrees (in person and orally) that your tormentor conducts him/herself inappropriately, but there is nothing they will do about it (and later, when you ask for their support, they deny having agreed with you)
  • Your request to transfer to an open position, under another boss, is mysteriously denied

Two important points:

1. You are not the only one to have experienced this. You are not the first in your country, your state or province, your company, not even the only one in your work unit! Isolation—much of it self-imposed because you feel so badly—compounds the stress.

2. You did not invite the misery. No one in his or her right mind should ever believe the bully's lie that another person (you) deserves to be humiliated, intimidated, and abused. You did not ask for it. You did not wake up one morning and say that this was the day to be humiliated. You did not trigger this campaign of hatred.

Synonyms that reflect the seriousness of bullying: psychological violence, psychological harassment, personal harassment, “status-blind” harassment, mobbing, emotional abuse at work

Euphemisms intended to trivialize bullying and its impact on bullied people: bullying, disrespect, difficult people, personality conflict, negative conduct, ill treatment.

What Can Victims Do About Bullying?

The Workplace Bullying Institute provides some very helpful advice for victims regarding how to respond to bullying. They suggest the following three steps:

Step One – Refer to the behaviour in question as “bullying”

1.  Choose a name—bullying, psychological harassment, psychological violence, or emotional abuse—to offset the effect of being told that because your problem is not illegal, you cannot possibly have a problem. This makes people feel illegitimate. The cycle of self-blame and anxiety begins.

2.  The source of the problem is external. The bully decides who to target and how, when, and where to harm people. You did not invite, nor want, the systematic campaign of psychological assaults and interference with your work. Think about it. No sane person wakes up each day hoping to be humiliated or berated at work.

3.  There is tremendous healing power in naming. This is hard to believe at first, but very true.

Step Two - Take Time Off to Heal and Launch a Counterattack

Accomplish the following five important tasks while on sick leave or short-term disability (granted by your physician).

1.  Check your mental health with a professional (not the employer's EAP). Get emotionally stable enough to make a clear-headed decision to stay and fight, or to leave for your health's sake. Your humanity makes you vulnerable; it is not a weakness, but a sign of superiority. Work trauma, by definition, is an overwhelming, extraordinary experience.

2.  Check your physical health. Stress-related diseases rarely carry obvious warning signals (e.g., hypertension - the silent killer). Read the current research on work stress and heart disease.

3.  Research state and federal legal options (in one-quarter of bullying cases, discrimination plays a role). Talk to legal counsel and see if, perhaps, a demand letter can be written. Look for internal policies (harassment, violence, respect) for violations to report (fully expecting retaliation).

4.  Make the bottom-line business case for stopping the bully. See our detailed Estimating Costs of Bullying Worksheet.

5.  Start searching for your next job or position.

Step Three - Expose the Bully

The real risk was sustained when you were first targeted (targets lose their job—involuntarily or by choice for their health's sake—in 77.7% of cases). It is no riskier to attempt to dislodge the bully. Retaliation is a certainty. Have your escape route planned in advance. Remember, good employers purge bullies, most promote them.

1.  Make the business case that the bully is “too expensive to keep.” Present the data gathered (in Step 2) to let the highest-level person you can reach (not HR) know about the bully's impact on the organization. Obviously, in family-owned or small businesses, this is impossible (so leave once targeted).

2.  Stick to the bottom line. If you drift into tales about the emotional impact of the bully's harassment, you will be discounted and discredited.

3.  Give the employer one chance. If they side with the bully because of personal friendship (“he's a great conversationalist and a lunch buddy”) or rationalize the mistreatment (“you have to understand that that is just how he/she is”), you will have to leave the job for your health's sake. However, some employers are looking for reasons to purge their very difficult bully. You are the internal consultant with the necessary information. Help good employers purge.

4.  The nature of your departure — either bringing sunshine to the dark side or leaving shrouded in silent shame — determines how long it takes you to rebound and get that next job, to function fully, and to restore compromised health. Tell everyone about the petty tyrant for your health's sake. You have nothing to be ashamed about. You were only doing the job you once loved.”

© 2015, Paul Pelletier
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK



Related Content