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Workplace Bullying: Why does it continue?

Workplace bullying: Why does it continue?

Despite laws against workplace bullying, a 2012 report by Safe Work Australia found the rates of workplace bullying in Australian workplaces are significantly higher than international rates.

A survey of 5,743 workers from six states and territories found that almost seven per cent of workers had experienced workplace bullying in the second half of 2012 compared to international rates of between one and four per cent.

But if laws against bullying in the workplace exist, why does it still occur?

What is bullying?

Firstly, we need to understand what workplace bullying is. According to the Australian Fairwork Ombudsman , a worker is considered to be bullied at work if:

• a person or group of people repeatedly act unreasonably towards them or a group of workers
• the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

It’s important to note not all behaviour that upsets someone or causes them to feel undervalued at work is classified as workplace bullying. For example, managers can make decisions about poor performance and take disciplinary action. They also have the right to direct and control the way work is performed. Any reasonable action that’s carried out in a reasonable manner is not bullying.

Similarly, a single incident of unreasonable behavior is also not classified as bullying, even though it may have the potential to escalate. However, while not considered to be bullying, a single incident should not be ignored.

Safe Work Australia lists the following as examples of bullying behavior :

• abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
• unjustified criticism or complaints
• deliberately excluding someone from workplace activities
• withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
• setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
• setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level
• denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources to the detriment of the worker
• spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
• changing work arrangements, such as rosters and leave, to deliberately inconvenience a particular worker or workers.

The difficulty in pinpointing ‘bullying behaviour’

While workplace bullying is illegal and unacceptable, it can be difficult to ascertain what constitutes bullying. After all, the definition encompasses unreasonable behaviour. And what is deemed by one party as reasonable, may be deemed unreasonable by another.

In their paper, Workplace bullying: Is lack of understanding the reason for inaction? , Branch and Murray examined two cases in which ongoing behaviour of one party significantly impacted upon another party, in a negative way. Behaviour included playing a series of pranks on an individual, mocking an individual, dishing out racial and homophobic slurs, and sexually graphic language and gestures being directed towards a victim’s family members.

What the researchers found is “there is no clear consensus as to where the line is crossed between workplace banter (or team comradery) and workplace bullying.”

Effects of bullying

Research has shown workplace bullying can have devastating effects. Short-term, sufferers may experience increased anxiety and panic attacks, a reduction in self-esteem, lower productivity, reduced attendance at work and poorer overall wellbeing.

Long-term, the stress-related effects can be similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and in more extreme cases, suicide.

Bystanders who watch bullying are also not immune to its effects. They can experience fear that they will be the next target, along with guilt and shame for not getting involved. They are also generally affected due to working in a toxic environment.

Workplace bullying can lead to negative effects within the organisation, including:

• absenteeism from work due to stress and anxiety
• reduced productivity
• reduced job satisfaction
• higher staff turnover
• costs related to replacing staff who leave.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission , workplace bullying costs Australian employers between $6 and $36 billion dollars every year, when hidden and lost opportunity costs are considered.

Why does it happen?

So if the cost of workplace bullying is so high, both psychologically and financially, why does it still happen, and why is it on the rise?

Here are three possible reasons:

1. A lack of understanding as to what workplace bullying really is
2. Destructive leadership styles which perpetuate bullying behaviour
3. An entrenched culture of bullying viewed as ‘a rite of passage’

Lack of understanding

Workplace bullying is usually portrayed as a conflict between a more powerful individual (i.e. manager) and a less powerful individual (i.e. the subordinate). However, it can also occur between colleagues and in an upward motion (i.e. subordinates bullying their managers).

Branch and Murray believe one reason bullying continues in the workplace is that managers without experience in workplace bullying (either as targets or witnesses), have little understanding as to how targets are actually affected.

This lack of understanding can lead to inaction by managers and co-workers, because they don’t understand what is happening, how bad it can get, and how important it is to take action.

Toxic environments and destructive leadership

While some managers genuinely don’t have a clear understanding of bullying and how it can affect individuals as well as organisations, there are some that do. However, rather than take action against it, their leadership style perpetuates bullying behaviour. This is known as destructive leadership.

Studies have found that destructive leadership is common in the workplace with as many as 25 per cent of workplaces having destructive or toxic leaders.

Typical behaviours of a destructive or toxic leader may include but are not limited to:

• micromanaging (there can be a fine line between monitoring and micromanaging)
• taking credit for the work of others
• sexual harassment
• lying about important issues.

These behaviours can be difficult to pinpoint, particularly if they don’t occur all the time. Similarly, destructive leaders can be hard to identify as may behave badly in some areas, but perform extremely well in others.

Erickson et al, in their paper Destructive leadership: Causes, consequences and countermeasures , believe destructive leaders create an environment of benign followers by using management practices to instil fear into workers. They cited the example of Lance Armstrong, (seven-time Tour De France winner and Olympic bronze medal winner) as a leader who created an environment where vulnerable followers allowed his dishonest practices to proceed without questions.

Entrenched in the culture

In some workplaces acts of bullying are not seen as such, but as ways to assist the organisation to meet its objectives more efficiently. This ‘only the toughest will survive’ mentality can be seen as a rite of passage, particularly if a manager experienced this kind of behaviour as they were working their way up the corporate ladder. They can come to believe it is the only way of managing.

Certainly in some organisations pride, respect and loyalty are of utmost importance. In this culture, co-workers may be loath to publically identify poor behaviour by their superiors, regardless of them being the target or simply witnesses.

What’s the solution?

Workplace bullying is a complex issue. According to Branch and Murray, it “is multi-dimensional with individual characteristics of targets, perpetrators and bystanders as well as the work environment itself (stress, organisational change, etc.) all contributing synergistically, to its occurrence and escalation”.

  1. Individuals need to understand what bullying is and what it isn’t.
  2. Individuals need to be aware of more subtle forms of bullying which may include but are not limited to, withholding information, excessive monitoring of work, unmanageable workloads and being ignored.
  3. Individuals need to understand the cumulative effect of these behaviours.
  4. Non-targets need to understand the harmful effects workplace bullying creates — both long- and short-term.
  5. Organisations require no bullying policies and the authority to act when bullying is found to occur.
  6. Fair investigations need to be conducted and all levels of the organisation are to be held equally accountable.

They also recommend that each level of the organisation undertake a comprehensive training program to increase participants’ understanding of bullying and the issues surrounding it.

Erickson et al believe that in tackling destructive leadership, organisations need to be selective in their hiring and promotion practices, and to clearly state and model the leadership values and behaviours important to the organisation.

In addition, organisations need to encourage and develop environments in which employees feel comfortable to bring up issues such as workplace bullying.

On an individual level, workers (both targets and witnesses) who experience workplace bullying, have a responsibility to report the behaviours in order to promote a safe work environment.

Further information about workplace bullying can be found at:

Australian Human Rights Commission (

Fair Work Commission (

Safe Work Australia (

Entry by Nerissa Bentley


[1] Safe Work Australia, The Australian Workplace Barometer: Report on Psychosocial Safety Climate and Worker Health in Australia, December 2012,

Occupational Health News, Australia has ‘worst bullying rates’, published 28 February 2013; accessed 9 May 2016,

[1] Fairwork Ombudsman, Bullying & harassment,

 [1] Safe Work Australia, Dealing with Workplace Bullying: A Worker’s Guide, November 2013,

[1] Sarah Branch, Jane Murray, Workplace bullying: Is lack of understanding the reason for inaction?, Organizational Dynamics, (2015) 44, pp 287-295

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission, Workplace Bullying Fact Sheet,

[1] Anthony Erickson, Ben Shaw, Jane Murray, Sarah Branch, Destructive leadership: Causes, consequences and countermeasures, Organisational Dynamics, (2015), 44, pp 266-272