Workplace Bullying: Causes, Consequences, and Corrections

...Most researchers conclude that there is probably no such thing as a “victim” personality and it is equally unlikely that there is a “bully” personality (Rayner et al., 2002; Zapf & Einarsen, 2003). However, researchers have attempted to parse out the individual factors that might increase the likelihood of bullying or being bullied (Coyne, Seigne, & Randall, 2000; Zapf & Einarsen, 2003). We review this literature while counseling caution on the reliance on any simplistic, individual explanations for the phenomenon.


There appears to be no sex bias in being targeted. Men and women are equally likely to report being bullied at work (Namie, 2007; Rayner, 1997; Zapf et al., 2003). However, organizational position and certain traits or behaviors are linked to being targeted. Organizational position is inversely associated with being targeted. The higher organizational position, the lower the incidence of bullying; low-status workers are simply more vulnerable (Hodson et al., 2006).

Certain traits, behaviors, or markers are associated with increased risk, but the inconsistency of associated markers fails to convey a reliable picture of targets. For example, appearing too weak, anxious, submissive, unassertive, or conflict-aversive is claimed to provoke aggression in others (Coyne et al., 2000). Conversely, communicating aggressively, rejecting less-ethical group norms, and overachieving are also suggested as antecedents to being targeted (Adams & Crawford, 1992). On one hand, targets are characterized as “literal minded, ... somewhat unsophisticated ... overachiever[s]” (Brodsky, 1976, p.89) who lack social, communication skills, have low self-esteem, and are suspicious of others (Coyne et al., 2000). On the other hand, research identifies employees who are particularly talented, conscientious, and well-liked by others as persons likely to be targeted (Coyne, Chong, Seigne, & Randall, 2003; Lutgen-Sandvik, 2006; Namie, 2003a). Plainly, there is no clear marker-cluster that categorizes targets.


Whether men or women are more likely to be reported as bullies has yet to be resolved. Research findings are mixed; some suggest that bullies seem to be male more often (Hoel & Cooper, 2000; Zapf et al., 2003), and others suggest the opposite (Namie, 2003a). There does appear to be a relationship between position and bullying others—supervisors or upper- managers are identified as abusers in 60 to 80 percent of cases (e.g., Hoel & Cooper, 2000; Lutgen-Sandvik et al., 2007; Namie, 2003a; Rayner, 1997). In a nationally representative survey (Namie, 2007), 72 percent of reported bullies were managers, some of whom had the sponsorship and support of executives, managerial peers, or human resources.

Workplace violence researchers have invested considerable effort in identifying precursors of potentially violent organizational actors. The traits and behaviors associated with such aggression likely play a part in bullying. These include lack of self control, self-reflection, empathy and perspective-taking (Douglas & Martinko, 2001); personal volatility; history or tendency toward depression; Theory X beliefs; Type A personalities; negative affectivity; and unstable, unrealistic high self-esteem (Neuman & Baron, 1998; Tepper, 2000; Zapf & Einarsen, 2003). For example, inflated views of self that are “unstable or heavily dependent on external validation” (Zapf & Einarsen, 2003, p. 168) are particularly vulnerable to being interrogated, contradicted, or censured.

Other alleged markers include lack of social or communicative adeptness (Einarsen, Raknes, & Mattheisen, 1994), growing up around domestic violence, or being a victim of child abuse (Randall, 2001). Alcohol and drug abuse and aggressive behavior in one’s personal life may also be predictors of workplace bullying (Douglas & Martinko, 2001). Whatever the constellations of markers, bullies act in ways identified as pathological, power-addicted, and controlling (Namie & Namie, 2000; Tracy et al., 2006). Bullies are perceived as being good at “managing up” and ingratiating themselves with higher-level persons. As with targets, however, there is little research directly linking any specific personality type to perpetrators of workplace bullying (Rayner et al., 2002)...

From: Lutgen-Sandvik, P. & Sypher, B.D. (2009) Destructive Organizational Communication. New York: Routledge Press.

Work bullying linked to mental health problems

ACADEMICS at Sheffield University have uncovered new evidence of a strong link between workplace bullying and the subsequent psychological ill-health of employees.

The study, which will be presented for the first time at the Institute of Work Psychology's conference in Sheffield today, found that bullying from colleagues significantly influenced levels of stress reported seven months later. Researchers found 39 per cent of respondents reported frequent – weekly or daily – bullying from workmates in the previous six months.

Christine Sprigg, a psychology lecturer at Sheffield University, who led the research, said: "The evidence of the relationship between employee ill-health and workplace bullying is clearly shown by our data but, more importantly, we find that there might be workplace interventions – for example working to boost employee self-esteem – that can help to lessen the impact of other people's bad behaviour at work."

The research team collaborated with nine organisations and more than 5,600 employees in carrying out the study.

Dr Luise Vassie, from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health which funded the study, said: "We're pleased this research not only adds to the existing body of knowledge on this subject, but also provides us with ideas on how the detrimental impact of bullying on worker health can be reduced."