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Bill Bennett


Beat workplace bullying

Most people associate workplace bullying with blue-collar workers. Yet it is also common in knowledge-based industries.

Surveys show workplace bullying takes place in just about every industry, though the specific form changes from industry to industry.

To underline the problem in white-collar workplaces a 2002 report by Australia’s APESMA professional women’s network said around one-third of respondents to its survey have been bullied at work.

In 2000, Australia’s Office of the Employee Ombudsman says it is currently receiving more than 500 complaints a year on workplace bullying-related issues. The number is increasing each year.

Workplace bullying increasing

In its January 1999 Australian Jobs Index Survey, Morgan and Banks reported that 10.4 percent of employers believe bullying is increasing at work. I’d like to quote more up-to-date statistics from Australia and New Zealand on this but can’t find any.

According to England’s The Daily Telegraph, an online poll of 10,000 people found that 92 percent believe they are the victims of workplace taunts and intimidation. Some 56 percent believe it is a serious problem in their office, shop or factory.

International research and anecdotal evidence from Australia and New Zealand suggests that the worst industries are education, healthcare, social services and the voluntary sector. The Morgan and Banks 1999 Jobs Index survey identified tourism as a particular problem industry.

There’s also evidence bullying is more widespread in the public sector than in private industry, though this may simply show the willingness of public sector workers to report problems.

Until recently there wasn’t much formal awareness of bullying as a problem. To some extent the increasing number of reported cases reflects the fact that employees are only just becoming used to being able to report when it happens.

Outsourcing and cost-cutting a trigger

But there are other disturbing trends. Some white-collar staff unions have pointed out that outsourced operations and understaffed workplaces are ideal breeding grounds for middle management bullies.

There is evidence managers, who are themselves under undue pressure, often turn into workplace bullies as a misguided coping strategy.

Bullying can take a number of forms. At one end of the spectrum are malicious rumours, over critical work evaluation and physical or verbal isolation. At the more extreme end there are direct verbal threats and even physical violence.

Deaths as a result of workplace bullying are thankfully rare, but they do happen.

Of course, bullying has been a feature of the workplace for most of human history. No doubt when the senior public works managers of Ancient Egypt floated down the Nile on their annual off-site management brainstorming session some bright spark figured that a light whipping might incentivise the pyramid-building process and spice up productivity.

Productivity killer

Today’s more enlightened managers, particularly in knowledge-based industries, recognise a happy workforce is a productive workforce and that bullying has a direct negative impact on productivity.

There are all kinds of estimates put on the potential costs when it happens in a workplace, but ultimately it is impossible to measure the economic cost.

Other facts about workplace bullying.

  • Most research says that men and women are bullied in roughly equal numbers and both men and women bully others in roughly equal numbers. However women are more likely to report an incident – men are less willing to admit to being intimidated.
  • Same-sex bullying is far more common that intra-sex.
  • Victims often lose self-esteem and blame themselves for the problem.
  • About one victim in 100 either attempts or succeeds to commit suicide.
  • 90% of calls to Britain’s workplace bullying hotline came from white-collar workers – only 5% involved manual workers.
  • About 10% of all reported cases result in legal action – this proportion is increasing.
  • Two-thirds of the members of Unison (the UK civil service union) say they have witnessed workplace bullying.
  • Most bullied people report damage to their health
  • The overwhelming majority of bullies are repeat offenders.
  • In the majority of cases more senior managers say they are aware that the bullying took place.
  • Bullying is responsible for around one resignation in four.

If you have been bullied at work, why not use our anonymous comment feature at the Knowledge Worker website to share your experience?