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

Surveys show workplace bullying takes place in just about every industry, though the specific form of bullying 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 and that number is increasing each year.

Workplace bullying increasing

In its January 1999 Australian Jobs Index Survey, Morgan and Banks reported that 10.4% 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 per cent believe they are the victims of workplace taunts and intimidation, with 56 per cent believing 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 for bullying 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 bullying.

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 bullying.

Outsourcing and cost-cutting can trigger bullying

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’s 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.

Bullying kills productivity

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 of workplace bullying, 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 a bullying incident – men are less willing to admit to being intimidated.
  • Same sex bullying is far more common that intra-sex bullying.
  • 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?

See also:
Workplace bullying resources

14 thoughts on “Beat workplace bullying

  1. There is no data that shows the full direct and indirect costs of both reported and non reported workplace bullying. Estimates of costs vary greatly depending on a range of variables, and could be as little as $600 per person per year through to $4690 per person per year (on known reported cases). The lack of national definitions, inconsistent understanding of what is and what isn’t reasonable management, lack of job clarity, poorly implemented performance management systems, untrained supervisors who are not willing to prevent workplace conflict, failure to act on workplace conflict before it escalates all make a complex issue even more complex and harder to fix. Wearing bullying as a badge of honour, the ‘me too’, ‘not you as well’, fear of reporting (because of retribution or promotion of the bully) are making it harder to deal with. Internal investigators with ‘vested interest’, time taken by the victim to come forward, lack of immediate action by the victim, loss of evidence, not knowing what questions to ask and why they are important make it even more difficult. Victims have to be believed, and action taken to address bullying behaviours.

  2. Hi there. Thanks for your site, I think I finally found a dependable (and up to date) source of information.
    I’m being bullied at work and it’s horrible. Due to the economic crisis, I’ve been holding out since June, but can’t take it much longer. My doctor booked me off work due to stress and I’m having to see a psychologist just to keep my sanity. This is costing me lots of money, not to mention the unpaid time off work when I was sick. I’m tearful, fearful and dread going to work each morning. For the past month I’ve read any article/book/paper I could lay my hands on, and I learned a lot. But what I needed most I couldn’t find: how to deal with a bully when they are your employer, and not just your manager or superior. I’ve also noticed that most information that is related to New Zealand job market and situation is written with the employee in mind. Why is that? Is it because we live in a culture where money is more important than the actual employee?
    I’m too scared to say anything, for fear of a backlash, which the employer has done on more than one previous occasions. And I’m too scared to leave, because the way things are at the moment I know it will be of no benefit to expect a good reference from the employer – menial, but meaning a lot to me as I’m a new immigrant to this country.
    I need to talk to someone who can help me with pragmatic steps, if you could recommend anyone on your site, it will be of great help. Thanks for reading.

  3. There has been a new study to attempt to document the workplace bullying epidemic here in NZ. It looks at a survey of behaviors instead of reported incidents and was conducted OUTSIDE of Union surveys and government reports. It indicates the the healthcare and Eduction sectors are far ahead as the worst for bullying, and while Unions claim to prevent bullying these are the two sectors with the highest percent of union workers in NZ.

    I don’t think the Unions are fully doing their part, and while I don’t think they encourage bullying I think they turn a blind eye towards it and help justify it at times. I was recently subjected to a concerted and well planned out 6 month bullying and harrasment campaign conducted by a union member at my workplace and when I asked a Union leader about it I was told my only defence was to join the Union. After it was all over and I emerged relatively unscathed the union rep at my workplace actually apologized to me for the damage and stress I was caused. If this is standard Union policy we need more education and information outside of the unions on bullying behaviors in all workplaces.

    My wife works in the public service sector and was a long time victim of systematic passive bullying by long-serving employees. The managers refused to work to stop it and most felt that it was ok to let them ‘work out their last years’ doing whatever they liked. The allowance of this sort of attitude has to stop or bullying of all sorts will continue to increase.

  4. I was bullied out of the Puiblic Service and given a mental brealdown. IO now have a permanent mental disorder due to the injuries that were knowingly given me. The perpertrators were a couple of American Copntactor/Consultance. I was forced to leave with an apology and a cheque for a mere $30,000. Ten years later I am a beneficiary despite having a dgree in Economics. The Government Departmet I worked for as it is now a mere agency. I had many years of service their and was allowed to be bullied by private sector idiots pushing their bizzare Neo consevative mumbo jumbo. One of the contyractors was supposed to be working for me but the two of them took over my job and made me subordinant to them. When I complained to management they decided it was a performance issue at that I would never get my management job back. I had onl;y been in the job a week when they unlawfully rested it off me. This went on for two years with me trying to establish my legal rites and them denying them.

    I was an award winning analyst and programmer. Management believed the consultants as they were private sector and “American” where I was a mere career public servant.

    This sort of nonsense was becoming too common with idiots from the private sector constantly telling public sevants how much better they were than us.

    The ultimate endgame for these evil barstards was to get the Chief Executive savcked and detroy the Department. The private sector has nop understanding of the complexity and nuance neccessary to run a government department.

    Cheers

  5. There is a common misconception in NZ that either the Human Rights Commission or employment law will protect people against bullies at work.

    Unfortunately the Human Rights Commission CANNOT deal with bullying as it is not covered by their legislation. Go figure! It would seem common sense that being safe at work would be a human right, eh?

    Employment law has no specific protection against bullying either – although they can decide the bullying BEHAVIOUR has caused HARM, there is no specific offence as such, and so the complainant has a much tougher job proving their allegations about bullying.

    To make matters worse, there are thousands of people in NZ that are not even covered by employment law at all!

    In 1992 the then Hon (now Sir) Doug Graham introduced an amendment to employment law to say that real estate agents working as independent contractors were exempt from the usual tests of whether they were really an employee rather than a contractor.

    In all his innocence Doug Graham thought that all he was doing was allowing Independent Contractors to claim their expenses against their taxes. This was achieved, but it also meant that the thousands of people who have worked in the industry in the years since have had nowhere to go if they were being badly treated, and if they complained, one month’s notice with no reason required, and they were out of a job!

    But wait … there’s more … The Hon Clayton Cosgrove recently introduced legislation to “clean up “”the real estate industry, which came into effect late 2009. While mainly aimed at protecting clients, he also said that the clause removing employment protection would go, because all New Zealanders should be protected by employment law.

    The real estate industry leaders fought tooth and nail to leave this in the new Act, and the National opposition said they would not support the Bill if independent contractors were given the same employment protection as other contractors and employees working in New Zealand. The result??

    Thousands of people were once again legislated out of their human rights.

    It is a fact that many such people have been bullied in their workplace – some have been driven to contemplating suicide because they had nowhere they could effectively bring the bully to justice, and they were so traumatised they couldn’t function.

    Others chose to leave and go somewhere else to work when, as in most cases, no-one else in authority believed them or was willing to deal with the bully effectively. Often the tactics of the bully had meant that the target had been portrayed as a problem, unreliable, untrustworthy etc. and they were not listened to or believed.

    One day all the targets of bullying should unite and demand law changes that will make it easier to complain about bullying, and cover EVERYONE!

    I look forward to it …

    Meantime, I see that in the USA there is an organisation than handles a confidential way of reporting bad (& good) bosses so that a prospective employee can do some research before accepting a job – as we know most serious bullies are not obvious until they start. Fraught with pitfalls of course, but what a good idea!

    In most cases, the bully is free to go on to the next victim, because they don’t even get brought to account

  6. I’ve been bullied a couple of times. Once by a nut female (I’m also female) accounts person who was nothing more than jealous. My boss supported me but it took a year to get rid of her and cost him $15k. Then I was bullied by a male at another job. Boss did not believe me – scared of litigation – and I had to resign. Uncovered that this turd had bullied two others before me out of their jobs. It’s VERY difficult to prove when you’re being bullied by an “expert”. Usly they’re mentally ill, often have narcissistic personality disorder so very used to manipulating and looking like the good guy. These people are cancers.

    • I read a very recent decision by the Real Estate Agents Disciplinary Tribunal where a Business Owner was convicted of bullying an agent working for him. She was smart enough to record him in action, so even though he denied it and said it was just trying to manage a difficult person, she could prove he went way beyond acceptable management practice..

  7. I was bullied at my job i have now left a job that untill the bullying started i loved . It was phsical and verbal bullying and was made worse by the fact the boss would do nothing and didnt take the ongoing complaints seriously I would like to help others in this suituation I didnt no where to turn this was in N.Z

  8. I am looking at leaving my job in the health industry. My work is over criticized and I have been blamed for errors that aren’t caused by me. It has resulted in lack of confidence, paranoia, and making me make lots of little mistakes. I have been told by a number of staff that this is how this department is and that I should leave to another department which the people have no association to this department as it is a specialized area.

  9. I have filed a grievance with my employer and went through a mediation because my employer overloaded and stressed me to the point of collapse. I would call the overloading a bullying tactic by my manager, she was aware it was causing me stress and chose to do it again and again. I went through mediation and all my resolutions where rejected. I have been offered an unsatisfactory payout to resign. Sadly, I will probably take the small sum of money even though I would like to go to the ERA court to get justice and make what they have done to me public. But I probably won’t—because I am worried the ERA court awards are such small sums of money I don’t think it will be worth the expense or reliving the whole ordeal in court all over again. The legal system is not fair, I have to pay for all my own legal expenses, and spend all my mental energy and time preparing, while my employer will not have to worry about cost— they will be funded by the government because it is an educational institution.

  10. In education, bullying exists in every workplace I have been in. The is a climate and culture of fear, and to defend your rights is to make yourself a target. I am looking at new careers, possibly my own business as I have had enough of the field. You will never get justice in education, and things will never be made right as the country is just too small to start again without baggage. I am not the current target, but it doesn’t matter any more.

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