Is workplace bullying real?

Workplace bullying is very real.

Heinz Leymann, a social scientist from Sweden, was the first to document abusive behaviors in adults at work. He and a colleague, Bo-Göran Gustavsson, published the first ever article on psychological violence at work in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in 1984. Since then, Leymann has published several research articles on the topic, the most popular of which was his first paper in English, published in another scientific journal, called Violence and Victims, in 1990. Leymann is credited as the forefather of research on workplace bullying, and was the first to notice that it can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and even in suicide. Since the publication of his articles, thousands of research studies on aggressive and bullying behaviors at work have been conducted around the world—documenting how widespread, common, and damaging they are.

How many people are bullied at work?

Recent research indicates that 35% of the workforce is bullied ( 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 industry, gender, organizational culture, and many other factors.

The Employment Alliance Survey of workplaces in the US found that 44% of American workers have been abused by a superior, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that almost 25% of American businesses have some level of bullying happening in their workplace. That study also found that 11% of the bullying incidents were committed against customers.

The Workplace Bullying Institute, who conducted a study with Zogby International in 2007 and again in 2010, found that 35% of the American workforce is bullied, and an additional 15% have witnessed bullying against a co-worker in the past.

What are bullying behaviors?

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

Aggressive Communication

  • Insulting or making offensive remarks
  • Shouting, yelling, angry outbursts
  • Going around co-workers 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 and 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
  • Uber-exessive 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 occured

Why do people bully?

While it is easy to believe people bully because there is something wrong with them, in reality many factors contribute to bullying. This includes the simple dynamic between the bully and his or her target, the organizational context and culture, the bully’s personality, and the victim’s personality.

In terms of the bully specifically, relatively few studies have addressed perpetrators of workplace bullying; an irony Rayner and Cooper (2003) refer to as the “black hole in bullying at work research.” However, scholars do seem to agree that at the very least, bullies are likely threatened by the people they bully and therefore lash out in an effort to regain the control they perceive to have lost.

My book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, offers 11 reasons people become bullies at work:

#1: The bully feels insecure

#2: The bully lacks resourcefulness and lashes out in frustration

#3: The bully either feels all-powerful or powerless, and bullies to either maintain power or gain power

#4: The bully lacks effective communication skills, emotional intelligence and empathy

#5: The bully lacks leadership skills (or thinks leading means bullying)

#6: The bully is easily provoked or has a low tolerance for stressful situations

#7: The bully thinks bullying is acceptable behavior

#8: The bully has a personality disorder (please do not try to diagnose your co-workers!)

#9: The bully and target’s personality styles clash

#10: People who witness the behavior do not stand up to the bully

#11: The workplace has a bully-friendly work environment or culture

For more information, read BACK OFF!

Interesting facts about bullying

70% of bullies are in management positions.

That means between 30% of bullies are either peers bullying peers, or subordinates bullying superiors.

81% of targets report being bullied as a group by one single individual.

Oddly, when one individual is bullying a group, the behaviors tend to last longer than when a group is bullying a single individual.

The longer bullying goes on, the more severe and frequent the behaviors become.