Bullying – a serious issue in today’s workplace (Part 1)

By Daniela Kocis Fitzgerald, Director of the HR Dept Fingal


A complex phenomenon, bullying in the workplace presents significant challenges and consequences to staff and management in organisations. If not dealt with in the correct manner, the consequences can be very serious and possibly damaging for an organisation.


Research into workplace bullying began in 1970 and such actions were identified as “serious wrongdoing”. Bullying in the workplace was identified as becoming a serious issue due to its relatively high rate of occurrence and its cost to both individuals and organisations. In order for organisations to be able to deal with incidents of such nature, bullying needs to be both managed and understood.


According to The Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work 2007, issued by the HSA, the definition of workplace bullying is as follows:

“Workplace Bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work. An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but, as a once off incident, is not considered to be bullying.” It is not made clear what exactly constitutes “inappropriate behaviour” in the code of practice, because it would be impossible to define this. Each individual has a subjective understanding of what constitutes bullying and whether they consider something inappropriate or not. In the recent case law of Ruffley and The Board of Management of St Anne’s School, when looking at the exact definition of workplace bullying, the Supreme Court stated that” At each point the statutory drafter has chosen a term at a markedly elevated point in the register: conduct must be repeated, not merely consist of a number of incidents; it must be inappropriate, not merely wrong; and it is not enough that it be inappropriate and even offensive: it must be capable of being reasonably regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work.” As such, cases of bullying are very complex. The accusations are very serious and damaging and the investigation of such matters must be thorough.

Some factors which are known to signal a risk of bullying at work are:

  • A high turnover of staff, high absenteeism or poor morale
  • Hierarchies involving, employees who are non-professional or technical, working for professionally qualified employees.
  • Workplace changes including new management, a change in ownership, company reorganisation, introduction of new performance measures or a new technology.
  • Personality differences, for example, personal biases
  • Gender/age imbalance

The code of practice acknowledges that bullying is not just an employer/employee issue but can and does occur between employees. It also recognises that bullying is present anywhere, such as in schools, in the home that bullying in the workplace is part of a wider cultural background.


Research into bullying started from Scandinavian investigations into schoolyard bullying and a study conducted in Britain on 5288 adults showed that children who had been targets of schoolyard bullying were more likely to be targets of workplace bullying. It was also discovered that the nature of bullying across school and work is similar and that verbal abuse and harassment represent the most common types of schoolyard bullying, followed by exclusion and social manipulation, which is similar to the pattern of bullying behaviours identified in the workplace. However, the major difference between schoolyard and workplace bullying consists in the formal power of the bully. If in the schoolyard children are bullied by peers who have no formal organisational power over them, in the workplace environment, the element of power appears, and adults are likely to be bullied by managers, supervisors or peers who are lacking such authority.


In 2008 the Samaritans conducted a survey across Ireland and Britain which estimated that four out of five employees had been bullied during the course of their careers. This is a significant jump on research undertaken seven years before at Trinity College in Dublin, which estimated that 42% of employees in Ireland claim to have been victimised in the workplace. In 2007 the ESRI reported that 8% had experienced bullying within the previous six months, with women about twice as likely to be at risk from such behaviour. Prior to this, a survey of 5,500 people at Lancaster University found that men and women were guilty of bullying in fairly equal numbers and that bullying is a genderless type of behaviour.


Despite the common assumption that bullying is physical in nature, it actually tends to be psychological. A study conducted by Djurkovic on 150 undergraduate students, found that the most commonly experienced bullying behaviours were unjustified criticism, monitoring of performance, unfair pressure, comments or sarcasm. In managerial ranks, where there is greater competition, bullying is present in the form of withholding of information, however, it is quite hard to label, as for example certain behaviours can be observed, such as outbursts towards others, but for example gossiping might not necessarily be as easily observed.


Identifying bullying behaviours in the workplace can be difficult given the subjective nature of the perceptions by individuals and the fact that different actions affect individuals differently. Certain behaviours might not be identified as bullying because such behaviours might have become normalized in some workplaces. Lewis carried out an interview study in the UK higher education, which found that bullying appeared to have become an expected behavioural norm.


Another form of bullying that came with the advancements in technology is cyber bullying, defined as “an aggressive intentional act carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly, and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend himself or herself”. Cyberbullying tactics are similar to traditional bullying tactics, but using online or mobile technology.


The effects of workplace bullying on targets range from physical harm to psychological stress.  According to the Psychological Science Association, a new study carried out links workplace bullying to negative health issues for targets, including increases in long-term sick leave and prescriptions for antidepressants. Workplace do not rely on physical threats or violence, but they target their attacks in order to humiliate or undermine their targets. Such negative and persistent interactions can lead to severe health issues, mostly stress related, like anxiety and depression.


So, who are the bullies? According to the Irish Times, the classic workplace bully is charming but with a hidden Jekyll and Hyde personality. These individuals can be ruthless and callous in destroying someone’s career that they see as a threat, they are pathological liars and possibly emotionally immature. They always play the blame game when it comes to failure, they never take responsibility and they always claim successes as their own. They are a jealous character and they surround themselves with people that are ready to do their bidding.


Research published in Psychological Science found that children who were exposed to bullying in their formative years were more prone to problems related to health, poverty, and social relationships in adulthood. By the time these individuals reached their mid twenties, they were more than twice as likely to have difficulty in keeping a job compared with peers who had never been bullied.


In the media, Conor Tiernan’s documentary for TV3, “Whistle-blowers: Can We Handle the Truth? “, profiled the plight of a number of “whistle-blowers”. Unfortunately, people cannot, in most cases, afford the legal cost of making such a case. The programme demonstrated that the price for pursuing the truth can be huge. The price to be paid by those who have gone against bullies can be devastating, from shattered lives, careers which have ended, very serious health consequences to possibly financial ruin. But what is the most alarming is that the bullies will enjoy anonymity and will probably continue to climb the ranks.


Part 2 of this article will appear tomorrow.