Workplace Bullying: The Leader’s Responsibility

Sadly, reported incidents of workplace bullying are on the increase.

More and more people at work either are subject to, witness or hear about incidents of workplace bullying. Workplace bullying is where one colleague purposefully targets another colleague for the purposes of harming them psychologically, damaging their reputation or rendering them less able to carry out their workplace duties.

And leaders have a special role in this phenomenon.

Organizational Disease

Many people who find themselves in this situation become angry with their leaders.  They think that their employers have condoned the attack on them by not acting to prevent it. Or, once it has happened, victims of workplace bullying feel that their leaders are at fault by their failing to take effective action to protect them from future attacks. They often consider their leaders’ ability to ‘turn a blind eye‘ inexcusable.

On many occasions, the colleague using bullying behaviour will be senior to the person they target, making the experience all the more difficult to handle.  In this case, the colleague subject to bullying behaviour often perceives that the manager’s seniority compounds the offence, rendering them, to some degree, powerless at work and unable to address the issues or prevent a future incident.  This makes their understandable wish for their leaders to act against incidents of workplace bullying all the more pressing.

Recent research in the UK suggests that one in  four people subject to workplace bullying leave their employer, whether or not they say so at their exit interview.  It also suggests that one in five people who witness workplace bullying leave their employer, too.

That’s a lot of intellectual capital walking out the door.

The High Costs

The cost of workplace bullying is expensive to organizations. It’s a lot of expense, management time, and loss of productivity while replacements are recruited and while the new employees find their feet.  In addition, incidents of workplace bullying impact the employees who remain in their roles and who perform less well after the incident than before.

Look at what happens to the remaining employees:

  • Their energy goes towards handling their anxiety about becoming future targets themselves
  • Their concentration levels reduce
  • Their psychological contract with their employer is impaired
  • Their commitment to and ownership of their work diminishes.

Workplace bullying has a very real and sad human cost to it.  It also has a very real performance issue attached to it.  For both of these reasons, workplace bullying is an issue that leaders need to address. And leaders need to be aware of their responsibilities.

So what are the responsibilities of leaders who find that one (or some) of their employees uses bullying behaviour?

Create a Zero-Tolerance Culture

A leader’s personal willingness to confront workplace bullying is what will generate the momentum needed to create a zero-tolerance culture in their organisation.  In my opinion, incidents of workplace bullying do not represent evidence of organisational failure.

Unbecoming behaviors in the workplace are going to happen at some point.

But, knowingly failing to act against workplace bullying, knowingly failing to protect employees from future attacks, and knowingly failing to role-model zero tolerance do represent failings on the part of leaders who are aware of even one incident.

Bullies decide to bully within an organisational context.  Before acting. bullies will consider questions such as these:

“Will I get away with this?”

“Do other people do it?”

“What action will be taken against me if I am tackled?”

To the potential workplace bully, knowing that their organisational leaders will actively support action against them should they employ bullying behaviour represents a potentially powerful reason to desist.  It is the leader’s commitment to tackling the issue that is of paramount importance in send the message to potential bullies that incidents of bullying will be confronted effectively and swiftly.

Take Effective Action

Something must be done each and every time a case of workplace bullying is reported or proven.   A leader who knows that one of their people is using bullying methods needs to take effective, visible, swift action to hold that person accountable and prevent them repeating the offence.

Waiting won’t do it and handling the issue behind closed doors won’t work either.

The message must be that incidents of bullying behaviour will not be tolerated, will be confronted speedily, and that those who employ these methods will be required to cease using abusive behaviour at work.

Don’t Blame the Target

While not everyone will become a victim of workplace bullying, anyone could be targeted by a workplace bully.

It’s not the fault of the person who is targeted. It’s the responsibility of the bully.

The leader who knows that one of their workforce is using bullying behaviour needs to see the issue clearly by holding the bully accountable.   Inadvertently scapegoating the person subject to the attack by, for instance, moving them to another section ‘to protect them’ or by suggesting that they need to become  more assertive, will compound the issue and enable the bully to use abusive behaviour again.

Some people subject to workplace bullying might benefit from learning a more assertive way of handling themselves at work, but this doesn’t remove any responsibility from the bully. That stays exactly where it is.

What incidents of workplace bullying occur in your organisation?  What action do you take against  bullying behaviour?  What benefits does this way of handling incidents of bullying behaviour create for your organisation?  To what extent are you personally committed to creating a zero-tolerance culture in respect of workplace bullying? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Bookmark Workplace Bullying: The Leader's Responsibility

Aryanne Oade
is Director of Oade Associates
She is a Chartered Psychologist, executive coach, workshop facilitator, author & public speaker
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Books | 00 44 (0) 7747 868 368

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4 responses to “Workplace Bullying: The Leader’s Responsibility

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  4. Bullying is an unethical practice, which should never be tolerated by leaders and others, even though some bullies may be results-oriented and may help achieve short-term results, in line with corporate objectives and goals.

    Victims of bullying have a few avenues to pursue (as compared with victims of sexual harassment) when subject to obvious acts of aggression and subtler actions such as spreading malicious rumors or gossip, excluding or isolating someone socially, undermining or impeding a person’s work or opinions, unjustified exclusion from certain projects, removing areas of responsibility without cause, and intruding upon a person’s privacy by pestering, stalking, or spying. Others include being rude or belligerent, destroying property, assaulting an individual, or setting impossible deadlines, repeatedly reminding employees of mistakes, spreading gossip and lies, ignoring or excluding workers, and insulting a person’s habits, attitudes, or private life—had worse effects on performance than sexual harassment.

    Workplace bullying has more severe consequences, including higher employee turnover, than sexual harassment, although sexual harassment itself can be interpreted as a form of bullying (i.e., a combination of disrespect and an abuse of power). An employee who suffers any physical or psychiatric injury as a result of workplace bullying could stand up to the bully, report the bully to the HR department or the trade union, if any, or sue both the employer and the abusive employee as joint respondents in the claim. If the law does not persuade employers to deal with workplace bullying, the economic reality will persuade them over the next few years. Training sessions can help when combined with a confidential reporting structure, but it is difficult to alter the basic nature of certain individuals.

    For free abridged books on leadership, ethics, women in the workforce, sexual harassment and bullying, trade unions, etc., write to

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author


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