April 20th, 2012

WBI Study: Attempts to stop bullying at work by targeted workers are ineffective

Effectiveness of Bullied Targets’ Strategies to Stop Workplace Bullying
2012 Workplace Bullying Institute Survey

There are many so-called “experts” in workplace bullying offering advice for bullied targets. Strategies common to their lists are: (1) confront your bully, (2) tell the bully’s boss, and (3) report problems to HR. Some weirdos even suggest that targets have a “personal responsibility” to confront their bullies, that they “owe” it to themselves.

At WBI, we have never advised such actions. Those steps cause greater harm because of the certain retaliation. So, we submitted those suggestions to empirical study. In early 2012, we asked 1,598 individuals personally familiar with workplace bullying what strategies they adopted to get their bullying to stop and if those actions were effective. Here are the results of that survey.

WBI periodically conducts online surveys that rely upon self-selected samples of individuals bullied at work. WBI online surveys accurately depict the perceptions of workers targeted for bullying at work as contrasted with the views of all adult Americans captured in our scientific national surveys.

A total of 1,604 respondents completed this survey. Six individuals claimed to have had no direct or indirect experience with bullying. Their answers were discarded. The final sample size was 1,598 people who know bullying firsthand. The sample was overwhelmingly female (80%).

Prevalence, Gender & Rank

Respondents were asked: What is your experience with mistreatment at work? We define mistreatment as repeated incidents against an individual employee by a person or a group that take the form of verbal abuse, behaviors that are humiliating, threatening, intimidating, or sabotage of the targeted person’s work.

Using that definition, 58% said they were currently bullied, 39% have been bullied but not currently, and 3% had only witnessed it. To illustrate the special nature of this sample, in the 2010 WBI National Survey 9% of adult Americans were currently bullied, 26% had been bullied, and 15% were witnesses only.

Most perpetrators, according to this survey, were women (63% compared to 62% men in the national sample). Women bullies torment women in 89% of cases; men bullies chose women in 63% of cases. Women were 79% of all targets.

Most of the bullies were bosses (75% compared to 72% in the national sample); 18% were coworkers, peers with the same rank (the identical rate in the national sample), and 7% of bullies bullied from a subordinate rank (compared to 10%).

Strategies to Stop Bullying & Their Effectiveness

Effectiveness ratings were limited to only the respondents who answered ‘yes’ to the adoption of a particular strategy.

1. Target seemed to not do anything (In other words, letting time pass hoping matters will improve by themselves) was adopted by 38% of targets. Most (62%) did try something.

Effectiveness of doing nothing: 3.25%

We consider “doing nothing” the baseline to which the effectiveness of all other strategies can be compared.

2. Target directly confronted the perpetrator — 69.5% did so
Effectiveness of confronting: 3.57%

3. Target asked perpetrator’s boss to intervene & stop it — 70.7% did so
Effectiveness of support from bully’s boss: 3.26%

4. Target told senior management/owner expecting support — 73.9% did so
Effectiveness of senior management/owners: 3.69%

5. If union present, asked union to intervene & stop it — 60.3% did so
Effectiveness of union: 8.84%

6. Target filed a formal complaint with HR alleging a policy violation — 42.8% did so
Effectiveness of HR: 4.7%

7. Target filed a complaint with an external state or federal agency — 18.7%
Effectiveness of EEOC, etc.: 11.9%

8. Target tried to find an attorney to file a lawsuit — 33.7%
Effectiveness of finding an attorney: 11.2%

9. Target did file a lawsuit — 8.9% (n=379)
Effectiveness of filing a lawsuit: 16.4%

The purpose of this study was to have individuals intimately familiar with bullying (those directly experiencing it or witnessing it) describe the effectiveness of various adopted tactics or strategies to stop the bullying.

The results are clear. Letting time pass (doing nothing) stopped bullying 3% of the time, an obviously ineffective tactic. However the other tactics — confronting, imploring the bully’s boss, filing an HR complaint, or telling senior management — were as ineffective as doing nothing. When discrimination is part of the bullying, it does pay to use current laws (the effectiveness rises to double digits).

For the few unionized respondents, the rate was double HR’s effectiveness. The most realistic conclusion from these findings is that whatever individuals try, the chances of success are miniscule with failure hovering around 97% for most strategies.

Stopping the Mistreatment

For 54% of all respondents, the bullying was ongoing. It had not stopped.

For those who reported that the bullying ended, the target suffered negative consequences to make it stop.

– Voluntarily quit — 28%
– Were forced out (constructive discharge) — 25%
– Were terminated — 25%
– Transferred jobs — 11%

In this 2012 study, 77.7% of bullied targets were no longer employed where they were bullied as the result of the bullying. An alternative way to report this is to say that once targeted for bullying an individual faced a 78% probability of losing the job he or she once loved.

In the 2010 WBI National Survey, 41% of women targets quit and another 25% were terminated. For men the quit rate was 36% and 13% were terminated. Unfortunately quitting includes voluntary action plus being constructively discharged, forced out. In this 2012 survey we were able to separate the reasons for quitting. Transfer rates in 2010 were 14% for women and 8% for men.

The punishment rate for bullies seems to be rising slowly through the years; having 11% of perpetrators (5% terminated, 6% punished) experience negative consequences is at an all-time high. The impunity, no consequences, rate for bullies is still 89%.

A Flubbed Policy Question

In a prior 2010 WBI Instant Poll, respondents said that only 3% of employers had a policy to specifically address workplace bullying. In this 2012 survey,

Respondents were asked: Harassment is illegal if based on discrimination (membership in a protected class, such as gender, disability, religion, age or veteran status). Did the employer have a policy to address workplace mistreatment separate from discrimination?

30.4% said “Yes”

It appears that respondents to this 2012 survey allowed the word “harassment” as it appeared in the question to influence their overestimation of the percentage of employers with a policy. Every employer has an anti- harassment policy to comply with laws. The question was intended to separate discrimination and harassment from mistreatment that met the definition of bullying. Obviously the respondents interpreted the question differently.

Download a copy of the complete report.


Support with SPSS analyses, graphics, online data collection & survey design from Daniel Christensen, David Phillips & Sean Lunsford

© 2012 Workplace Bullying Institute, All Rights Reserved, Citations must credit the source — WBI.


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This entry was posted on Friday, April 20th, 2012 at 9:33 am and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. Maxwell Pinto says:

    Targets, victims and witnesses of bullying have a few avenues to pursue (as compared with victims of sexual harassment) when subject to repeated and obvious acts of aggression, spreading malicious rumours, excluding someone socially or from certain projects, undermining or impeding a person’s work or opinions, insulting a person’s habits, attitudes, or private life and intruding upon a person’s privacy. Others include being rude or belligerent, destroying property, assaulting an individual, or setting impossible deadlines. Although bullying is recognized as detrimental to occupational health, there is little political or corporate interest in stopping it.

    In schoolyard bullying, the bullies are children, whose behaviour is controlled by the leaders, i.e. the school administration. In workplace bullying, however, the bullies are often the leaders themselves, i.e., the managers and supervisors. Therefore, reporting a bully to the HR dept, for example, may expose the target/victim to the risk of even more bullying, slower career advancement, or even termination, on the grounds of being a “troublemaker!”.

    Workplace bullying has severe consequences, including reduced effectiveness and high employee turnover. An employee who suffers any physical or psychiatric injury as a result of workplace bullying can confront the bully, report the bully to the HR department or to the trade union, if any, or bring a claim of negligence and/or a personal injury claim against 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. Training sessions can help when combined with a confidential reporting structure, but it is difficult to alter the basic nature of some individuals, who may need counselling.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      Economic reality is already ignored when a target is shunned. He is not productive and both he and his boss know he is not productive.

      The economic fall out will rarely be associated with the boss. Instead the employee will often suffer the shunning and the blame for being unproductive.

      That’s just the way it is.

      • Jay Jacobus says:

        In other words, the target will be persuaded that he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t speak up. In fact speaking up can easily be seen as the worst choice to make.

      • Yara Leon says:

        After 10 years, I still have nightmares. In a sick way, I’m glad I’m not the only one. I was so ashamed. I still am.

    • J. says:

      The goal of some bullies is to cause injury, both physical and emotional. A personal injury claim in the form of a lawsuit is highly unlikely to be successful, unless the target has evidence of battery or other physical attack – in many states, such a lawsuit would be a nightmare to pursue. Additionally, this approach will not work for state employees in many US states because sovereign immunity often bars the filing of this type of lawsuit against the state and its employees.

      Where there is a culture of bullying that permeates the entire organization, the costs of bullying do not seem to have any impact on the employer. There appear to be benefits to bullying that, for some employers, outweigh any financial costs.

  2. Annie says:

    Wow. What a disturbing survey!

    It appears most of the time, based on surveys and studies, targets ARE actually protected class individuals — women, older, disabled, etc.

    Even when dozens of “protected class” individuals make the same complaint, organizations find a way around it. I saw many years of women over 50 with seniority and no discipline problems bullied out.

    The women finally got up to $40K or somehow showed up on a bottom line. Since they’re under contract, haven’t broken any rules, and in most cases were high achievers . . . bullying is the answer. Make life so miserable they want to quit.

    I didn’t even know what I was witnessing until management destroyed a close coworker. I stood up for her, but it didn’t matter. She now has cancer.

    Jay mentioned shunning, which works great when destroying a person. Targets are picked off one by one: character assassinated by rumor, demoted, cut out of meetings, assigned demeaning tasks, accused of offenses, humiliated, isolated, no work, cut out of projects.

    Other workers really may not know what’s going on.

    Looking at this sad survey: Who knew we were doomed so early in the process?

    I’ll bet most other targets continued to beat their heads against a wall like I did, thinking: “Sooner or later they have to realize I’m telling the truth.”

  3. J. says:

    There seems to be no reason to confront the bully, or go to HR, unless the employer requires it. If it is necessary to jump through the hoops of taking a complaint to HR, then it is important to take the step so the target will be able to say she/he followed all of the employers policies in dealing with the bully.

    I have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of EEOC and similar state agencies. However, filing an EEOC, or state, complaint is essential when the target believes there is discrimination because he/she will be unable to sue for discrimination if the charge has not been filed timely with the EEOC. In my experience, EEOC is typically pro-employer. If the charge is accepted, EEOC may try to mediate, but ultimately (after months of delays and a very slow investigation) the target will likely be given a right to sue letter. The right to sue letter is necessary if the target needs to file suit; however, it dumps all of the costs and responsibilities back on the target – with no EEOC assistance in pursuing the matter. An EEOC charge does seem to make the employer squirm though. And, if there is retaliation for filing the charge, the retaliation is a form of discrimination and a charge can be filed for the retaliation. Been there, done that.

    Filing a lawsuit can work very well, but it is important to understand the suit and it is necessary to have a cause of action for which a lawsuit can be filed. It isn’t easy and it is expensive. Sometimes there is no other option.

  4. TwilightZone says:

    I tried all of the informal strategies listed to stop the bullying. I confronted the bullies several times. That didn’t work. I went to the director several times. Sometimes the bullies would back off…temporarily. I did not go to HR except to ask for a transfer. There was no physical violence or illegal discrimination/harrasment, hence no policy violations. Five years after I was first targeted, I became one of the 28% and left.

  5. Marie G. says:

    I had worked for the USDA Midwestern office for four months before I finally made the call to my EEO representative. However, it became apparent that my request to the headquarters EEO representative not to divulge my issues with my lead who was bullying me was not heeded. I know the representative from headquarters talked to our manager and he in turn, talked to my lead about her behavior. Unfortunately, that only made matters worse for me. Finally, I made a call to the Employee Assistance Program and spoke with a licensed counselor. I had to make the call because I had reached my limit of being her human emotional punching bag. After listening to what I’ve been experiencing at the office, the counselor said that it sounds as though she has some serious control issues and that upper management is supporting her behavior by allowing her to continue her bullying of everyone in the office. He explained that it was apparent that senior staff members have chosen to support her negative behavior in order to avoid being attacked by her or in order to continue benefitting from her expertise. The counselor told me I was in a “no win” situation and suggested I leave there and find another job. He said staying here wasn’t worth the negative effects on my health and emotions. The sad part is that when I gave my notice to my manager and explained the reason for my resignation, he actually defended her behavior by saying she has so many issues going on in her life, and she sometimes brings them to work. When I informed the other co-workers in the office I was on my last two weeks of employment there, they said they hope the manager doesn’t allow her to convince him to hire another assistant after I leave because she drove the last one out of here, she drove me out of here, and she will do the same to the next assistant. I left that job right before she got back from vacation. Those six months was an enlightening experience; however, it cost me every cent I had besides putting me in major debt. It was very draining and demoralizing. It put a strain on me and my family back in California. I am still unemployed a year and a half later and still suffering from the physical and emotional effects. She’s still there.

  6. Jay Jacobus says:

    If my understanding of corporate tactics is correct, companies will pretend that they are the target of extortion. They will say it is all about money. Bullying is just the latest rationale for wrongfully seeking a handout.

    This argument is cleverly designed to make themselves the defendent when they are really the aggressors.

  7. kachina says:

    Attempts to stop bullying at work by targets are worse than ineffective. The ineffective efforts actually increase the problem as co-workers see demonstrations of the futility of resistance, and bullies are emboldened by the obvious futility of the targets’ efforts. Competent, ethical people leave the workplace (one way or another), and decrease the proportion of remaining workers who actually meet reasonable standards of productivity, ethics, and professionalism.

    Everyone loses…unless you believe that the “benefits” accruing to the bullying individuals actually represent valid value on some scale that I cannot comprehend.

  8. Happytoseethebackofthem says:

    Informal strategies don’t work. You should have the same fair chance of success in your job as anybody else. You lost your job the moment some piece of sh*t vented their psychological issues on you. Gather evidence & tell them you’re going to Court. When the game’s up. they’ll pay you off to leave.

  9. Duxall Inarow says:

    I did everything wrong. I confronted the bully (“I’d like us to learn to communicate better,” i.e., without your swearing at me), went to my “other” boss (“Golly gee whiz, I am uncomfortable when he makes sexist and racist comments, how do you think I should handle this?”), and to HR (“I’d really like to make this work, but the overt antagonism and threats make it difficult for me to do my job.”). End result – I was given a 30-day “Performance Improvement Plan,” then was fired for violating that plan the next day. Yes, I am going to pursue legal remedies. Until then, I am a highly skilled and out of work RN.

  10. […] may be more effective than doing something. This idea goes against our sense of integrity, but studies show that those who spoke up at work generally had the same results as those who said nothin…. While involving the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, your union, an attorney, or a […]

  11. heart_broken says:

    I read these comments on here and most of the made me sad, I too have been targeted by a bullymanipulative co-worker. It was made worse by the fact that she got hired while I was in hospital after being in a nasty car accident so I had to deal with her and post tramautic stress at the same time. I am one of the lucky ones in that I wasnt forced out by her (but came damn close to being) as I work in the project field where projects have a finite life and budgetary constraints so in the end she chose to leave as her contract was not being renewed. However this experience with her over the last year has left me feeling bitter and resentful towards my workplace as no-one seemed to do anything to stop her making my life hell. I would do training sessions (with her in them) and then find “helpful” notes about what id just been training on my desk from her that she had blantantly ripped off the internet without even reading it to see if it applied to our workplace, repeatedly tried to interfere with the dynamic between my boss and me, did bugger all work except for when the boss was around, tried to steal credit for my work, she came in late all the time (and had a go at me one time when I came in 10 mins later than her) worked late (so did the boss) so she could try to influence them so that meant i had to as work late as well and basically try to palm her work onto everyone else as much as she could and yet the boss had no grounds on which to fire her. It was a nightmare to the point where I stopped talking to her altogether. Basically if i was friends with anyone in the workplace she had to be their best friend or try to be the one everyone relied on, so quite a few people thought she was nice. She could be so sweet and charming and so cunning, conniving and vicious. Anytime she got called out on it she used the discrimation tactic (she is sri lanken) or “poor me” sob story. Why do people have to bully?

  12. Radar1 says:

    Should have found this web site first. yes union yes hr yes supervison notified five times in the last three years yes tried to talk it threw yes tried to get along. nothing. I am glad I do not believe in capital punishment…..I guess I have to figure it out some way

  13. kachina2 says:

    As I reread this article, the dismal statistic of 78% of targets losing their jobs is actually worse if you add the “transferred” 11%. I suspect that for most of those transferred are no longer in jobs they want or find as rewarding as the position they were transferred from, even though they are technically still emloyed by the same employer. It would not be the same as being voluntarily transferred to a new position at your own true discretion. I know I elected not to even try to fight for the “right” to be transferred to a position I didn’t want.

  14. Jbarlow1026 says:

    Im in this situation right now. I turned my letter of resignation this morning. Two bad things happening. I dont have another job & I have an appointment with counselors Saturday am. My Employer has put me on the verge of a NERVOUS BREAK DOWN.


  15. Nathan7479 says:

    It would seem more effective to cut it short in the very beginning and show people where you stand from day one. “Mess with me and you’ll suffer too.”  My wife is going through this right now, she does quality work but it does not matter to anyone, it’s Lord of the Flies she was in the psych ward for two weeks 2 years ago, because of this shit. Now, I’ll just go the the newpaper and TV, they love to get a report on this current topic. If they are going to take my wife and family down financially and emotionally, I’ll take the bully down with us. Sooner or later, you wanna bully someone, you’re going to pay big time. So you self centered asshole bullies out there, there comes a point when no one is going to care about any laws, they’re just going to take you out. Is that what you want? If I were you I’d be looking over my shoulder. There comes a point where no one is going to take the mental abuse from you anymore and you WILL pay. No one is going to care about breaking laws or consequences after being bullied – you’re going down dude. We are a nation of idiots. 

    • Needstostop says:

      This is the exact reason people go “postal”. I have experienced this as well and it does break you down. I was bullied by my boss and when I took it above her to her boss, it got worse because they were friends. It was horrible to be in an office with two people against you. I did not know how great I am at my job until I left. The other places I have worked since then have made me feel like an MVP. Since I left my boss was demoted due to new management and her boss’ lost many of her responsibilities. KARMA! They say karma comes around once in a lifetime, BAM!

  16. angrybeyondbelieve says:

    I have been being bullied at work for almost 3 years now. I’ve confronted them (made it worse), reported to superior (who admits he sees it but doesn’t know what to do about it) so nothing changes, can’t leave, economy so bad, no other comperable job available and have bills and respondsiblity at home to pay for. Boss says he feels bad for me, loves me as an  empolyee and angry they treat me badly, doesn’t want to lose me, but still looks for another job for me and is very willing to help me find one. I am two level headed brain cells away from going postal. Everything I read online about what they do to me is classic full blown bullying.  Does anyone have any suggestions???

  17. […] The Workplace Bullying Institute has a very enlightening article about workplace bullying. It also talks about the effects, solutions, and the overall ineffectiveness of attempts by the targeted employee to stop the bullying. In fact, the study found that once targeted for bullying an individual faced a 78% probability of losing the job he or she once loved. […]

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    WBI Study: Attempts to stop bullying at work by targeted workers are ineffective | Workplace Bullying Institute

  19. M. Mcknight,. says:

    Bullying in the workplace is the single most civil violation that can ruin a person’s physical, mental and spiritual being. I am a new employee in Atlanta Public School System and I have endured the worst form ethical, moral and educational practices known to the teaching profession. Unethical principals supported by apathetic, self-serving regional superintendents. The new superintendent has adopted a ” mafia ” district that mirrors a plantation with ignorant overseers and slave owners. The cheating scandal is only the first layer of he onion. Leaders violate Work Place Violence Laws daily. 90% of staff work in fear. For Atlanta to be the cradle of “civil rights” All forms of humanity are violated daily by principals and regional superintendents. Professional opinions are viewed as resignation notices.

  20. I Am a Target says:

    I am now crying. I am being bullied but this bully plays the game so well that the higher-ups think she is great. I love my job and it is so discouraging to face the fact that I will probably have to leave it because I can’t take this. The bully is my boss, and the bully’s boss and up think she is wonderful and listen to her portrayal of me as incompetent. I am very sad but it does help to read others’ stories. She will be at the company long after I quit, and one day I’ll probably be asking her if she wants fries with that as she smugly looks down her nose at me. I have not felt such despair for a long time.

  21. John Doe (not my real name) says:

    I was a target of bullying which turned to mobbing in a big American company operating worldwide. I was working in Germany, but my lawyer says within the first six-months of probation period of employment it is difficult to go to court and prove it. The Company can pretty much do what they want within the first six-months. Strange thing, I was hired as a Senior Engineer to replace on the project in Germany for a major client (mobile networks carrier) and on the first day we both met, the third, the fourth and so on, I was target which made me cut all communication with him. Then, he manipulated other colleagues that were interacting with me and I was also being discriminated by the boss. Then, they started to complain about my performance, I replied saying I was not been given the proper training to integrate myself in the team, the project and the company. The bullie had then the lead of the project in Germany and hide as much information as he could from me, concerning the project or the software tools being used, even passwords sometimes to access the system. Four months after I decided to contact the Ethics Line of the Company for support and the Company decided against me and fired me within the six-months of probation period, stating there was no mobbing or bullying even if I had proofs, by IM conversations with insults and mislead of my activities and some mails with the same type of disrespect and to avoid my proper integration into the Company. The company extracted some of mine IM messages out of context to state I was not building a good relationship with the colleagues and the company. I was already under a tremendous level of stress, I might have react in a less proper way, but never insulting anyone. We are all humans and we have feeling, I suppose.

    I was the one punished and now I can only think of moving to a new professional and personal challenge. But I have this feeling of revenge, which is not helping me leaving all of this behind. And we know now how difficult it is find a new job in Europe.

    What shall I do to get rid of my negative thoughts of revenge and move on to have a happy life at both the professional and personal level?


  22. Johnny Doe says:

    I work for the Federal Government and bullying is rampant in this agency (Commerce). My bully was a subordinate at first, but I later learned that a superior was involved as well, by spreading rumors and innuendo about me behind my back, while praising me to my face. The subordinate then felt empowered to belittle and harass me with no fear of punishment.

    The chain of command did nothing and tried to turn this into something about me and hinted that I am thin skinned. I didn’t get to this point in my life, with my extensive experience, because I am thin skinned. I just want to be treated with respect on the job, like any adult. I don’t see that happening here, so it may be time to move on.

  23. […] In this 2012 study, 77.7% of bullied targets were no longer employed where they were bullied as the result of the bullying. An alternative way to report this is to say that once targeted for bullying an individual faced a 78% probability of losing the job he or she once loved. –WBI […]

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