How Bullying Happens

Employers Create the Bullying-Prone Environment and Can Stop It

Special Note: See the results of the WBI 2012 Instant Poll asking why bullying happens. The pattern fits well with our model below that we have adopted for years.

Employers define all work conditions -- employee selection, job descriptions, work assignments, creation of the management group, compensation, leave policies, termination without cause (except in rare circumstances). So, bullying - the system - can only be sustained or eliminated by employers.

Factor 1


"The Way We Do Things Here" Work Culture Provides Cutthroat Competition Opportunities

Zero-sum competition. Employees are pitted against each other in positions or tasks that allow only one winner to emerge from deliberate battles, creating many losers. Winning is carved out of the hides of the vanquished. It's a routine way to design work in sales jobs, but unnatural and destructive elsewhere. In government service and financially-strapped industries, budgets are tight and competition for scarce resource dollars ensues. Scarcity generates competition. Simply put, people attack one another to survive at work.

Factor 2


The Workforce Mix

A small percentage of employees see the Opportunities and are willing to harm others, at least willing to try to harm others if they can get away with it. They are the manipulators. They are Machiavellian, not necessarily disturbed or psychopathic. Machs can and would stop their behavior if punished for hurting others. However, in most instances, they are encouraged, rather than discouraged. Some people are truly disturbed and have to be detected because their anti-social tendencies are irreversible given an employer's limited resources.

Ambition in eager job applicants looks good to hiring employers. Unfortunately, the overly-ambitious snakes willing to hurt others are hired. Hiring managers rarely (if ever) talk to the manager applicant's former subordinates to assess the level of narcissism. Asking only the applicant's boss for a reference risks getting an incomplete behavioral portrait. Bosses of bullies like them and consider them qualified.

Factor 3


The Employer's Response to Bullying

If positive consequences follow bullying, the bullies are emboldened. Promotions and rewards are positive. But, it is also positive if they are not punished. Bullies who bully others with impunity become convinced they can get away with it forever. They will continue until stopped. Even reluctant bullies can be taught to be aggressive over time. We are all susceptible to changing our behavior in light of work environment conditions.

Stopping bullying requires nothing less than turning the workplace culture upside down. Bullies must experience negative consequences for harming others. Punishment must replace promotions. And only executives and senior management can reverse the historical trend. To stop bullying requires employers to change the routine ways of "doing business" that have propped up bullies for years. Bullies are too expensive to keep, but convincing executives, the bully's best friends and supporters, is difficult.




Our 3-Factor explanation assigns responsibility almost entirely to employers. Employers can alter the work environment by changing how jobs are designed and how bullying is treated when exposed. It minimizes the people factor -- the personalities of the players. Truthfully, employers rarely get to choose employees whom they know very well. With a random mix of strangers, there are bound to be a few able and willing to hurt others if given the chance. The solution to bullying (as captured in Work Doctor's Blueprint for Workplace Bullying Prevention) emphasizes factors that are in employers' control.

In conclusion, the ultimate solution fixes responsibility for both the cause and cure squarely on the shoulders of senior management and executives. They put people in harm's way and they can provide safety by undoing the culture which may have inadvertently allowed bullying to flourish.

Of course, if executives instruct others to bully from the top, targeted employees can never be safe.

Check out an in-depth discussion of why Women Bullies seem to choose Women Targets more than Men Targets.

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