July 7th, 2017

2017 WBI U.S. Survey: Reactions to Workplace Bullying of Employers and Witnesses

2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey
Reactions to Workplace Bullying by Employers and Witnesses

71% of U.S. employers react to reports of abusive conduct in ways that harm targets
60% of coworker/witnesses’ reactions to bullying harmed their targeted colleagues

The Workplace Bullying Institute commissioned Zogby Analytics to conduct the 2017 national scientific U.S. survey across two days in late April. The stratified random sample of 1,008 individuals represented all adult Americans. [Zogby methodology and sample details here.] It was WBI’s fourth national survey.

We used the definition of workplace bullying that matches perfectly the definition codified in the Healthy Workplace Bill. Bullying is repeated mistreatment but also “abusive conduct.” We asked American survey respondents to consider only the most serious forms of bullying.


Employers have the power to either sustain or eliminate abusive conduct. Anecdotal evidence suggests that American employers rarely take steps to assist the aggrieved employee (the target). This question asks what the public believes employers actually do. [N = 479; no experience respondents deleted.]

Wording of the Employer Reaction Question: Upon learning of the abusive conduct, what did the employer do?

For many respondents, employer reactions were obscured. Two sub-groups of respondents were eliminated – “employer never learned” and “not sure” – representing 56% of the initial sample. For a host of possible reasons (e.g., the target never reported it), employer actions were unknown to over half of the sample. It is also very difficult for observers to be certain what employers know and what they do because so many actions are shrouded in secrecy beneath the veil of “confidentiality.”

Respondents who were sufficiently certain of what employers did, the remaining 44% of the sample [N = 212], concluded that 71% of employers took steps that did not benefit the targeted worker. The most frequent negative employer reaction is to conduct what targets describe as “sham” investigations characterized by major shortcomings. Investigator biases are often legend. Coworkers, for understandable reasons, fail to corroborate their bullied peer’s account of alleged bullying incidents. Key individuals are not interviewed. Greater weight is given to perpetrators’ versions of incidents. Objective historical documentation is ignored or discounted. “Sham” investigations end with an inconclusive result but with inadequate or inaccurate execution. To be fair to investigators with integrity, the process is fraught with problems in bullying cases different than investigations of routine conflict or illegal forms of discriminatory misconduct. An endpoint of “she said/she said” is common. WBI survey respondents say it happens in 46% of cases.

Because abusive conduct is a form of workplace violence, the complainant has likely suffered long prior to requesting an investigation. Therefore, when no work environment changes to restore psychological safety for complainants follow an investigation, investigators necessarily should understand the perception of incredulity by victims of the psychological violence.

Employer apologists might argue that an employer’s decision to do nothing is an act of neutrality. However, this is wrong. Doing nothing or showing indifference to filed complaints or discovering a procedural technicality to justify not responding to the complaints is an act of complicity with the aggressor. By enabling bullying with impunity, the institution takes the side of perpetrators and provides shelter from the accountability they seek. Doing nothing happens 26% of the time, according to the survey respondents.

Positive employer actions resulted in 29% of cases. Perpetrators endured negative outcomes in only 6% of the cases.


Results from several WBI online surveys of bullied targets reliably show that coworkers rarely help their bullied colleagues. Several social psychological processes operate in the group setting to explain the failure to act prosocially toward colleagues. The question explored a range of positive and negative actions taken by witnesses to the bullying. [N = 362 with no experience respondents and “not sure” respondents deleted.]

Wording of the Question: How did most of the witnesses react to the repeated mistreatment of their targeted coworker?

Doing nothing was the most cited tactic (40%). Of course, doing nothing to help colleagues when they are distressed is not a neutral act. It is negative. However, it is not the same as betraying the target by siding with the perpetrator(s), believed by respondents from the general American public to happen in only 4% of cases.

Positive witness reactions occurred in 40% of cases, according to survey respondents. Negative actions were taken in 60% of cases.

Gary Namie, PhD
WBI Research Director

Download the pdf version of these Employer and Witness Reaction findings.

View findings related to other questions asked in the 2017 Survey.

Download the complete report of the 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey.


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This entry was posted on Friday, July 7th, 2017 at 3:35 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Social/Mgmt/Epid Sciences, WBI Education, WBI Surveys & Studies. 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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