Workplace bullying: Understanding it and reducing it

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Scientific interpretation

BAlthough researchers have been interested in workplace bullying for several years, it remains largely misunderstood and is a challenge for organizations. Confusion around even the definition of bullying makes it more difficult to detect and, as a result, to reduce how often it occurs. This scientific interpretation aims to narrow down the concept of workplace bullying, to identify the main risk factors and to suggest prevention and intervention measures to deal with it, while taking into account the cultural context of organizations.

This scientific interpretation is based on three studies. The first, by Baillien and colleagues (2017), involves empirical and conceptual differences between bullying and interpersonal conflicts. The second study, by Hogh and colleagues (2017), was done to determine the prevalence of workplace bullying and its main risk factors. Finally, the third study, by Salin and colleagues (2018), examines measures for preventing workplace bullying and taking action against it that have been put in place by human resource professionals in 14 countries.

Expert advisers

FRANÇOIS COURCY, full professor, Psychology, Université de Sherbrooke

FRÉDÉRIC MALLETTE, doctoral student in Psychology, Université de Sherbrooke


Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

PATRICE DANEAU, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

JOSÉE CHARBONNEAU, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke


This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.


The first study, by Baillien and colleagues (2017), aimed to define workplace bullying. To do so, the authors differentiated between interpersonal conflicts and bullying, as the two are often confused. Defining bullying as a separate phenomenon is essential to be able to take action on the ramifications it causes.


Interpersonal conflict

Interpersonal conflict is considered to be a confrontation during which the employees concerned become aware of and feel a negative impact on something they value, which is important to them. The conflict can also be expressed through a dispute between two or more parties who realize that they have a conflict, regarding motivations, roles, goals, objectives, intentions or interests. Interpersonal conflict is seen as something that could lead to workplace bullying.

It is important not to confuse interpersonal conflict with workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying

Workplace bullying refers to a situation in which one or more employees are targeted on numerous occasions, and over a long period of time (six months or more), through negative actions at work. It can include physical and sexual violence. More specifically, workplace bullying involves trying to discredit the victim on a personal and professional level through false allegations of professional misconduct, incompetence or criminal acts.[1]

Psychological harassment

Psychological harassment means “any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee.”[2].

It is not unusual for workplace bullying to be confused with psychological harassment, and vice versa. The two terms have similar definitions and are often taken as synonyms in the scientific research. If the difference is not obvious in the scientific literature, it is even more difficult for human resource professionals to observe it on the ground and adapt their actions as a result. It seems that workplace bullying is a more specific form of psychological harassment, and for this reason, this text focuses mainly on bullying.

Complete reference

Baillien, E., Escartín, J., Gross, C., et Zapf, D. (2017). Towards a conceptual and empirical differentiation between workplace bullying and interpersonal conflict. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 26(6), 870-881.


The study sample was done in Germany with the help of various announcements in newspapers in which readers were invited to participate in a study on social conflicts: to create an appropriate group of non-victims for the study, the word “bullying” was not used in recruitment.

Participants had to complete a log book for 20 days in which they described events that could be related to conflicts – their own or those of other people in the organization. After the 20 days there was a 4-month break, then they began making entries in the log book for another 20 days.

Portrait of the study:

  • 109 participants (47 assigned to the victims’ group and 62 to the non-victims’ group)
  • Average age of 46 years for the victims’ group and 39 years for the non-victims’ group
  • 70% of participants in the victims’ group and 62% of the non-victims’ group were women
  • 48% of participants in the victims’ group and 52% of the non-victims’ group had a degree or diploma (university or similar)





  • Bullying happens at least once a week.

Negative social behaviour

  • Bullying involves exposure to real, negative social behaviours involving work (e.g. devaluation of work and of the employee’s efforts) or personal attributes (e.g. ridicule, social isolation).

Imbalance of power

  • Victims of workplace bullying often have a lower rank than those who bully them. This imbalance of power is not limited to formal power, which supervisors wield over their subordinates. Because social dependencies exist between team members, they can band together against the victim or exert informal power over him or her by using their knowledge, their experience and their relationship with others.


  • Bullying generally refers to a situation that extends over a long period (six months or more).
  • Due to a depletion of energy, this ongoing confrontation would erode even further the employees’ work quality and personal resources.

Intent perceived

  • Workplace bullying means that the victim perceives malicious intent by those bullying him or her.

Complete reference

Hogh, A., Conway, P. M., et Mikkelsen, E. G. (2017). Prevalence and Risk Factors for Workplace Bullying. Dans The Wiley Handbook of Violence and Aggression, Wiley-Blackwell, 1-12.


The second study, by Hogh and colleagues (2017), is a literature review and aims to identify the main risk factors related to bullying. These risk factors are important, because they are the key to preventing workplace bullying.

Organizational risk factors

Risk factors


Ambiguity and conflict of roles

  • Contradictions or a lack of information about roles within the organization. A contradiction can, for example, involve having to act in a way that hinders respect for the organization’s policies to obey an order, while a lack of information can be, for example, insufficient training to do a job. Here, colleagues can adopt aggressive behaviours towards an employee who is facing an ambiguity of roles or a conflict of roles.

Withholding information

  • Not sharing important information or sharing it only with the people who specifically ask for it can lead to bullying behaviours (sense of injustice or breach of trust, informal power by those who have information).

Stressful working conditions

  • Stressful working conditions can interfere with employees’ personal resources and reduce their ability to manage emerging conflicts or deal effectively with negative behaviours, thus making them more vulnerable to bullying.
  • A stressful work environment can also increase the risk of engaging in bullying. Highly stressful work situations (e.g. increased workload and weak job autonomy) are related to a higher probability of becoming a workplace bully.

Poor working conditions

  • Poor working conditions arouse negative emotions for some employees, who can then seek to relieve these emotions by becoming aggressive towards their colleagues.

Leadership inadéquat

  • Poor leadership can increase the risk of workplace bullying. Here, the quality of leadership refers to the immediate supervisor’s overall ability to ensure the development of employees’ skills and promote workplace satisfaction, as well as to plan work effectively and resolve conflicts.
  • Inadequate leadership can adversely affect employee’s work satisfaction, commitment to the organization, work commitment and performance. These attitudes and behaviours can, in turn, harm the quality of interpersonal relationships between colleagues, weaken the social community at work and therefore increase the risk of bullying.

Inadequate management of interpersonal conflicts

  • Time spent managing conflicts and how they are managed have an impact on bullying. When interpersonal conflicts take time to be resolved and when the intervention is inadequate, the risks of bullying behaviour increase.

What you also need to know

Minority groups or people who are markedly different from the majority are more likely to be isolated or socially excluded and to face bullying behaviours.

People living with mental health issues are also more vulnerable to bullying in organizations that have a psychosocially damaged work environment characterized, for example, by inadequate leadership, increased professional demands or ambiguity of roles, which encourages bullying.

It is therefore up to the organization to promote an organizational culture that does not tolerate bullying behaviour and to take steps towards integration and raising awareness to prevent this type of behaviour.

Best practices in preventing and managing bullying

The purpose of the third study, by Salin and colleagues (2018), was to take stock of best practices in managing workplace bullying through interviews with human resource advisors in 14 countries.

Complete reference

Salin, D., Cowan, R. L., Adewumi, O., Apospori, E., Bochantin, J., D’Cruz, P., […] et Işik, I. (2018). Prevention of and interventions in workplace bullying: a global study of human resource professionals’ reflections on preferred action. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1-23.


In-depth interviews were conducted to explore the perceptions of human resource professionals on the best ways to prevent workplace bullying and to intervene when it happens.

Data collection was done by an international team of researchers. The sample included 214 interviews in 14 countries/regions of the world: Argentina, Australia, Austria, China, Finland, Greece, Gulf states (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia), India, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, Spain, Turkey and the United States. Fifteen interviews were done per country, except in the Gulf states (n = 11), China (n = 18) and Finland (n = 20).

Human resource professionals were recruited by the authors from their local networks of business and university colleagues, including human resource management associations and their affiliated universities.

  • 51% were women;
  • 85% had a university degree;
  • Average age: 41 years;
  • 47% had worked in human resources for 11 years or more.

Preventing workplace bullying

How to act


Increase awareness

  • Offer training to increase:
    • awareness of the victim’s rights;
    • awareness by potential bullies of their behaviours and their consequences;
    • managers’ ability to intervene.
  • Make witnesses of bullying aware of their role and of the importance of intervening in these situations, whether by reporting it or by confronting the bully.

Create anti-bullying policies and codes of conduct

  • Establish clear rules on how to treat violations and adopt clear codes of conduct (e.g. clearly identify the consequences of violations and be sure these are respected, without exception).
  • Be sure to disseminate the rules and policies well and keep them updated.
  • Train managers on the policies to ensure that they are well implemented.
    • In countries where an anti-bullying approach is widespread, even legislated (e.g. Finland, Poland, Australia), clear written anti-bullying policies are preferred.
    • In countries where workplace bullying is less socially acknowledged (e.g. Nigeria, India, Mexico), general codes of ethics or regulations are preferred. In this way, when the law does not address bullying, organizations can put in place codes of conduct that condemn it specifically and protect employees by stipulating consequences that can lead to loss of employment when rules are violated.

Adopt and foster constructive and active leadership

  • Fostering constructive and active leadership means:
    • demonstrating behaviour that is appropriate and ethical; leaders, by their actions, can set the example, which is very effective for preventing undesirable behaviour within the organization.
    • taking a clear stand on bullying; this involves clear communication of the organization’s position on bullying and consequences that may result.
    • not tolerating passivity. In all cases, the important thing is to react; if managers and leaders close their eyes to undesirable behaviour, a culture of bullying can move into the organization.
  • In most cultures, the behaviour of senior management affects that of lower levels of management by the domino effect, which is why it is important to emphasize education and training of senior managers on problems like bullying. These will be to a certain extent the model for expected behaviours for other managers and employees.

Focus on organizational culture and values

  • Adopt a zero-tolerance attitude to bullying.
  • Establish an organizational culture that discourages bullying. This starts with a clear statement of the organization’s values and an unambiguous stand against bullying.

Institute a climate of communication

  • Create a climate of communication in which it is possible to safely raise potential problems and discuss them. This shows that managers are open to meeting with and listening to employees.

Establish good human resource practices

  • Create selection processes (such as psychosocial tests, or looking for abilities to work as part of a team) that take into account risks related to bullying.
  • Take advantage of the arrival of new employees and performance reviews to raise awareness and train staff about bullying.

Inform victims and witnesses about their responsibilities

  • Encourage victims and witnesses to:
    • assert themselves and confront bullies, when possible;
    • report all inappropriate behaviour before it turns into bullying.

Managing workplace bullying

How to act


Establish the facts and act quickly

  • When bullying happens, it is important to act quickly, by conducting an investigation, for example, to avoid having the situation continue.
  • Quick action is also perceived as a signal and a reminder to other employees of the behaviours expected.

Develop disciplinary measures

  • Disciplinary measures can take the form of an escalation of penalties. In this way, the first instance of objectionable behaviour is followed by a formal warning. In the case of a subsequent offence, a suspension could be considered, and if the behaviour happens again, the employee could face termination of employment.
  • In China and Greece, disciplinary measures strongly emerge as a way to manage bullying, while in India, Nigeria, Spain and the United States, the preference is for disciplinary measures aimed at mediation, which works to bring together the people involved in the bullying (victim[s] and bully or bullies). However, mediation can, in some cases, make bullying worse, as a kind of revenge towards the person for having reported.

Have informal discussions

  • Unlike reconciliation, informal discussions are only with the bully and the aim is remedial. The discussions could, for example, serve as a reminder of the codes of conduct and the organization’s values, and give the bully a chance to change their behaviour before the organization moves to disciplinary action.
  • In India and the United States in particular, organizations are encouraged to focus on informal discussions with the offender.

Do not prevent interactions between the parties

  • Although separating the parties involved is sometimes an automatic reaction, it is better to avoid this approach. Separation risks having the person who was bullied experience even more negative consequences in the process.

Redefine the work environment

  • Redesign the physical workspace (e.g. by promoting job crafting)[3] to reduce the risks of bullying. This can be done by moving offices or changing the physical location of employees’ workstations.


The ideas for action are effective, especially when they are applied as part of a remedial plan for the bully.

Ideally, the first step to take to fight bullying is to implement a zero-tolerance culture, even before training the various stakeholders. The second step could take the form of an internal survey to measure the situation. The third step is to create a policy to prevent bullying, distribute it through the organization’s channels and train staff and managers on the various policies and the possible interventions.

Rather than considering only interventions based on punishment, also encourage an upstanding organizational climate that values positive behaviour. In this way, people contribute to creating and reinforcing a zero-tolerance culture. To this can be added the implementation of conflict mediation practices.

Also, quick intervention by managers not only with the bully, but also with the victim, when they witness or know about an incident of bullying, is essential, even if the first intervention is clumsy. The important thing is for managers to show that they are available, so employees feel encouraged to confide in them about situations of bullying that they experience (open-door policy).




Courcy, F., Mallette, F., Fouquet, E., Daneau, P., Charbonneau, J. (2018). Workplace bullying: Understanding it and reducing it. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at


Baillien, E., Escartín, J., Gross, C., et Zapf, D. (2017). Towards a conceptual and empirical differentiation between workplace bullying and interpersonal conflict. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 26(6), 870-881.

Hogh, A., Conway, P. M., et Mikkelsen, E. G. (2017). Prevalence and Risk Factors for Workplace Bullying. Dans The Wiley Handbook of Violence and Aggression, Wiley-Blackwell, 1-12.

Salin, D., Cowan, R. L., Adewumi, O., Apospori, E., Bochantin, J., D’Cruz, P., […] et Işik, I. (2018). Prevention of and interventions in workplace bullying: a global study of human resource professionals’ reflections on preferred action. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1-23.


1. Hirigoyen, M. F. (2000). Us et abus du terme : harcèlement moral. Synapse, 164, 75.

2. Loi sur les normes du travail du Québec (2018). RLRQ, c. N-1.1, art. 81(18).

3. Le job crafting réfère à la façon dont les salariés/employés façonnent leur travail de manière à lui apporter des améliorations. Il fait référence aux comportements adoptés par les salariés/employés visant à accroître (1) leurs ressources sociales au travail (p. ex. : conseils, entraide), (2) leurs ressources structurelles (p. ex. : possibilités d’apprentissage, autonomie) et (3) leurs défis professionnels (p. ex. : nouvelles responsabilités). Voir le texte Job crafting et leisure crafting, des moteurs de création de sens et d’engagement au travail, offert sur le site

Pierre Breton
Author: Pierre Breton