The Challenges in Defining Workplace Bullying

April 17, 2012
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

We tend to think of bullying as a problem specific to childhood. Bullying/psychological harassment is clearly a worldwide concern for educators, policy makers, legislators, researchers, parents, and young people. Unfortunately, the problem doesn't end with graduation. Bullying at work is also surprisingly common throughout the world.

There are many similarities between schoolyard and workplace bullies. While not exclusively the case, a unique difference appears to lie in a major motivation for bullies in choosing their targets.

School bullies often choose targets to exploit a real or perceived weakness. Targets may appear to be socially withdrawn, weak, fearful, or anxious, or they may seem to struggle with one or more physical, medical, emotional, or psychological challenges.

Workplace bullies often choose targets based on real or perceived strength. Targets may appear to be highly competent and to excel at their jobs; they may be respected by management or coworkers; they may be popular and well-liked; they may be admired for their integrity; or they may be unique in some way that threatens the adult bully.

While there is certainly crossover in these differing motivations, it is one of many factors making workplace bullying difficult to define. In fact, there is tremendous disagreement among experts internationally on a specific definition.

Workplace psychological harassment/bullying involves highly sensitive, complicated, and controversial factors. It is difficult to even define in many jurisdictions unless the behavior is part of other legislatively addressed concerns such as harassment, discrimination, or intimidation.

It is challenging to address this issue for those without the benefit of direct participation in a CPI training program, but we briefly address this concern here in a broad manner.

Please note that CPI is an international training organization with extensive expertise in various aspects of problematic workplace behavior, including workplace bullying. As such, we are not in a position to offer legal or employment advice. None of the statements in this article should be construed as either legal or employment advice.

There are a number of jurisdictions worldwide that have enacted, or are considering enacting, anti-bullying protection for all employees as a matter of law—even when bullying falls outside of other legislatively addressed concerns. Additionally, significant precedent has been set that has caused many employers to formally address various forms of workplace harassment, including bullying. The following summary highlights a variety of such interpretations of workplace bullying, and outlines resources that may be helpful to organizations dealing with this profound concern.

Section 32 of the Ontario Occupational Health & Safety Act (Bill 168 amendments) defines employer responsibilities regarding the prevention and response to workplace violence, psychological harassment, and domestic violence. The Workplace Violence Prevention Handbook for Health Care Professionals from CPI is a comprehensive resource designed to help you establish and sustain an effective workplace violence prevention program. Additional information is available on the Ontario Ministry of Labour website.

The Ireland Health and Safety Authority tells us that bullying puts the safety, health, and welfare of everyone at work at risk. The International Labour Organization emphasizes that physical and emotional violence is one of the most serious problems facing the workplace in this millennium. Formal definitions of workplace violence provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety suggest that any behavior that demeans, embarrasses, humiliates, annoys, alarms, or verbally abuses a person could be considered violence.

CPI supports these definitions and recognizes that people can experience many types of negative behavior at work—behaviors including disrespect, harassment, mobbing, discrimination, incivility, bullying, horizontal and lateral violence, and emotional abuse. Furthermore, CPI views workplace violence as a continuum of behaviors. This blog introduces our Workplace Violence Continuum and outlines behaviors ranging from discourtesy to disrespect, intimidation, harassment/bullying, retaliation, verbal assault, and physical aggression. We stress in our training programs that the earlier these behaviors are observed and responded to, the safer everyone will be.

Our training extensively explores the behaviors that fall under our definition of workplace bullying. It is important to note that some of these behaviors may be related more to what we don't do, rather than to specific behaviors in which we do engage.

A few examples include ongoing behaviors that involve:

  • Taking credit for someone else's work.
  • Repeatedly belittling a coworker.
  • Withholding essential information.
  • Failing to invite someone to an essential meeting.
  • Ignoring a coworker with the intent to harm or control.
  • Engaging in ongoing passive-aggressive behavior in which words and actions appear harmless but have the intent to harm or control.

CPI's Workplace Bullying Resources and References page offers a wealth of resources for raising awareness about workplace bullying. Learn how to control and prevent workplace bullying.

Regulations, standards, laws, guidelines, policies, and precedents mandating respect are bold, proactive, and revolutionary. They represent just some of the compelling reasons to foster respectful, service-oriented, and safe workplaces. Other reasons include concerns about employee safety, health, and well-being—and issues concerning productivity, customer service, absenteeism, compensation claims, civil litigation, retention, morale, reputation, and profitability.

We are all part of the equation when it comes to creating and maintaining workplace cultures that value respect, service, and safety. Organizations that embrace safe workplace practices foster the well-being of internal and external customers on both emotional and physical levels. It is our hope that the resources outlined in this article will help proactive employers manage the problem of workplace bullying, and create and maintain respectful, service-oriented, and safe workplaces.

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