The Bullying Dilemma: Is It Behavior Entrenched in Corporate Culture?

First of two parts

One of the subjects we have been studying and researching for quite some time is the phenomena called “bullying in the workplace.”

The literature and research continues to expand. It is to also interesting to note that one of the leading items that we receive emails on to our “Ask the Expert” column at the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, deals with employees wanting help on situations where they perceive they have been the target of bullying. We have also noticed that more organizations are inquiring about getting help in this area.

The literature is full of cases and situations and definitions of bullying. However, as I have continued my research in this area and worked with several organizations to deal with this troubling issue, several problematic issues in the available definitions are apparent to me:

  • There is not a generally accepted definition of bullying that provides a standard by which to judge employee behavior and many of the behaviors that are identified in existing definitions are subject to wide interpretation by employees, supervisors and employers; and
  • The collection of behaviors that are generally accepted as demonstrating bullying are, in many cases, inexplicably tied to corporate culture.

How do you define bullying?

Thus, I decided the starting point for this article should be to try to arrive at a generally accepted definition of bullying from an employer or organization viewpoint.

I’m starting here because it is my belief that many organizations have been hesitant to affirmatively address this issue because there is no standard to guide them and they feel like they are dealing with Jello. Without an existing set of policies and unaccepted behaviors identified that are well defined, how do you use a Jello-like description to explain to an employee that they are being disciplined for an infraction that you don’t have a policy on or are not really clear on what it is?’

It reminds me of the now infamous explanation of the definition of pornography offered by former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (hard-core pornography); and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

“In the same league as harassment”

I totally agree with Tim Field’s statement in his article, Myths and Misperceptions About Bullying: Overcoming Stereotypes and False Perceptions of Bullying

. . .bullying is in the same league as harassment, discrimination, racism, violence, assault, stalking, physical abuse and sexual abuse. It can cause trauma and psychiatric injury and can, if untreated, cause a psychiatric injury of sufficient seriousness to blight a person for life, causing a poorer standard of health and preventing them realizing their potential. The symptoms of psychiatric injury caused by bullying are consistent with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

A good definition can help you explain to supervisors and employees the behaviors that are considered bullying, thus providing guidance on unacceptable behavior in the workplace.

Based on our research, here is the definition we offer (we welcome your input on this definition so that we can build toward creating an generally accepted standard for organizations to use):

Bullying is a persistent pattern of repeated, deliberate, malicious, abusive, unwanted verbal mistreatment or non-verbal actions, threatening, harassing and/or inappropriate misconduct executed by an employee against another employee. A single act normally will not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious. The behavior has the effect of impairing a person’s ability to perform their job, causes psychological, emotional harm or trauma or impacts the health and safety of an employee(s) and substantially disrupts or interferes with the performance of the work of the organization.

Bullying vs. performance management

One intent we are trying to communicate with this definition is that there must be a collection of behaviors, a repeated pattern of acts that are deliberate (inferring intent to do harm) and must either impact an employees’ ability to perform their job or interfere with the performance of the work of the organization.

Another factor that impacts defining bullying is when does boorish or inappropriate behavior rise to the level of becoming unacceptable and possibly illegal? When does it cross the line into being considered bullying?

For example, a classic dilemma that we see organizations struggling with is this: Is one person’s bullying another’s performance management technique? And where is the threshold for the behavior becoming inappropriate?

A challenging boss will make employees stretch, demand a high level of quality and productivity, often times much to the subordinates’ dismay, however, does this person’s demanding management style make him or her a bully? I believe each organization will have to define the threshold for themselves based on their culture and accepted behavioral norms.

Consider the following scene from the movie A Few Good Men’when Tom Cruise, whose character was the prosecuting attorney, called Demi Moore’s character, his associate, “cosmically stupid.” He yelled these words at her after the defending attorney got one of the prosecuting attorney’s key witness to admit, on the stand, that he was not at the scene of fatal beating of a Marine and therefore could not testify to what actually happen.

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Demi Moore’s character had screwed up (not adequately performed her job of questioning the witnesses during discovery). In the face of her significant error and poor performance did, Tom’s behavior rise to the level of being considered bullying? In my opinion, he provided much needed feedback that was true, timely and needed, although it could perhaps been delivered in a more sensitive manner.

Is it simply accepted in corporate culture?

Nevertheless, regardless of how Demi’s character may have felt about his comment, she was not the victim of bullying. Possibly some of you may disagree, which is why organizations must define the threshold for themselves.

The second part of the definition we propose is to describe a “hostile or abusive work environment.”

An ‘‘abusive work environment’’ is a workplace where an employee is subjected to abusive conduct that is so severe that it causes physical or psychological harm to the employee. This would include ‘‘constructive discharge’’ which causes the employee to resign, and where, prior to resigning, the employee brings to the employer’s attention the existence of the abusive conduct, and the employer fails to take reasonable steps to eliminate the abusive conduct. (California Legislature, 2003–04 Regular Session, Assembly Bill No. 1582)

Armed with the above definition of “bullying” and an “abusive work environment,” we believe that organizations will be better positioned to deal with alleged infractions where an employee is accused of bullying another employee. We believe that this definition provides the beginning point for providing sufficient guidance to supervisors and employees to be actionable and to provide sufficient clarity to perpetrators of why their behavior is unacceptable.

This leads to our second dilemma with bullying: the connection between the collection of behaviors associated with bullying and accepted corporate culture.

Accepting aggressive actions

Kurt Landgraf, president of Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., and former chief executive of DuPont Pharmaceuticals, acquired in 2001 by Bristol-Myers Squibb Company said, “We don’t sell $8 billion worth of antidepressants in this country for nothing,” Landgraf further stated. “I think most organizations all talk about how much they care. But the real fact of the matter is, the corporate culture is so accepting of these kinds of aggressive actions, it’s not going to go away.”

Hadyn Olsen, manager of Workplaces Against Violence in Employment (a New Zealand organization also known as WAVE), says the problem is exacerbated because many employers seek out the ruthless, superficially charming and impulsive qualities of the corporate psychopath.

A lot of employers say, ‘Look, we hire people with these characteristics – they get results, work well on their own and present themselves really well’.” He warns employers about the chronic’s dark side – they are not team players, don’t handle conflict very well, have very low empathy, are manipulative and deceitful and have a Jekyll and Hyde type of character. “They are very ambitious, often seek positions of power and do well on KPIs (key performance indicators). But unfortunately they often destroy people in the process.”

Are Landgraf and Olsen right? Is this simply the way of the corporate world?

A version of this article was originally published in WVP News. © The National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, Inc., All rights reserved. 

W. Barry Nixon, SPHR, is the Executive Director of the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, Inc., a company focused on assisting organizations effectively address the emerging issue of workplace violence from a comprehensive and multi-disciplinary viewpoint. He is the author of "Zero Tolerance is Not Enough: Making Workplace Violence Prevention Really Work," publishes The Workplace Violence Prevention eReport, and is a frequent speaker on workplace violence. Contact him at