Workplace Bullying:

An Important Workplace Issue for both Men and Women

Denise Salin, Academy of Finland Research Fellow , University of Helsinki

Workplace bullying is a form of unethical treatment, which violates generally accepted norms of behaviour. It is about harassing, offending, or socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work. Bullying can take many different forms and it can include, for example, unjustified criticism and shouting, withholding of relevant information, social isolation, and gossip and rumours. Many employees may occasionally experience negative treatment or conflicts in the workplace. However, negative treatment becomes bullying when the negative behaviour is systematically repeated and the person at the receiving end does not feel able to defend him or herself successfully. Employees can be bullied by superiors, colleagues, or even subordinates.

Research has shown that workplace bullying has many negative consequences. It affects the health of both victims and bystanders. Being subject to bullying is often associated with, for example, anxiety, sleeping problems, depression, and different stress reactions. Bullied employees report lower job satisfaction, higher sickness absenteeism, and higher intentions to quit. For organizations this translates to costs in the form of absenteeism, higher turnover of personnel, lower productivity, and possibly bad PR.

Contrary to common belief men and women report approximately equal exposure to bullying behaviour in the Nordic countries. Men are somewhat more often reported to be the bullies. However, women seem to be somewhat more likely to label their experiences as bullying than men are. This may partly be because women often occupy lower positions with fewer resources and therefore may experience the negative treatment as more threatening and find it more difficult to defend themselves successfully.  Also, admitting victim status may be more taboo for many men.

Gender may also affect the form of bullying. Women report more social manipulation and isolation, whereas men often report work-related forms of bullying, for example, actions that make their work difficult or even dangerous. While women report being bullied both by other women and by men in approximately equal proportions, men typically report being bullied by other men only. Breaking traditional gender norms may also be a risk factor: men working in childcare or in the nursing profession have reported higher prevalence rates than their female counterparts, just as female police officers and business professionals have reported higher prevalence rates than their male counterparts. When it comes to health effects research has shown that bullying affects both women and men to the same extent.

While research acknowledges that personality factors may increase the risk of bullying, studies indicate that the work environment is an even better explanation of why bullying occurs. Poor leadership, role ambiguity, unclear goals, stress, and insecurity all increase the risk of bullying. To minimize the risk of bullying it is important that leaders clarify expectations and expected standards of behaviour, provide constructive feedback and information, and actively engage in conflict management. It is important that managers act as role models and exhibit professional behaviour themselves and intervene quickly if inappropriate behaviour occurs, thereby sending the message that the organization does not tolerate harassment and bullying.

For more information please see:

Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D. & Cooper, C. (Eds): Workplace bullying and harassment: Developments in Theory, Research and Practice. 2. Edition. London: Taylor & Francis.

Salin, D. & Hoel, H. (2013). Workplace bullying as a gendered phenomenon. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 28(3), 235-251.


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