PART I: Why Workplace Bullying Is A Serious Problem

By: Lawrence J. Fennelly CPOI, CSSM & Marianna Perry CPP, CPOI

TASA ID: 10544

Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate behavior, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work.

An isolated incident of the behavior described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but as a one off incident is not considered to be bullying.

A 2001 task force in Ireland attempted to define workplace bullying after much debate without consensus but in agreement that bullying is a problem in the workplace with potentially serious effects for all involved. A Report of the Expert Advisory Group on Workplace Bullying reported in 2005, following the earlier group’s work determined that when viewed as a health and safety issue, it is unlike any other type of workplace hazard in that the hazard, the bully, has fundamental legal and human rights. It is also clear that workplace culture significantly contributes to the incidence of bullying, which takes many forms:

  • Manager to employee
  • Employee to employee
  • Peer to peer or peer group to peer
  • Customer to employee
  • Employee to customer

A resolution of the European Parliament in 2001 stressed the need to investigate a growing phenomenon of violence and harassment in the workplace and asked for measures to effectively combat the problem. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions responded with a research report on Preventing Violence and Harassment in the Workplace (DiMartino, Vittorio, Helge Hoel and Cary L. Cooper. 2003). That report discussed the increasing pressures on workers in a global economy with strong competition for market share and survival. It stated business pressures could lead to stress resulting in violence or, more often, the psychological violence of harassment representing the greatest threat to most workers. It also found a rising trend of harassment on racial, gender, age, and sexual orientation across the European Union. Some member states introduced specific new legislation; some used existing criminal and civil legislation, while others implemented non-legislative codes of practice, regulations, and collective agreements. Much less effort was placed on psychological violence although there was no reason to believe a risk assessment approach should not be equally applicable. For any violence, any approach that integrates a focus on prevention, protection and treatment is more likely to be successful where the workforce is fully involved at all stages of the intervention process. The report found considerable resistance to the idea that harassment of a psychological nature, in particular, harassment corresponding to the labels ‘bullying’ and ‘mobbing’ should be considered work related hazards equal in importance to physical violence. 

The European Foundation report considered the diversity of definitions of harassment in the workplace and the cultural factors surrounding the issue and stated the variety of behaviors covering ‘violence at work’ is so large it is difficult to both define and describe the phenomenon. A first effort at understanding came with the definition:

Incidents where persons are abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances related to their work, involved an explicit or implied challenge to their safety, well-being and health.

The report went on to examine various definitions of physical and psychological violence, which included the following:

Violence can be defined as a form of negative behaviors or action in the relations between two or more people, characterized by aggressiveness, sometimes repeated, sometimes unexpected, which has harmful effects on the safety, health and well-being of employees at their place of work.

Aggressiveness may take the form of body language indicating intimidation, contempt or disdain, or of actual physical or verbal violence.

Violence manifests itself in many ways, ranging from physical aggression to verbal  insults, bullying, mobbing and sexual harassment, discrimination on grounds of race, disability, sex or, in any event, difference and may be inflicted by persons both outside and inside the working environment.

It is important to bear in mind that physical violence can have consequences that are not only physical but also psychological which can be immediate or delayed.

Bullying behavior can be repeated and/or unexpected but it does not have to be either. Although a single incident would suffice, psychological violence often consists of repeated, unwelcome, unreciprocated and imposed actions, which may have a devastating effect on the victim. The report blurred any distinction between mobbing, primarily viewed as collective harassment, and bullying, primarily seen as individual harassment, and a conceptual assimilation of the two terms occurred. The report also commented that traditional areas of health and safety might also include dignity at work, human rights and discrimination. 

The group identified a best practice model for response to a bullying allegation, composed of three elements – prevention, intervention and resolution – in two phases: 

1. at the workplace level,
2. at an adjudication level.

Model to Deal with Workplace Bullying

The model consists of a series of progressively more formal stages within these phases:

  • the allegation of bullying is made by an employee or agent 
  • the employer uses internal procedures to determine the validity and gravity of the allegation
  • where the matter is suitable for internal disposal the employer offers mediation by an independent and impartial person
  • the complainant and/or alleged perpetrator are not obligated to accept mediation
  • if the mediation is not conducted, the matter will proceed to a formal internal investigation under the company’s normal dispute resolution procedures
  • if mediation is conducted and any recommended actions are acceptable to the parties, then implementation and review will occur within a period of months and, if effective, the matter is resolved 
  • if the recommended actions are not agreed or implementation was unsuccessful, the case proceeds to formal, internal investigation under the company’s normal dispute resolution procedures
  • findings of the formal internal investigation will be documented and implemented, where possible, and, if successful, the case is closed
  • should the internal procedures be unsuccessful the matter is referred to the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) along with all agreed internal records
  • if the LRC determines further efforts should be made at the local level it will suggest this, or it will determine an appropriate course of action which may include mediation facilitated by an Officer of the LRC or investigation and recommendation by a Rights Commissioner
  • the LRC mediator will seek to achieve consensus among the parties with a view to restoring harmony in the workplace
  • if the LRC mediation is unsuccessful the matter will be referred to a Rights Commissioner for investigation and recommendation
  • the Rights Commissioner will investigate and produce recommendations
  • if the recommendations are accepted by the parties they will be referred to the employer for implementation
  • if the recommendations are not acceptable, the case is referred to the Employment Appeals Tribunal/Labour Court for a determination.

Preventative Actions

It is recommended that workplace preventative actions be extended to cover both active and passive prevention, to prevent bullying and early intervention to modify behaviors which might lead to bullying. Passive prevention encompasses education and training, public awareness and documentation. Active prevention includes early intervention by management, a stated policy, and internal responsive structures. 

Education and training of all workers is critical to elimination or a very substantial reduction of workplace bullying. It is the responsibility of management, unions, and professional and other representative bodies to provide such training both in the workplace and ad part of general vocational and professional training. Management training should include awareness, the codes of practice, and recommended approaches to dealing with allegations of workplace bullying. All members within the organization have a responsibility to raise awareness of both the issue and its unacceptability in the workplace. 

The group report found that closure is never achieved for many alleged victims of workplace bullying and recommend focusing on early resolution actions, making Employment Appeals Tribunal/Labour Court decisions binding and enforceable, and placing an emphasis on timeliness at each stage of the process. It is important to note that these recommendations are qualified as follows:

  • The further into the process the parties proceed, the more adversarial it becomes, and an adversarial approach might succeed in apportioning blame but rarely succeeds in restoring a harmonious workplace. As such, a polarization of positions might divide the workplace and make it even more difficult for the alleged victim to return to normal working;
  • Creative and inventive approaches are best implemented at the early stages;
  • Alleged victims of bullying are often in a traumatized state and may be medically incapable of participating in the process without timescales, so it is important that the process be implemented in a timely yet efficient manner. 

It is believed that appropriate organizational changes in concert with legislation will:

  • Give clarity of process to resolution for victims;
  • Give transparency to the process;
  • Offer timeliness;
  • Allow a higher proportion of cases to be resolved non-adversarial; 
  • Give higher levels of early closure;
  • Offer less trauma for victims; and
  • Give clear and actionable data on trends and patterns in workplace bullying. 

Workplace Stress

There is an overwhelming body of evidence which convincingly demonstrates a direct association between stress and ill-health outcomes. In the context of stress theory, bullying is a severe form of social stress at work and brings about a high level of escalation of unresolved emotion and often an imbalance of power/loss of power. Most studies in mental health effects and stress behaviors of victims of bullying report that victims become hostile to their surroundings and suspicious and nervous of others, super sensitive with regard to injustices generally and specifically, and with a chronic inability to experience joy and a risk of abuse, alienation and, at worst, suicide. An Irish study (O’Moore, Seigne, McGuire& Smith, 1998) found 80% of those bullied had symptoms such as irritability, angry thoughts, crying, depression, and feelings of paranoia. Victims of bullying have been found to display after-the-fact increased negative views of themselves, others, and the world. Stress related effects of bullying are both cognitive and emotional in that there are effects on the person in terms of how they feel and how they think and therefore, how they work. The report identified bullying as a hazard, which can cause stress related maladies. Stress is in itself not an illness and can be dealt with both at the individual and the organizational level in order to prevent it becoming an illness. It is also accepted that where stress levels are not addressed they can escalate and can result in an illness, either physical or psychological or psychiatric or an amalgam of all three. 


Training of managers and supervisors in proper communication style, effective feedback and correction, and motivational leadership should be encouraged. Training in dealing with bullying issues and complaints should also be a priority. Internal investigations should always be impartial, independent, timely, and conform to the organization’s anti-bullying policy. 

Copyrighted, all rights reserved 2019

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author (TASA ID#: 10544). Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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