Workplace Bullying…A Leadership Tragedy

Many studies now indicate that workplace bullying is a very real, all-too-common and incredibly harmful practice in workplaces world-wide. 


Here are some shocking statistics:

  • Jacqueline Power of the University of Windsor’s Odette school of business indicates that 40 percent of Canadian workers experienced one or more acts of workplace bullying at least once a week for six months prior to the study.
  • In 1999, the International Labour Organization declared that workplace harassment and violence affects 75 percent of workers world-wide.
  • The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and Zogby International indicate that 35% of American workers experienced bullying first hand and that 62% of bullies were men. They go on to say that bullies can be found in all ranks of any organization but that managers, supervisors and executives form the majority of perpetrators.
  • WBI indicated that 40 percent of the targets of bullies never report the bullying to their employers and 62% of those who did report it indicate that their reports were ignored.
  • WBI reported that 81 percent of employers do nothing to address bullying or resist action when requested to do something.

Bullying leads to disengagement, poor performance and a resulting loss of revenue which reportedly runs into billions of dollars every year.


Interestingly, most of their targets are not the new, less confident or weak employees. Instead, bosses with “Type A” (forceful, aggressive, outgoing) personalities tend to focus their bullying on highly competent, experienced, cooperative and well-liked employees. Bullies tend to see those natural leaders as threats to both their ego and status in the organization. When bullying bosses come across employees that stand their ground and refuse to be intimidated or controlled, their bullying efforts often intensify. Bullying bosses need to win and they need to control everything in their purview, to the point of actually doing harm to their own organizations in order to establish their superiority.


People who are bullied suffer everything from stress symptoms to depression and from increased sick-leave to serious, life-threatening illness. Those symptoms can lead to reduced performance and career-damaging indolence.


Bullying takes many forms but often it includes public put-downs, temper tantrums, unreasonable work demands, insults, taking credit for another’s work, threats of job-loss and discounting of accomplishments. Often, it will also include withholding of necessary information, exclusion from important meetings and general intimidation. Each of these behaviours is bad enough on its own, but when done in tandem with others, can cause serious psychological harm to the victim.


  1. When faced with a bullying boss, an employee can stand up for himself or herself in the hope that the bully will relent and back off. However, in the worst cases, if the bullying does not stop or actually increases, resignation might be the only cure.
  2. Under no circumstances should an employee actively work overtly or covertly against a bullying boss. Not only will that probably create an equal and opposite reaction which will only intensify the problem, but it will also provide the bully with a reason or an excuse for his or her bullying. It may also reflect negatively on any job-action or legal suits that the employee may wish to take in the future.
  3. As difficult as it may be, bullied employees should always take the high-road. They should respond politely, react passively, and ask questions in a professional manner. When feeling insulted or put-down, they should indicate that they did not understand what the bully meant by their comments and ask them to clarify. If the bully is shouting or attempting to intimidate the employee, they should ask the bully not to speak to them that way or indicate that the behaviour is inappropriate. The intent should always be to diffuse the bully rather than to retaliate in kind.
  4. The employee should ask to have a private meeting with the bully to discuss their differences. If the bully allows that meeting to occur, the employee should lay out his or her concerns openly, honestly and calmly. Keep in mind that when the situation gets to this point, the employee should be prepared for a negative reaction and might also consider being emotionally prepared to resign.
  5. All acts of bullying should be reported to the upper-echelons of the organization and legal action should be taken in the most serious of cases. Legal action should be the last resort but if the bullying is of serious significance it may be the best course of action for present and future employees.
  6. It must be recognized firstly that a bully is doing something wrong…Bullying is inappropriate and unacceptable. However, if you do not confront it or report it, it might never stop.


  • Always be on the lookout for bullies in your organization.
  • Take all reports of bullying seriously and investigate all reports when they occur.
  • Make bullying a “zero-tolerance” violation of corporate policy.
  • Let all employees at all levels know that you will not tolerate bullying and that it will result in discipline up to and including termination.
  • Finally, be prepared to follow through on your bullying policy in order to maintain credibility.


Wayne Kehl

Dynamic Leadership Inc.

5 Responses to “Workplace Bullying…A Leadership Tragedy”
  1. eevoices says:

    Your advice is very sound as to how to deal with the bullying with possibly one omission. Most Canadian organizations now have harassment policies that extend beyond just sexual and avenues for people to pursue if all other efforts fail. Organizations need to include these kind of questions in engagement surveys.

    There is an irony in the workplaces that tolerate bullying and that is these are typically organizations that don’t deal effectively with conflict and they do not only not encourage conflicts in ideas and discussion but are conflict avoidance cultures that like to smooth things over and go for cheap closure instead. Those who get bullied and pushed around by bosses in organizations with a low tolerance for the value of appropriate conflict while behaving professionally soon learn that what they are enduring is not as bad as expressing their concern about it. It doesn’t get deal with.

    This is not dissimilar to how we often treat children who when younger used to get a nice hug and pat on the head and a listening ear to eventually dismissal and the message that ‘hey, you are now old enough to deal with that yourself.’ Yet, when they were younger we haven’t taught the child how to effectively resolve and work out playground issues. They learn to just ‘suck it up’ and ‘deal with it’- but they don’t have the skills sets to do so. Then we get this same thing in conflict avoidance workplaces where people simply don’t want to know about it.

  2. eevoices says:

    Reblogged this on eeVoices Corporate Blog and commented:
    Great insights into how organizations and individuals faced with bullying can deal with this. My take is added after. My sense is that organizations not only need sound and managed harassment policies but also develop conflict acceptance cultures where issues must not only be surfaced, they get deal with. Reward this behavior including those who raise the red flag about bullying and you will get a more healthy work force.

    In addition like our clients do, add this to your employee engagement surveys.

  3. This is a really good piece on workplace bullying.

    It is great that organizations and leaders are beginning to understand the harm and the impact of bullying in organizations. It is shocking to see that many countries in the world have responded with some form of governance, the United States has not responded. WBI and other organizations have been pushing for legislation in the US and in many cases even at the State level with little success. It’s not surprising that American companies have excessively high levels of bullying and very low response rates to the allegations. Hats off to the Canadian and many of the European governments for taking action to prohibit and eliminate workplace bullying.

    The damage organizationally from bullying can be measured by loss of productivity, poor customer service, poor internal relations, and low levels of engagement. However, it also represents higher absence levels, higher turnover, increased medical and insurance premiums for employers and employees alike.

  4. Peg says:

    Interesting post about workplace bullying, but I wish Mr. Kehl had gone into the issue more deeply. The final phrase of the title, “…A Leadership Tragedy,” unfortunately only hints at the most sickening part of the issue. As a victim of repeated workplace bullying, I learned the hard way that too many employers pay lip service to the issue, writing anti-bullying policies and making grandiose announcements about them…..but either refusing to believe reports of bullying or actually supporting the actions of bullies when a bullied employee makes a complaint. When the “leaders” ….the corporation’s human resources department and management…..back the bully, being the victim is unbelievably painful. Some of Mr. Kehl’s advice to the bullied is good but, as a victim, I find his recommendation that a victim of bullying “might also consider being emotionally prepared to resign” to be pretty soul-destroying. As a supposedly civilized society, surely Canadians can do better than advising victims to give up their jobs and crawl away. In the past, a victim of workplace bullying could quit their job and collect unemployment insurance for a time while they tried to put their lives back together, but the federal government changed the rules a few years ago. Now, if I quit my job to escape being bullied, I don’t even qualify for employment insurance benefits. That makes the only winner the bully. What’s wrong with this picture?

    • Unfortunately the comments above are spot on regarding the true crisis of workplace bullying. It absolutely represents the current state of this challenge in America. There are really no protections for those who are victims of bullying. Worse it is not likely that organizations are going to change their way of doing business without some type of risk / incentive. Over time it is likely that Bullying legislation will be passed and organizations will finally have to give due attention to this crisis.

      As I have talked with and done research on the topic of workplace bullying I find many of the victims feel powerless. They feel they must continue to be subjected to this abusive and intolerable treatment. Victims feel there are few or no avenues to address their concerns or the fear of retribution is so high they choose not to say anything at all. I think it is important for victims of bullying to be prepared to resign their positions. There is a strategy for making a successful exit from that particular employer; however, it is important to know you have the power and the ability to make that decision to leave. What is all to common is the cycle is based on co-dependancy. The job provides security resulting in the victim staying which only emboldens the bully to continue. Its a very similar cycle to domestic violence. It is important for the victim of bullying to have the ability to make decisions and not feel trapped.

      My advice to victims of bullying is to find a professional who is familiar with the field of workplace bullying. There are things that can be done to help them regain control of their lives and move forward.

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