Why The Office Bully Is Getting Promoted

Your company culture may encourage bullies and you may not even know it.

Why The Office Bully Is Getting Promoted
[Announcing the result: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

You may have thought you’d escaped bullying when you traded the school yard for the office, but according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27% of Americans are still experiencing bullying in the workplace.


Instead of being shoved in a locker or having your head dunked in the toilet, workplace bullying is non-physical, yet still as emotionally harmful. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as any form of verbal abuse, job sabotage, intimidation, or humiliation.

Beverly Younger, associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work says although workplace bullying is common, it’s still overlooked in many workplaces. And even though it’s been going on for decades, the term workplace bullying didn’t begin to appear in the business context until the late 1990s and has only recently begun emerging as a hot-button issue as more and more companies are recognizing the negative implications of bullying on productivity and team morale.

Younger says workplace bullying can have devastating consequences on both individuals and businesses. “Targets of bullying often feel anxious, stressed, they have lower self-esteem, less self-efficacy, and they may consider leaving their position,” she says.

She speaks of one case of workplace bullying she observed in which a female regional manager commonly used insults and sarcasm when leading interdisciplinary teams. Even though the manager had no formal power over the individuals in the group, her bullying tactics had a devastating effect on the motivation of workers. “Teams would stop talking. People would get up and leave,” says Younger.

Although the impact of bullying on morale and productivity are clear, research shows that despite this bad behavior, bullies are still getting ahead. A recent study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found workplace bullies regularly receive positive evaluations from supervisors and achieve high levels of career success.

Researchers concluded the social ability and political savvy of bullies means they’re able to exercise abuse strategically against coworkers yet still be well liked among those in higher ranks. One of the reasons bullies are able to get ahead, says Younger, is that much of their abuse goes unreported.


According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 50% of workers don’t report bullying behavior (either when experienced first-hand or witnessed). “Complaining is very dangerous in a work environment where a bully has formal power,” says Younger. Many targets of bullying view the key to survival as simply staying out of the way; a solution which can stunt motivation, performance, job satisfaction and result in fewer opportunities for advancement.

Are You Being Bullied?

One of the problems with curbing workplace bullying, says Younger, is that it can be difficult to identify. Some signs that you’re the target of workplace bullying may include:

  • You feel a sense of powerlessness
  • You feel you’re in a constant state of defensiveness and walk around the office always feeling you have your guard up
  • You go out of your way to try to avoid certain individuals and experience anxiety when forced to interact with them
  • You feel nervous and anxious before the start of your work week and may even consider calling in sick to avoid going into work on Monday morning
  • You feel in a constant state of agitation and spend your workday waiting for bad things to happen

Are You A Bully?

Since so many cases of workplace bullying go unreported, many perpetrators are unaware that their behavior constitutes bullying and fail to recognize the impact their behavior is having on others. Ask yourself these questions to determine if you are a workplace bully:

  • Are people avoiding you?
  • Are people hesitant to share opinions with you or disagree with you?
  • Do those who report to you rarely share bad news?
  • Do you resort to name calling when you’re frustrated or slam doors when angry?
  • Does your department/organization have a high turnover rate?

How Do You Eliminate Workplace Bullying?

Younger says there are three ways to prevent bullying from impacting your business:

1. Create an anti-bullying culture. In many cases, bullying can trickle through an organization and become ingrained in the company’s culture. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, workplace bullying behavior can be contagious. This is true especially if such behavior seems to be rewarded. Getting the message out to everyone in the organization that bullying behaviors are inappropriate and won’t be tolerated or rewarded is an important step to preventing your workplace from turning into a school yard.

2. Create formal policies against bullying behavior including mechanisms for reporting bullies. Although there is currently no law in the U.S. against workplace bullying, many individual workplaces have included anti-bullying measures in their employee codes of conduct.


3. Provide services. Making training available and ensuring employee assistance programs contain resources for targets of bullying to seek counseling and support is a great way for organizations to demonstrate their intolerance to workplace bullying.

About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction.