Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying in the workplace is a significant issue that should be studied by HR managers with the purpose of increasing the understanding of this phenomenon and helping the managerial staff to anticipate or mitigate bullying at work. This paper accentuates the complexity of the discussed issue presenting scholarly findings regarding the causes, manifestations and implications of the unreasonable insults at workplace. The study is conducted to obtain and improve the knowledge of the manifestations of a bullying culture, potential bullies and their targets, the adverse effects of a bullying environment on the workflow and employees’ well-being. In particular, it discusses the effect of the Slippery Slope Phenomenon and the Boiling Frog Syndrome, linking it to the concept of power issues. The obtained information allows suggesting that HR managers should apply the bullying prevention policy, which means that leaders should be able to identify potential bullies and direct their power towards the benevolent purposes.

Bullying in the workplace is a topical issue that significantly decreases the productivity of the working process. Some scholars believe that bullying at work is “a major barrier to organizational efficiency and productivity and a major cost to organizations and to economies as a whole” (Field, n. d.). The appropriate statistics displays that nearly 37 percent of workers reports experiencing various kinds of bullying (Barrow, 2012). Emphasizing the wickedness of this unethical behavior, one should point out that unreasonable insulting actions of one person (people) against the other (s) make a serious negative impact on victims’ health. Specifically, it is detected that bullies cause the following health issues. The bullied employees begin to experience distress and/or depression; they feel fear; their self-esteem and the sense of self-worth deteriorate (Field, n. d.). Besides, they suffer from poor concentration and fatigue. These negative effects are not surprising because the psyche of a bullied person is in constant tension. As a result, the targets of bullies may experience significant physical health issues connected with the overload of the nervous system. For instance, they suffer from “headaches and migraines, aches and pains in the joints and muscles with no obvious cause; also back pain with no obvious cause and which won’t go away or respond to treatment” (Field, n. d.). Moreover, the victims of bullying may experience “skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, athlete’s foot, ulcers, shingles, urticaria”(Field, n. d.). It is appropriate to clarify that these are some, but not all, adverse outcomes of a bullying environment in the workplace.

Given the identified magnitude of the negative implications of bullying, it is appropriate to thoroughly survey the nature of this phenomenon with the purpose of eliminating the occurrences of such unethical behavior. Nevertheless, this issue is considered to be relatively new and, thus, remains poorly studied (Cowan, 2012). Apart from that, there are several factors that complicate the process of gathering the appropriate empirical data. In particular, bullying is often concealed and, therefore, one can hardly observe it (identify its causes and establish the strategies of bullying elimination (Cowan, 2012). Besides, the nature of bullying is quite composed and depends on different factors such as cultural and political attitude/environment, mental peculiarities of workers, organizational chart and others. Nonetheless, despite the revealed complexity, HR managers are believed to be responsible for the emergence of a bullying culture (Lewis & Rayner, 2003). This premise is not surprising because the managerial staff is empowered to hire employees and develop a friendly and productive atmosphere of teamwork. According to this rationale, the occurrence of bullying is a sign of failure, or at the very least, the warning of serious organizational issues. Alternatively, there are cases when an HR manager enters the team that already contains bullies; however, even in this case, the necessity to solve the issue is attributed towards a leader from the moment s/he heads this position. Therefore, HR managers should be actively engaged in studying the aspect of bullying at work to equip themselves with the knowledge and skills that can help prevent the development of a bullying culture in the working environment.

What is more, the discussed problem is complicated by the fact that many managers do not consider bullying to be a serious issue (Cowan, 2012). Some leaders believe that the acts of bullying presume physical assaults and the other, ‘lighter’ manifestations of bullying do not deserve the attention (Cowan, 2012). Following this rationale, bullying is being viewed from the perspective of how it affects the workflow (Cowan, 2012). Whereas this question is important, this paper aims to present and discuss the evidence that bullying at work is a composed issue that should be observed from a broader viewpoint. The purpose of this research paper is to enhance knowledge about the nature of bullying at work from the HR perspective. This literature review is conducted to learn to identify the signs of bullying, potential bullies and their victims, a bullying environment, and be capable of addressing the discussed issue in a timely and effective manner.

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As was identified above, bullying at work is relatively a new topic that attracted the attention of scholars in the early 90s of the former century (Lewis & Rayner, 2003). In particular, striving to comprehend the nature of this phenomenon, the scientists suggest that the likelihood of physical or mental abuse at the workplace is stipulated by the formation of a bullying culture (Lewis & Rayner, 2003). Undoubtedly, it is an adverse feature of the working environment that prevents the development of teamwork and, as a result, inhibits the productivity of the working process. Keeping this idea in mind, researchers presume that a bullying culture is caused by improper leadership (Lewis & Rayner, 2003). To be more precise, it refers to the inappropriate HR management. The rationale that supports this claim is simple: since a leader/ manager is responsible for the quality of the workforce and workflow, the emerging issues are the indicators of the failure to choose and implement the right leadership strategies. Nevertheless, exploring the problem of bullying in detail, researchers become more cautious in assigning all the responsibility to an HR manager in this regard. Instead, they claim that bullying is a composed problem that may be induced by numerous factors, for example, diverse cultural attitudes (Lewis & Rayner, 2003). Whereas the premise about the complexity of the discussed issue sounds valid, the responsibility to study and mitigate this adverse phenomenon still lays upon an HR manager.

To prevent the development of a bullying culture, it is critically important to identify the probable causes of insults. Besides, it is necessary to scrutinize why incorrect (unethical and maybe even illegal) behaviors of employees often remain unnoticed and neglected. The answer may be found while referring to the Slippery Slope Phenomenon. This term is used to define the peculiarity of human mentality, which suggests that small changes remain unnoticed (Dill, n. d.). In the case of the Slippery Slope Phenomenon, the changes are negative (immoral, unethical, and illegal behavior). People stop noticing or start perceiving as normal the changes that occur in small portions. In this regard, scientists warn, “when people do not perceive small changes, they don’t realize the consensus of things accumulating over time and the consequences of their unethical behavior” (Dill, n. d.). This issue is also known as the Boiling Frog Syndrome: slow shifting from benevolent to the adverse environment remains unnoticed until it grows to a serious problem or even leads to the decay of business.

While the Slippery Slope Phenomenon can be referred to more as an action, the Boiling Frog Syndrome is concentrated on the reaction (, in this particular case, the lack of an appropriate reaction to a person’s unethical behavior). Linking these phenomena to the development of a bullying culture, one can rightfully presume that the formation of a bullying environment can be explained by the above-discussed concepts. In particular, bullying remains unnoticed because it does not occur at once as a severe insult; instead, it develops step by step. Employees, who offend their co-workers for the first time (maybe even unintentionally) and are not treated with an adequate reaction of their HR manager, are in danger of deteriorating their communication with co-workers. This insight presumes that, initially, bullies may be not guilty in acquiring the negative behavioral patterns of emotional and even physical abuse of their co-workers. Instead, they can be viewed as the victims of the Slippery Slope Phenomenon (Dill, n. d.). This idea should be comprehended by HR managers while they monitor their staff for the signs of bullying.

Nevertheless, as was identified above, bullying may remain unnoticed because of the Boiling Frog Syndrome. Consider the rationale, when the entire team moves into the wrong direction and for all the members the changes occur simultaneously, they can hardly perceive the shift from ethical to unethical behaviors. To prevent the development of a bullying environment, an HR manager should remember the peculiarities of the Slippery Slope Phenomenon and the Boiling Frog Syndrome. It should help detecting the issue while it is small (the first act of misconduct) before it gains a size of a significant problem. Therefore, an HR manager should be able to identify the signs of bullying in a timely and correct manner.

To begin with, it is appropriate to refer to the definition of bullying at work. This act is distinguished as a conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform (Field, n. d.).

Causing harm to another individual may include such acts as “social isolation, silent treatment, rumours, attacking victim’s private life or attitudes, excessive criticism or monitoring, withholding information, depriving responsibility, verbal aggression” (Kelly, 2006, p. 276). As it is seen, bullying is a many-facet issue that can manifest itself in a number of different ways or be presented as a combination of several misconducts. Striving to anticipate the development of a bullying environment, an HR manager should monitor the performance of his/her team for the signs of the above-stated unethical actions. It is important to remember that even the smallest endeavor to offend a co-worker should be suppressed to avoid the occurrence of the Slippery Slope Phenomenon.

Apart from that, the formation of bullying greatly depends on its agents (potential bullies). It is detected that certain people are more inclined to commit unreasonable offends than the others. Therefore, to be capable of identifying a bully, an HR manager should know his/her conventional portrait. In particular, a bully may have one or some of the following characteristics: be charismatic (self-assuring and narcissistic), deceptive, manipulative, ruthless and unpleasant (Field, n. d.). Besides, there is a type of personality known as “jekyll & hyde nature” (Field, n. d.). These people “can be innocent and charming some of the time (typically in the presence of witnesses), but vicious and vindictive at other times (typically where there are no witnesses)” (Field, n. d.). Given the classification and definition of potential bullies, one can rightfully deduce that every workplace contains such individuals. Nonetheless, they do not necessarily become the offenders. In the case when a leader can timely and properly identify bullies and other important factors that induce the formation of a bullying culture, the power of these individuals can be directed into a positive way.

In addition, it is necessary to identify who is at risk of becoming the victim of bullying. As was mentioned above, typically, younger employees are offended by their more experienced colleagues (Cowan, 2012). Nevertheless, it is only one risk group. What makes the things even worse is that HR managers can become the victims of bullying. Alternatively, managerial staff can be engaged in unethical behavior (assaulting sub-ordinates and co-workers) (Ariza-Montes, Muniz, Leal-Rodríguez, & Leal-Millán, 2014). It may happen when they become the victims of the Slippery Slope Phenomenon. Comprehending this negative probability, a manager should define the strategies of self-control and apply them to constant monitoring of own attitudes and behaviors.

Furthermore, scrutinizing who can become potential victims of bullying, Cowan (2009) suggests that the targets of bullies are “power-deficient” (9). This premise implies that the formation of a bullying environment is stipulated by power issues, in particular, by the imbalanced distribution of power in a team. It means that if a manager is power-deficient (which should not happen), s/he is at risk of being bullied. Similarly, if the members of managerial staff or employees’ staff are improperly chosen, the risk of a bullying culture significantly increases (Cowan, 2009). As it is seen, the connection between power and bullying is obvious. Thus, one can rightfully consider it to be the primeval cause of insults. Specifically, even though bullying is identified as a complex issue, the other, cultural and political factors, can give rise to behavioral misconducts only when power in a team is greatly misbalanced.


Considering the above-discussed information, it is appropriate to emphasize that bullying at work is a topical issue that requires further studying. Meanwhile, it is clear that the role of an HR manager is crucial in the successful addressing of bullying in the workplace. What is more, a leader should remember that the acts of offense begin with the formation of a bullying environment. It means that this negative tendency should be anticipated and prevented, which is more effective than coping with the negative outcomes afterward.

To succeed with the goal of bullying anticipation, an HR manager should consider power issues. This insight reveals the necessity of exploring the level of own power as well as the ratio of employees’ power. Thereafter, a leader should be working on creating the team in which every member can naturally co-exist with other members by setting the proper balance of power. This important approach is supposed to lessen the occurrence of a bullying culture.

In addition, an HR manager should develop the skills that can help in identifying potential bullies. Probably, the greatest challenge of this endeavor is to avoid biases because a lot of skillful employees may possess the qualities of plausible bullies. Nevertheless, it does not mean that they should be deprived of certain work positions because of their propensity for committing unreasonable offenses. Instead, a manager should be able to set the right culture (mission, vision, goals) and motivate such individuals to direct their power towards targeting the set goals. For instance, in practice, it can mean that if a person is too self-assuring, this quality should be used to a company’s advantage. In particular, to avoid the occurrence of bullying, a manager should create moderate challenges for self-assuring employees, encouraging them to advance their skills to fit the new heightened standards.

The proposed policy of bullying prevention presumes the comprehension of the Slippery Slope Phenomenon and the Boiling Frog Syndrome. Specifically, an HR manager should monitor the performance of his/her team for the signs of unethical behavior including various forms of bullying. It is important to remember that the first act of misconduct is easier noticed and, as a result, the shift to immoral behavior can be timely stopped. Moreover, it means that an HR manager should elaborate the system of punishment that is applicable in a case of the first unreasonable assault of co-workers.

Thorough monitoring of the acts of bullying reveals the true complexity of this issue. As was discussed in this paper, bullying may have physical and emotional forms and be manifested through different disrespectful actions. A leader is supposed to identify the issue and stop the development of a bullying culture promptly. Nonetheless, this approach is far from perfect and thus is not completely effective. Consider the rationale, the insults may occur aside workplace but still be committed by one employee (s) against the other (s). Given that the authority of an HR manager is limited by the frames of the workplace, it becomes clear that a bullying culture can be formed in a working team aside the working place. Without a doubt, this premise requires further studying because it reveals the obvious difficulty in addressing the issue of bullying at work.

Summing up, one should accentuate that an HR manager should be prepared to lead a team that is already characterized by a bullying environment. Besides, leaders must apply an anti-bullying preventive policy that should help eliminate the possibilities for the development of unethical actions. In addition, given the limited empirical data regarding this issue, the managerial staff should be ready and willing to explore this problem in their microenvironments with the aim of enhancing the knowledge about bullying in the workplace. It should help obtain the professional and personal skills necessary for the successful addressing of the discussed issue.

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