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Bullying at the workplace: Definition and types

What is bullying?

Bullying, in general, is an act of using force, coercion or threat to abuse a person or a group of people, aggresively dominate or intimidate. The behavior is often repeated (Juvonen, J.; Graham, S. (2014). "Bullying in Schools: The Power of Bullies and the Plight of Victims". Annual Review of Psychology. 65: 159–85).

Bullying at the workplace refers to different definitions internationally. For example, even within the English-speaking literature there is no unitary term. In the U.S., the experience of workplace bullying is often referred to as "employee abuse", or "workplace terrorism". American experts are also familiar with the expression of "mobbing", which is used in Germany, Italy and Sweden, for example. In the U.K., the phenomenon is called both "workplace bullying" and simply "bullying". The latter term, however, is predominantly used in the context of bullying in schools, which implies more physical aggression and threats than bullying at the workplace.

For the International Labour Organization (ILO), workplace bullying is constituted by "offensive behaviour through vindictive, cruel, malicious or humiliating attempts to undermine an individual or groups of employees. It involves ganging up on or "mobbing" a targeted employee and subjecting that person to psychological harassment. Mobbing includes constant negative remarks or criticisms, isolating a person from social contacts, and gossiping or spreading false information".

According to the above, workplace bullying is repeated, an unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee, or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying at the workplace can lead to types of discrimination. What type of workplace discrimination is there?

Direct discrimination is when an employer treats you worse than someone else in a comparable situation. An example would be to refuse to recruit someone because they are over 35 years old.

Indirect discrimination is where a practice, policy or rule that applies to everyone has a negative effect on some people. These measures seem neutral at first sight, but actually discriminate against certain people. For example, implementing rules that are unfavourable for part-time workers may indirectly discriminate against women as most part-time workers are women.

Harassment is another form of workplace discrimination. This is unwanted conduct, bullying or other behaviour that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. For example, if a boss or colleagues tell jokes based on sexual orientation to one of their gay / lesbian colleagues.

Instruction to discriminate is when a person incites another to discriminate against someone else. For example, if an employer asks a temporary work agency to find only workers aged under 40.

Victimisation is where people suffer negative consequences in reaction to a complaint about discrimination. For example, if someone has been dismissed or refused promotion because they filed a discrimination complaint against their boss.

What are the consequences?

For victims of bullying, the consequences may be significant. Physical, mental and psychosomatic health symptoms are well established, e.g. stress, depression, reduced self-esteem, self-blame, phobias, sleep disturbances, digestive and musculoskeletal problems. Post traumatic stress disorder, similar to symptoms exhibited after other traumatic experiences such as disasters and workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee, or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety. Within this definition: “unreasonable behaviour” means behaviour that a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would expect to victimise, humiliate, undermine or threaten; ‘behaviour‘ includes actions of individuals or a group. A system of work may be used as a means of victimising, humiliating, undermining or threatening; ‘risk to health and safety‘ includes risk to the mental or physical health of the employee. Bullying often involves a misuse or abuse of power, where the targets can experience difficulties in defending themselves. These symptoms might persist years after the incidents. Other consequences might be social isolation, family problems and financial problems due to absence or discharge from work.

At the organisational level, the costs of bullying can result in higher absenteeism and staff turnover, reduced effectiveness and productivity, not only for the victims of bullying but also for other colleagues who suffer from the negative psychosocial climate in the work environment. Legal damages arising from bullying cases can also be high.

Legal protection in EU member states

In most member states, however, legal remedies for bullied employees exist only insofar as certain isolated acts of the bullying process can be identified as general offences, such as insult, libel, or (sexual) harassment. The most typical actions of workplace bullying, however, are much more subtle, thus undermining the legal protection available for the person concerned.

How to prevent it?

Essentially, the measures proposed can be divided into two categories: preventive measures and intervention.

Preventive measures

Various steps can be taken to prevent workplace bullying from occurring at all:

General educational advertising

General educational advertising is the most proven method of prevention. This may be achieved through issuing of leaflets and posters about workplace bullying informing employees both about their rights and obligations as well as about the danger of workplace bullying, especially about financial detriments for the company,

- publishing articles in the company’s internal newspaper/magazine/intranet,

- presentation of a video-tape about workplace bullying,

- lecturing and discussions about workplace bullying,

- mentioning the problem of workplace bullying at gatherings of the entire company.

Systematic collection of data about workplace bullying in the enterprise

This kind of collection of data is said to be necessary effectively to combat bullying at the workplace. To achieve this aim, general surveys inside the company, for example about the working atmosphere, must be conducted. Special questionnaires should be distributed and personal interviews ought to be held on the problem of workplace bullying. Regular dialogues with employees should be analysed, as well as any complaints and the reasons given for absenteeism. Employees with a high rate of sickness or absenteeism should be consulted.

Educating and informing management

Through this process, the management will be enabled to recognise cases of bullying earlier.

For example, installation of a company-infrastructure against bullying at work: The company’s determination actively to oppose any kind of bullying behaviour can be

indicated by:

- appointment of a "representative for workplace bullying",

- facilitation of procedures for reporting and noting incidents,

- development of procedures both for investigating incidents of bullying behaviour and for disciplinary or rehabilitative measures for those who engage in bullying,

- factory agreements on workplace bullying,

- compulsory discussions of the entire working group about bullying.

Reorganisation of work and responsibilities

An inappropriate organisation of work within the company can lead to overlapping of

responsibilities, resulting in quarrels and competitive behaviour. This can easily be the beginning of workplace bullying.


Two main objectives are proposed for pursuit in a case of workplace bullying. Firstly, the bullying has to be stopped and secondly, the victim has to be supported.

How to stop it?

To stop the perpetrator from bullying is considered to be one of the major tasks of legislation. However, existing literature predominantly focuses on the legal opportunities under the existing laws, but does not come forward with any sophisticated proposals for legislative action.

Mediation talks are another suggested method of terminating the bullying process.

Another way to stop bullying at the workplace is to support of the victim. "Psychosocial rehabilitation" of the victim is proposed through professional rehabilitation, psychotherapy, self-help groups and medical therapies. The employer’s obligation ought to be not only to provide for adequate information and contacts, but also to regularly investigate the working group where the bullying had occurred, especially when offender(s) and victim(s) still have to work together.

In conclusion, bullying at the workplace can affect people in many aspects of their lives. The message is apparently clear: “Support – Report – Defend”.


1) Frank Lorho, Ulrich Hilp Working Paper “Bullying at work” Social Affairs Series, SOCI 108 EN, 8 – 2001, European Parliament edition;

2) “Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion”;

3) European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, “Factsheets” ( Printed in Belgium, 2002

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