Is Workplace Bullying a Genuine Phenomenon?

Inappropriate behavior can be detrimental (even extremely detrimental) without being rightly described as “bullying.”

An illustration of a man working at his desk with a red spiral
Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Bettmann / Getty

The term bullying is now used so broadly that the phenomenon may seem pervasive well beyond adolescence. In Ben Smith’s recent New York Times exposé of WNYC, the subhead notes, “In public radio, there’s either an epidemic of bullying or an epidemic of whining, depending on whom you ask.” Left unasked was a key question: Is workplace bullying, writ large, a genuine phenomenon? The term, traditionally applied to the schoolyard, doesn’t always fit the adult world.

Whenever powerful people wage a campaign of misery against someone with less agency, it can be harmful. Victims of bullying are typically less productive, less happy, and less likely to be positive contributors to society. They’re more likely to use dangerous drugs, to be violent, and to break laws.

Bullying doesn’t refer to just any type of social cruelty, however; it’s specifically when an individual or group repeatedly and deliberately attacks a less powerful person. Bullies abuse their power continuously to make their target’s life a living hell. In schools, bullying among children has been studied since the 1960s. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters at Columbine High School, in Colorado, were both bullies and bullying targets. Rebecca Sedwick, of Lakeland, Florida, was only 12 years old when she died by suicide, at least in part because she was bullied.

Just calling something bullying doesn’t make it so, of course, and identifying bullying among adults can be difficult. In schools, we can clearly distinguish between a child who makes a random mean comment about a haircut and a child who goes after a target every single day on a playground or on social media. Only the latter is waging a repetitive campaign of cruelty. In a workplace, a nasty comment that might seem like a single incident could actually be a repetitive behavior—or not. For example, if your boss berates and belittles you one day in a meeting, you may wonder if that’s how she talks about you to management. Could that explain why you weren’t promoted? Or maybe your boss was just having a bad day and she took her anger out on you—not great, but not bullying.

Power differentials can also be harder to pin down among adults. Bullies have power that they abuse, and targets lack the power that they need to defend themselves. In schools, more popular kids are more powerful than less popular kids. Child bullies are also powerful because they can’t be “fired” from school. (Expulsion is extremely unusual these days.) So the bully is safe but, conversely, the target is trapped. They’re not allowed to simply quit school, and most children are not able to just transfer to a different school.

In a workplace, although management has more power than workers, in theory any adult worker is free to leave any job in which they’re bullied. Nikola Tesla quit working with Thomas Edison after being mistreated by him. And while there was no mechanism to hold Edison accountable, today some bosses are answerable for their abuse of workers. Bob Garfield, a successful radio host at WNYC, was dismissed for “bullying” workers at the station. (Of course, his very dismissal raises the question of whether bullying is the right word for what happened. In a school context, remember, bullies cannot be dismissed.)

Another factor muddying the waters is that adults have more personal power than children; after all, they’re adults, with life experience and greater cognitive and emotional resources. Presumably, they can cope better with the abusive behavior of others.

All this might be taken to suggest that the idea of workplace bullying is a red herring that’s just covering up a lot of adult whining. But if bullying is sometimes—or even often—an inapt concept for the workplace, it isn’t always that.

Not all adults and not all workplaces have the protective characteristics described above. Many adults are realistically unable to just up and quit a toxic workplace. People of color; people who work in low-wage, low-skilled, or temporary jobs; people with special needs; workers with very specific skills; and others may feel unable to replace their job. And not all adults have the emotional resiliency they would need to withstand ongoing psychological abuse by a powerful person. Workers who were bullied or abused as children may be particularly vulnerable. Lady Gaga has publicly discussed the bullying she endured as a child, her feelings of despair and worthlessness, and how her experiences influenced her well into adulthood.

The key here is to apply scrutiny when “bullying” is reported among adults in a workplace, and to keep in mind that inappropriate behavior can be detrimental (even extremely detrimental) without being rightly described as “bullying.” Again, researchers have precisely defined bullying. A co-worker who once repeated a nasty rumor about someone else is not a bully. A boss who regularly extols your idiocy—out loud, in team meetings—is. Not being invited to an outside party that some co-workers are attending is not bullying, but failing to appropriately inform a co-worker about important weekly meetings might be. A poor evaluation out of the blue, in combination with other problems, might be bullying; constructive criticism applied consistently probably isn’t. Some workplace issues, such as sexual harassment, are potentially more serious than bullying.

Regardless of semantics, the era of prima donnas needs to come to an end. Not all industries have them, but powerful people shouldn’t abuse their power, in any job. Professionalism is a skill and a tool that businesses should push to promote efficiency and good work performance. All workers, moreover, need mechanisms to protect themselves. These can and should include formal avenues, such as human resources or union representatives, but they can also include educating workers to help one another in difficult situations. In schools, we learned long ago that the real power of the bully is the backing of a group. Without that backing, bullying tends to fall flat. This doesn’t mean that a boss relies on the approval of other workers, but it does mean that a worker who’s the target of a bullying boss may find herself better able to manage the job if she has support and kindness from co-workers.

Ultimately, the word bullying may be simply a distraction. Whether a workplace problem fits the definition of bullying is secondary. What’s more important is promoting professional behavior and workplaces that improve the lot of employees.