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The Business of Bullying: What Organizations Should Know About Workplace Harassment

Anyone with a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree knows that workplace bullying can be a major cause of emotional stress, low productivity, high turnover, absenteeism, and more.

Many of us were introduced to the concept of bullying as soon as we were old enough to turn on a television. “Leave it to Beaver” had Eddie Haskell, “Back to the Future” had Biff Tannen, and even “The Simpsons” have their own bully in Nelson Muntz. The truth is, nobody likes a bully—but when the tormentor happens to be someone you work with, the effects can turn a career into a personal nightmare.

Workplace bullying can be defined as the repeated and unwelcome actions of one or more individuals done with the intention to intimidate, degrade, embarrass, offend, or harass an individual or group. Similarly, mobbing is when coworkers band together to target an individual or group and attempt to undermine them at work.*

The Business of Bullying: What Organizations Should Know About Workplace Harassment

“Bullying is always a power play. Someone is trying to enforce their own power over others,” said Dr. Barbara Benoliel, a professional mediator and facilitator who specializes in workplace disputes. “Bullying and mobbing are both forms of psychological harassment and workplace violence,” she continued. “They’re very common in the workplace and can occur at any level of the organization. It can be from a peer or colleague, as well as a boss.”

In a presentation Dr. Benoliel prepared for students considering or pursuing a social work degree or a counseling degree through online learning, she shared some examples of workplace bullying, along with the effects.

Examples of Workplace Bullying*

  • Being yelled at or humiliated in front of others
  • Being the target of practical jokes
  • Being blamed without justification
  • Exclusion or social isolation through e-mails, phone calls, texts, or in person
  • Physical intimidation or threat of violence
  • Excessive micromanaging, without performance reasons
  • Purposely withholding vital information or providing misinformation

Effects of Workplace Bullying*

  • Anxiety and stress, sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating
  • Absenteeism
  • Decreased productivity
  • Physical and/or emotional illness
  • High turnover
  • Increased accidents on the job
  • Violence, threat, fraud, or retaliation

Bosses continue to be the top offenders when it comes to workplace bullying, according to the 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. The survey also showed that the majority of bullies are men (70%), and of those male bullies, 60% of their targets are female. Female bullies (representing 30% of the total) also target women the majority of the time. Hispanics are the most frequently bullied race.

Companies that take workplace bullying seriously will often secure the services of a mediator to resolve instances quickly and fairly. These mediators are often trained in conflict management and might hold any of a number of professional degrees, including a doctorate in social work, master of social work (MSW), or counseling degree. Because they’re familiar with laws designed to protect the targeted individual and the business, mediators can investigate harassment claims, help resolve issues, design corporate policies that promote a workplace free of bullying, and more.

As an individual, there are specific steps you can take in response to bullying:

  • Refer to your company’s policy on workplace conduct, if it has one, and follow the recommended process.
  • Regardless of whether your company has a policy, document each occurrence and be sure to include specifics such as what happened, what was said, who said it, where you were at the time, and whether there were any witnesses.
  • You can always speak to someone in authority (including a human resources professional, especially if the bully is your boss) or try asking the bully to stop the behavior—but only if you’re comfortable.
  • Above all else, always make your personal safety a priority.

While the topic of bullying has received a great deal of attention in recent years, and while the U.S. does have specific laws in place that protect certain groups from multiple forms of harassment, there are no specific laws protecting individuals from workplace bullying if they do not fall into a protected class. However, since 2001, a legislative campaign promoting the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) has been taking a state-by-state approach to enacting anti-bullying laws in the workplace. To date, 29 states have introduced the HWB, and if it does become a law, the U.S. would join countries such as England, Ireland, and Sweden, which have laws in place to specifically address workplace harassment.‡§

Barbara Benoliel, PhD, is a professional mediator and president of Preferred Solutions, where she specializes in conflict management systems and alternative dispute resolution in organizations. Dr. Benoliel is also an online learning faculty member in Walden University’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

*B. Benoliel, “Workplace Bullying and Harassment: What to Know and What to Do” [Presentation], on the Internet at

†Workplace Bullying Institute, 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, on the Internet at

‡The Healthy Workplace Campaign, “State of the Union,” on the internet at

§The Healthy Workplace Campaign, Laws Outside U.S. , The World is Ahead of Us.” On the internet at