Dignity At Work Now

Encouraging a healthy working environment for all

Workplace bullying definitions


Definition of workplace bullying by Amicus-MSF trade union

"Persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behaviour, abuse of power or unfair penal sanctions which makes the recipient feel upset, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable, which undermines their self-confidence and which may cause them to suffer stress"
MSF Union, 1994


Definition of workplace bullying by Tim Field

Those who can, do. Those who can't, bully.
"Bullying is a compulsive need to displace aggression and is achieved by the expression of inadequacy (social, personal, interpersonal, behavioural, professional) by projection of that inadequacy onto others through control and subjugation (criticism, exclusion, isolation etc). Bullying is sustained by abdication of responsibility (denial, counter-accusation, pretence of victimhood) and perpetuated by a climate of fear, ignorance, indifference, silence, denial, disbelief, deception, evasion of accountability, tolerance and reward (e.g. promotion) for the bully."
Tim Field, 1999


Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is when an individual is persistently exposed to negative and aggressive behaviours primarily of a psychological, rather than physical, nature. Physical abuse is generally construed as workplace violence. A commonly accepted definition of workplace bullying is given by Hoel, Cooper, and Faragher (European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 2001):


“bullying is… where one or several individuals persistently over a period of time perceive themselves to be on the receiving end of negative actions from one or several persons, in a situation where the target of bullying has difficulty in defending him or herself against these actions. [A] one-off incident is not considered as bullying”.


There are three important implications of this definition, that bullying behaviours are:

Perpetrated by an individual, or group of individuals, against someone in a weaker position of power

Repeated and enduring, usually operationalised as occurring at least once a week and lasting for more than six months

Intended to be hostile and/or perceived as hostile by the target.


Frameworks typically categorise bullying behaviours into five main types:

1. Work-related: affecting the target’s tasks and competencies

2. Social isolation: not communicating with the target or excluding them from social events

3. Personal attacks: for example, ridiculing or insulting the target;

4. Verbal threats: for example, criticising or publicly humiliating someone; and

5. Spreading rumours.


Workplace Bullying as an Evolving Process

A perpetrator’s use of bullying behaviours often escalates in frequency and intensity over time. Typically, four stages of workplace bullying have been identified.

Stage 1: Bullying generally begins with aggressive behaviours, which are often indirect and subtle in nature, such as not sharing information or returning phone calls.

Covert forms of aggression are significantly more frequent in workplaces than overt forms. Perpetrators may employ these behaviours in order to maximise the harm inflicted on the target, whilst at the same time minimising the danger to themselves, e.g. reducing the risk of being identified as the perpetrator.

Stage 2 and 3: The second stage involves more direct negative behaviours, which can be clearly identified as bullying, such as verbal abuse and rumour spreading. This eventually leads to the third stage, which involves stigmatisation and victimisation of the target, who finds it increasingly difficult to defend him/herself. This may be compounded by the fact that over time the bullying gets increasingly serious and more perpetrators become involved.

Stage 4: By the fourth stage the target is severely traumatised and experiences negative psychological and physical symptoms. This often results in people leaving the organisation, either on the grounds of dismissal, redundancy or voluntarily. By this advanced stage the situation is beyond the target’s control. It is often difficult to remove the perpetrator from the organisation because either he/she is in a senior position, or because it is not easy to prove bullying has happened or collect evidence about it, and there may be legal constraints on dismissals. The entire bullying process is often long and drawn-out; in most cases lasting for more than a year and often more than two years.

Individual Consequences of Workplace Bullying

Targets of bullying generally report reduced well-being and job satisfaction, and exhibit a number of stress symptoms, such as low self-esteem, sleep problems, anxiety, concentration difficulties, chronic fatigue, anger, depression, self-hatred, and various somatic problems. In extreme situations, targets suffer from suicidal thoughts, which in a high number of cases are carried out.

Adverse health effects of workplace bullying may create a vicious circle, in which the bullying results in poor health, which further increases the victim’s susceptibility to attack.

Extreme reactions to workplace bullying can be indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The health effects of workplace bullying are likely to incur costs for the individual.

Economic losses may be proportionately greater for female targets than male targets.


Organisational Consequences of

Workplace Bullying

It is likely that exposure to workplace bullying would impact on organisational outcomes, such as absenteeism, turnover, and productivity. Evidence regarding organisational productivity is largely anecdotal in nature, but there is some evidence that bullying impacts on individual performance and turnover intentions. This may extend from the targets to witnesses of bullying, who also often report leaving their jobs as a result of their experience. There is some association between absenteeism and sickness, but it is not very strong. This may be because targets want to portray themselves as hard working people to avoid being blamed for their own fate. Despite such a weak relationship between workplace bullying and absenteeism, even a small increase in absenteeism could be very costly for an organisation. This may motivate organisations to take action, but any initiative is likely to require sincere commitment from top management to succeed.


For further details contact:

Antonia Dietmann

Institute of Work Psychology

& ESRC Centre for Organisation and


University of Sheffield


S10 2TN


Tel No.: +44 (0) 114 222 3258