Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

The Bully Pulpit: Bullies in the Workplace and How to Protect Yourself

If you thought you were safe from bullying once you left the Lord of the Flies environment of the school playground (or wherever your childhood/adolescent horrors took place), think again. Workplace bullying is common. And it’s a seriously toxic problem for the target, the witnesses to the bullying, and to the organization that allows bullying to take place.

“There are mental and physical health repercussions for targets of bullying,” writes Farrington (2010)1. “Depression is a frequent result: 30% of targets experience post-traumatic stress disorder. And witnesses of bullying also report psychological distress,” and “A whopping 70% of targets leave the organization, resulting in costs for turnover plus for workers comp, disability and legal issues.”

I will first provide you with information on workplace bullying. Then I will provide you with recommendations on how to best protect yourself – that go beyond whistleblowing (which often backfires, even with the Whistleblower Protection Act ).


Bullying is not the same as discrimination or harassment. Nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies and laws were developed to protect select groups of people in certain situations. As an example, The University of California’s Nondiscrimination and Affirmative Action Policy Regarding Academic and Staff Employment states in part:

It is the policy of the University not to engage in discrimination against or harassment of any person employed or seeking employment with the University of California on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender, gender expression, gender identity, pregnancy, physical or mental disability, medical condition (cancer-related or genetic characteristics), genetic information (including family medical history), ancestry, marital status, age, sexual orientation, citizenship, or service in the uniformed services. This policy applies to all employment practices, including recruitment, selection, promotion, transfer, merit increase, salary, training and development, demotion, and separation.2

This policy does not cover a supervisor or more powerful colleague who is consistently intimidating and humiliating their target – unless the bullying is confined to one of the protected statuses as discussed above.

Raineri and colleagues (2011) describe three main appearances of bullying behavior3:

First, the bully can initiate actions directly with the victim. These actions include delegating menial tasks, withholding key information, removing key resources, setting unrealistic due dates and overworking the victim. The bully is constantly scrutinizing work, withholding praise, setting up the victim for failure, requiring excessive rewrites, participating in one-upmanship, blaming for the bully’s own mistakes, assigning busywork (to divert from key projects), trivializing accomplishments, intimidating (through words, tones or gestures), and encouraging the victim to seek alternative employment.

Second, the bully can initiate public actions such as taking the credit for the victim’s work, criticizing the victim in front of others at meetings or through email, interrupting the victim, hiding the victim’s talent from others, and discrediting the victim’s commitment to the team, organization, or project.

Third, the bully can initiate covert group actions such as attempting to align others with the bully and turn others against the victim, misrepresenting the victim, spreading rumors, and cross-examining the victim by soliciting evidence from others.

Bullying image 1

Academic institutions are unique workplaces where bullies thrive with impunity. I should know – I work in such a place. Colleges and universities are an especially fertile environment for bullies due to their typically decentralized organization, protection of tenured faculty, protection of powerful faculty who bring in large amounts of extramural funds, and, if it’s a state institution, the nearly impossible task of firing staff and administrators who are protected by career status.

Raineri and colleagues (2011)3 performed an analysis of bullying from a sample of 60 Business and Economics faculty from academic institutions across the United States. They found that 75% of the faculty members observed bullying behavior (as described above) from faculty in their department, and 50% observed bullying behavior from administrators. They investigated age, gender, and rank of bullies and their victims. Their survey showed that 89% of observed faculty bullies and 100% of administrator bullies were between the ages of 41-70. The vast majority of bullies were males bullying both males and females. This was true for both faculty and administrator bullies. When a female was the bully, the victim was more often a female than male faculty member. See table below:

Male on Male 37% Male on Male 36%
Male on Female 40% Male on Female 38%
Female on Female 18% Female on Female 16%
Female on Male 5% Female on Male 10%

Further, there is a significant impact of rank on who is the typical bully and who is the typical target. Not surprisingly, junior faculty were more likely to be targets and senior faculty were more likely to be bullies. A similar pattern existed with non-academic positions, with lower level staff more likely to be targets and more powerful administrators more likely to be bullies.

This pattern of age, gender, and rank when it comes to bullying is most likely common across all businesses and institutions.


These recommendations are based on information from the writings of Farrington (2010)1, Raineri and colleagues (2011)3, the UC-Berkeley Staff Ombuds Office4, and my own experiences as a faculty member and administrator at a Tier 1 research university. Not all of these tips will be suitable for you and your situation, but use what you can to protect yourself – the first being the one of most immediate importance, and the last being the one that is likely to have the most successful outcome in most workplaces (unfortunately).

  • Preserve your mental and physical health – and seek professional help.
  • Identify and document each instance of specific bullying behavior (who, where, when, how, witnesses).
  • Consult with your organization’s office that handles prevention of harassment and discrimination and/or office that handles employee conflict to determine next steps towards the organization creating a non-hostile environment and to protect you from continued bullying.
  • Help develop an anti-bullying policy that has teeth – most are token policies with no actual consequences.
  • Speak up, maybe – realize that direct confrontation with bullies often backfires. Develop a strategy of your approach, and the words you’ll say calmly and with self-assurance.
  • Gather powerful allies before you actually need them. They can help protect you from potential bullying down the road, and will be powerful advocates on your behalf for other workplace matters.
  • Gather data showing the cost of bullying to organizations. The impact of a toxic environment on turnover of valuable employees and loss of revenue should get the attention of executive leadership at your institution.
  • Search for a new job – remember that 70% of targets leave their organization.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of executive leadership to get their house in order and create a work environment that is respectful of all employees. Until that happens, the victim of bullying is suffering through the situation. That’s why the vast majority of targets leave their organization for greener pastures.



  1. Farrington FL. Bullying on Campus: How to identify, prevent, resolve It. Women in Higher Education, 19: 8-9 (2010).
  2. University of California, Office of the President, Policy on Nondiscrimination and Affirmative Action Policy Regarding Academic and Staff Employment (2013). http://policy.ucop.edu/doc/4000376/NondiscrimAffirmAct
  3. Raineri EM, Frear DF, Edmonds JJ. An examination of the academic reach of faculty and administrative bullying. International Journal of Business and Social Science 2: 22-35 (2011).
  4. What Can I Do About Bullying  http://staffombuds.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/What%20Can%20I%20Do%20About%20Bullying%3F.pdf


Image sources (with additional articles):

  1. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/workplace-bullying-rebecca-bevan
  2. https://brocku.ca/brock-news/2015/10/brock-study-explores-gender-differences-in-workplace-bullying-perceptions/

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This entry was posted on July 1, 2016 by .

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