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Bullying in the workplace: the international issue being ignored?

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Guest Blogger: Jenny McCullough


It might suit employers to reframe bullying complaints as performance issues or personality clashes as a way of evading responsibility for systemic and cultural failings. But international efforts to develop an evidence base on the causes and costs of workplace bullying and to test interventions to tackle it – at individual, organisational and regulatory level – reveal the extent of the problem and challenge policy-makers and regulators to ensure that employers face up to it.

‘Bullying takes place on a global basis with similar features and outcomes’, according to an overview of research into workplace bullying that identifies ‘remarkably consistent’ international findings. It is a relatively new field of research, not subject to peer-reviewed published study until 1989, and the review authors describe a rapid increase in knowledge about workplace bullying that has transformed it from ‘taboo subject in organizational life and a non-existent topic in the scientific literature’ to ‘well-established and highly recognized social stressor in both research and in legislation’. That this progression has not been reflected in the experience of people who are subjected to bullying behaviour at work, is documented in the media reporting from around the world that is still often the only route to individual recourse and organisational reform – and is evidence that there is much more to be done to make workplace bullying impossible to ignore.

Bullying is a hard problem to study, for reasons that range from the theoretical and philosophical to the practical and ethical. In their overview, although Nielsen and Einarsen find evidence to distinguish workplace bullying as ‘a unique, and especially

detrimental, form of aggression at the workplace’, they also identify the need for further research to clarify bullying in relation to other constructs of aggression such as interpersonal conflict – and to establish effective interventions. Whilst evidence of the consequences of workplace bullying puts its potential to cause devastating harm beyond doubt, causal factors for bullying are difficult to disaggregate from other kinds of association: do certain features of the workplace create an environment in which bullying can take hold? Or is it the prevalence of bullying that embeds those features? Or is it a reciprocal relationship? Research undertaken after the event might provide a detailed close-up, but can still only be a snapshot, of a problem that by its nature develops over time.

Researchers are designing and using sophisticated models both to observe the process in the longer term, and to use an experimental approach to testing preventative and restorative interventions. The questions raised by conducting trials of ‘treatments’ for individuals and organisations – how to select the population for a study, how to minimise the risk confounding factors influencing research findings and the interpretation of outcomes, how to proceed in an ethically sound way – are common to medical (and, in particular, surgical) trials. One intervention to prevent workplace bullying at organisational level by promoting ‘active and constructive bystander behaviour’ will be tested using a full randomised controlled trial design. Conduct Change is contributing to the evidence base on workplace bullying by helping to develop funding bids and research opportunities in areas that are under-explored.

The arc of some research in this area indicates slow – or no – progress by organisations in accepting their responsibility for developing an understanding of workplace bullying and acting on it. In their 2012 study of trust dynamics and the under-researched HR perspective in bullying cases, Harrington, Rayner and Warren examined why manager-to-employee bullying claims were ‘too hot to handle’ for HR practitioners. As recently as 2019, Lockhart and Bhanugopan studied employee assistance programmes as a form of organisational support for targets of bullying, finding that management of the problem was still in the ‘too hard basket’.

Recourse to the law in a bullying case – whatever the outcome – is an indicator of organisational failure, an intervention long after the event and with little prospect of repairing the individual and institutional damage done. But what about law as a preventative measure that requires employers to recognise workplace bullying as behaviour that they can’t ignore? Sweden was the first country to enact legislation explicitly prohibiting workplace bullying, or ‘mobbing’, in 1993. In their study of the Victimization at Work Ordinance, Hoel and Einarsen raise questions about how to regulate effectively for psychological aggression. Interviewees in the study criticised the law for its narrow definition of ‘victimization’ but also for its vagueness in other areas, and there was disappointment that although the law had raised awareness and provided a route to redress, it had not been effective in prevention or provision of support. Overall, the legislation was regarded as worthwhile, and necessary, because of the difference made by giving the issue of workplace bullying credibility. To be effective, the authors argue, any legal intervention must be supported by an enforcement agency or inspectorate working with engaged employers and trade unions.

A study of workplace bullying legislation in the Netherlands examines a law that changed from classifying bullying as a subset of psychological aggression to giving it independent status, and at the same time delegated government responsibilities for implementation to social partners. This delegation was seen to compromise the effectiveness of the system:

The presence of legislation signals national intolerance of the issue, indicating that the state recognises workplace emotional abuse as a problem. But

this must be followed up with the state’s influence in implementation through a strong agency directing and enforcing the law.

An investigation of Australia’s occupational health and safety legislation concludes that legal redress for targets of bullying is still insufficient and that the legislation is ineffective in counterbalancing bullying behaviour in the workplace. The authors call for standalone legislation that recognises bullying as a criminal offence and provides for penalties punitive enough to act as a deterrent – but conclude that when there is no enforcement support or other activity, and no policy in organisations beyond the legal provision itself, implementation becomes a compliance task rather than a strategic prevention initiative, and the law is rendered ineffective.

A recent review of the function of regulation as intervention shows the development of methods for evaluating the impact of laws around the world as work in progress but appraises legislation mandating assessment of risk factors for bullying and providing for an occupational health and safety inspectorate to intervene as a ‘necessary but generally still insufficient measure to protect employees’ from workplace bullying.

For some countries there is there is an intertwining of the law and its definition of workplace bullying, and health insurance issues: bullying is not formally recognised as a stressor in clinical diagnoses, which means that where there are insurance systems of healthcare, there is no access to therapy paid for by employers’ insurance or the state. Putting an anti-bullying law in place comes with higher stakes attached than the cost of compensation and enforcement work – whole healthcare systems could see far higher costs if the clinical diagnosis standard also changes.

What about the UK, then, where no such tension exists? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, government focus was on prevention, and the Health and Safety Executive assigned the task. Calls for legislation specifying workplace bullying were resisted then and there is an argument now that with the addition of the Equality Act in 2010 to legislation on harassment, employment, and health and safety, the law goes far enough. But in cases that do not involve injury, or are not so extreme as to engage the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, or are not defined as discriminatory, causes for legal action are limited: ‘Unless it is possible to prove a psychiatric injury, or to tread the difficult path of causation between bullying and injury or dismissal, there will be no claim.’

For someone who has reached the end of all other routes to any sort of resolution with an employer, the process of proving injury through the courts can postpone the process of recovery. Conduct Change develops programmes of support specifically for people who are ‘moving on’, but regardless of the eventual outcome, if you have to show that workplace bullying ruined your life – and any evidence that it hasn’t might count against you – you

could be stuck for a long time.


Jenny McCullough worked at the House of Commons between 2002 and 2011. She left the House of Commons Service because of bullying. In 2018 she was part of BBC Newsnight’s investigation into bullying and harassment at Westminster and since then has continued to work with her former colleagues in a campaign for change to the complaints system and the culture of the House of Commons. Jenny is a member of the Conduct Change Advisory Board.

Conduct Change was founded in 2019 with the purpose of changing behaviour in workplaces to create more courageous and compassionate approaches to prevent workplace bullying. The founder, Nicki Eyre, has been through her own workplace bullying experience during her career and recognises the scale of the problem at both an organisational and individual level.

We recognise that workplace bullying is a sensitive topic for many businesses.  If you are concerned that you may have a bullying issue in your workplace, or just want help in opening up the conversations, we are here to advise. We offer a free and confidential discussion to understand the issues and explain what options are available for you.

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