Communication Currents

How Employees Fight Back Against Workplace Bullying

February 1, 2007
Organizational Communication

Adult bullying at work is a shocking, terrifying, and at times shattering experience. What's more, bullying appears to be quite common, as one in ten U.S. workers report feeling bullied at work, and one in four report working in extremely hostile environments. Workplace bullying is repetitive, enduring abuse that escalates over time and results in serious harm to those targeted, to witnessing coworkers, and to the organizations that allow it to persist. Bullying runs the gamut of hostile communication and behavior and can consist of excluding and ignoring certain workers, throwing things and destroying work, public humiliation and embarrassment, screaming and swearing, and occasionally even physical assault. What makes workplace bullying so harmful is its persistent nature. Exposed workers report that bullying goes on and on, lasting for months and—in many cases—even years.

Research characterizes affected workers as powerless in the face of more powerful bullies. Workers faced with relentless attacks also say they feel unable to protect themselves against or stop bullying. However, a recent study conducted by Dr. Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of New Mexico, suggests that workers may have more power than they think. Even though workers say they feel like there is nothing they can do to stop abuse, they take a stand by leaving the workgroup or organization, or they can fight back by gathering peer support and taking collective action, documenting abuse and allying themselves with powerful others, withholding work or information, and directly confronting bullies. In most cases, they use a combination of these tactics.

At first glance, it may appear that leaving is simply running away or giving up. However, the mass departure of workers in the face of bullying is marked by anger, disgust, and a desire to “send a message” to those in power. Amy, who worked in the sports fishing industry, said she wanted her resignation to “send a message to the bully. . . . He crossed my personal line in the sand . . . so I quit.” She went on to explain, “I left because two of my executives—the hardest working people in the company, the most honest, the most direct, the most trustworthy, ethical—and he bullied them. He'd debase them, and blame them, and debase them, and blame them, and he chipped away at them, and chipped away at them, until they both found other jobs. . . . It was just morally wrong.” Similarly, Steve left his 15-year position as a highly trained specialist in state government giving three days notice in order to “open their eyes.” As he explained, “I did everything I could . . . [and] nobody did anything. . . . I spent two days training my replacement . . . and was out of there. Let ‘em go down in flames! Maybe this will open their eyes.”

Amy and Steve's accounts are not unique. Other stories are filled with tales of quitting, intentions and threats to quit, transfers and requests for transfers, and even helping each other get out—usually with the goal of sending a message or punishing the organization for allowing abuse to continue. Additionally, those left behind make use of the high staff turnover and hold it up to decision makers as proof that there is something very wrong in the organization. If bullying-affected workers have a theme song, it is David Allan Coe's“Take This Job and Shove It.” The song title resonates with employees who have been bullied, since many quit specifically to communicate their frustration, disgust, and anger, or to punish the organization by permanently withdrawing their experience, knowledge, and skills.

Quitting is a visible way to resist, because speaking out is often such risky business. The risk is even more pronounced in workplaces where employees are systematically and persistently abused even before they speak out. Fighting back against bullies at work, often bullying managers or supervisors, can result in further harm to workers. Those who summon the courage to speak out want change but may receive punishment. They report abuse but might be labeled insubordinate for their efforts. If they go to upper-management, they can be accused of going outside the chain of command, although in most cases, doing so is crucial to ending bullying. Workers who agree something must be done and start documenting instances of abuse can provide support for workers' claims, encourage others to speak out, and promote plans for collective resistance. However, these workers can then be called disloyal, troublemakers, crazy, disgruntled, or anti-team players, and may even be blamed for making things worse by others who silently hope abuse will go away.

Despite the risks, workers fight to change hostile work environments. They fight to end bullying both in groups with their coworkers and individually without support of others. When workers resist collectively, even in the absence of labor unions, organizational decision makers more often take action to stop abuse than in cases where workers fight back individually. Collective resistance usually includes both bullied and non-bullied workers. In fact, when those who are not being bullied speak out alongside those who are, change is more likely to occur. It also appears that collective resistance has fewer downsides for workers. For example, of those who collectively resisted in the study, none were fired, but 20% of those individually resisting were fired. It seems that collective resistance provides a safer and more powerful way for workers to speak out against bullying at their jobs. This does not mean that individual resistance has no effect. In many cases, individuals resist without knowledge that others in their workgroup are also making complaints. In some cases, this buildup of individual reports gets the attention of upper-management.

Whether resisting collectively or individually, two tactics seem ineffective at stopping abuse. These are confronting the bully and withholding labor or information. Confronting the bully probably aggravates rather than improves the situation, and withholding work or information may go unnoticed. On the other hand, there are tactics that more often lead to upper-management taking corrective action. Organizational change occurs most often when workers use three tactics in combination: (1) informal verbal or formal written complaints to organizational authorities, (2) written documentation of bullying (times, dates, concrete details), and (3) expert opinion (published research on workplace bullying). Although change often takes months to materialize, cases where workers fight back by going up the formal chain of command and working within the organization's grievance system are most often associated with ending abuse.

Organizational authorities seem to favorably respond to written documentation. Documentation—of bullying incidents and the potential costs of bullying for the organization—is an invaluable tool for upper-management. Upper-management needs this information for investigation and to take actions deemed necessary to end abuse. Written documentation is even more convincing when combined with published research that verifies and names such occurrences as workplace bullying. Bullying research names the problem and verifies that it is a real, confirmable phenomenon and not simply an overreaction from thin-skinned employees. When targets and witnesses collectively resist, work through the formal problem-solving systems available to them, and provide decision makers with documented evidence of abuse, this combination often moves decision makers to action. Using research and other published material also supports workers' complaints and educates decision makers about the phenomenon of workplace bullying.

About the author (s)

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik

University of New Mexico

Assistant Professor