4.4 Bullying, Violence, and Harassment

Harassment, bullying, and violence are examples of psychosocial hazards that negatively affect worker health and safety. These behaviours are unacceptable and illegal, but nonetheless, still occur. These abuses are often grounded in misuse of power and are often visible during dysfunctional and escalating conflicts.

Bullying and Harassment

A growing concern in workplaces is the issue of workplace harassment and bullying. Workplace harassment is behaviour aimed at an individual (or group) that is belittling or threatening in nature. This can include actions (e.g., unwanted touching) or words (e.g., insults, jokes) that have the effect of causing psychological harm to victim(s). Harassment can take a variety of forms, including racial/ethnic harassment, sexual harassment, and general workplace harassment.

Bullying is similar to harassment and comprises repeated actions or verbal comments that lead to mental harm, isolation, or humiliation of a worker (or group), often with the intent to wield power over them. Often harassment and bullying are used interchangeably and, indeed, the definitions are highly similar. In this book, we differentiate the terms for two reasons. First, harassment is often associated with specific grounds protected under human rights legislation, such as gender, race, age, and religion. Bullying applies more broadly to any set of behaviours that create harm. Second, it is accepted that harassment can occur unintentionally, while bullying is a more intentional process. Both are ways for the harasser/bully to exercise control and power over the harassed/bullied through fear, humiliation, embarrassment, and denigration.

Harassment and bullying can involve physical contact but are distinguished from violence in that the purpose is not physical harm but emotional and psychological harm. Harassment and bullying can also include acts that indirectly affect the targeted worker(s), such as undesirable shift scheduling, unreasonable workloads, spreading rumours, or denying leave requests. Harassment, bullying, and violence can occur concurrently. There is debate about how to best conceptualize harassment and  bullying. Many argue that it is a human rights issue and should be treated through human rights processes, usually meaning independent tribunals or the courts. Others suggest that harassment and bullying are instances of individual misconduct best resolved through human resources processes such as better selection, training, and disciplinary practices. Harassment and bullying can also be viewed through the lens of occupational health and safety (OHS). As OHS issues they can be controlled by the employer and have clear health effects for the targeted worker(s).

The psychological effects of harassment and bullying can be extensive and include anxiety, panic attacks, depression, shame, and anger. The physical effects mirror those of stress and can include inability to sleep, stomach pain or headaches, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, and loss of concentration/memory, as well as eating and digestive disorders. Further, workers exposed to harassment are found to be more at risk of illness, injury, and assault (Rospenda et al., 2005). The negative health outcomes and increased risk of illness and injury can persist well after the harassment has ceased. In extreme cases, bullying and harassment can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is typically brought on by a terrifying event, and symptoms include flashbacks, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

While all workers can be victims of harassment and bullying, certain groups of workers are more likely to be the targets, because of their respective statuses in society at large. Two such groups include women and racialized workers (see the example below), who are often targeted because the bullying and harassment are consistent with widely held prejudices (e.g., consider how common race and gender jokes are). Recent research has shown that experiencing multiple forms of harassment—gender and ethnic harassment along with general workplace harassment—compounds the negative health effects compared to experiencing one form, putting racialized women at particular risk of negative health effects from harassment (Raver & Nishii, 2010).

Consider This: Harassment and Racialized Workers

Discussing issues such as race can be challenging. As we know, race is a social construction. Society imbues certain characteristics (e.g., skin colour) with meaning and not others (e.g., eye colour) and as a result ascribes significance to them. The trait in itself is not significant but is given importance through social convention. The ascribed meaning leads people to experience the world differently based upon these perceived characteristics.  Society not only ascribes significance to these traits but structures social relations around them. People are differentiated and distinguished according to the characteristics. This is the process of racialization (Anthias & Yuval-Davis, 1992).

All people are racialized; society implies meaning to being “White” for example. Our experiences of the world are thus shaped by this social construction. However, the ascription of characteristics is not neutral. Some “races” are imbued with positive qualities and some negative. Whether society ascribes negative or positive qualities shapes a person’s status in society. In this book we utilize the term racialized workers to apply to individuals perceived to be a part of a race or ethnicity to which particular, often negative, characteristics are ascribed by social structures. We also recognize that race intersects with other characteristics, including gender, age, sexual orientation, and ability, to form a matrix of human experience in society.

Types of Bullying Behaviours

There is no clear profile of who might be a harasser. The range of tactics, behaviours, and approaches used by bullies and harassers is extensive and reflective of specific contexts. This is not surprising, given that bullying and harassment are ways to wield power over another person. Managers, because of their role in an organization, already possess power over workers. Attempts to exercise this power can lead to management approaches that rely upon bullying. Some researchers suggest that employers may overtly or covertly encourage bullying by managers as a way to maximize the work the employer can extract from its workers (Beale, 2011).

There are several typologies of bullying. In research conducted with nurses, a typology of bullying was created that is particularly comprehensive (Hutchinson et al., 2010). The typology of these researchers includes the bullying behavior and related tactics. Workplace bullying behaviour involve a wide range of tactics shown in Table 4.5.

Table 4.5 Workplace bullying behaviors

Behaviors Tactics
Isolation and exclusion Being ignored
Being excluded from conversation
Being isolated from supportive peers
Being excluded from activities
Intimidation and threats Raised voices or raised hands
Being stared at, watched and followed
Tampering with or destroying personal belongings
Compromising or obstructing patient care
Verbal threats Being singled out, scrutinized and monitored
Being yelled at or verbally abused
Being stood over, pushed or shoved
Belittlement and humiliation
Verbal put-downs, insults or humiliation
Spreading gossip
Being given a denigrating nickname
Blamed, made to feel stupid or incompetent
Suggestions of madness and mental instability
Mistakes highlighted publicly
Damaging professional identity Public denigration of ability or achievements
Questioning skills and ability
Being given demeaning work
Unsubstantiated negative performance claims
Spreading rumors, slander, and character slurs
Questioning competence or credentials
Limiting career opportunities Denial of opportunities that lead to promotion
Being overlooked for promotion
Excluded from committees and activities
Exclusion from educational opportunities
Rostered to erode specialist skills
Obstructing work or making work-life difficult Relocation to make job difficult
Removal of administrative support
Excluded from routine information
Work organized to isolate
Removal of necessary equipment
Given excessive or unreasonable workload
Sabotaging or hampering work
Varying targets and deadlines
Excessive scrutiny of work
Denial of due process and natural justice Denial of due process in meetings
Denial of meal breaks
Compiling unsubstantiated written records
Denial of sick, study or conference leave
Unfair rostering practices
Economic sanctions
Rostering to lower-paid shift work
Limiting the opportunity to work
Dismissal from position
Reclassifying position to lower status
Source: Interpersonal Communication, Jason S. Wrench; Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter; and Katherine S. Thweatt, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Responses to Bullying and Harassment

The line between “tough” management and “bullying” management can be difficult to ascertain, especially if the bullying takes the form of misuse of managerial prerogatives such as scheduling, work assignments, and the like. Usually bullying as a management technique is reflective of the organizational culture that has developed in a workplace. For their part, workers respond to threats such as bullying with a range of behaviours that include exit, voice, patience, and neglect. These responses are explained more fully below.

Let’s Focus: Responses to Harmful Work Environments

When a worker experiences any OHS hazard, including harassment, bullying, or a toxic workplace, the worker can respond in a range of ways. In examining individual behaviour in response to deteriorating conditions, Albert Hirschman (1970) first developed the notion that people respond either through exit or voice, and the choice is determined by attitudes toward the situation. Others later added to Hirschman’s theory by positing two other options, patience (sometimes referred to as loyalty) and neglect:

  • Exit: The worker decides to get away from the undesired situation, either by quitting the employer or transferring to another location or job within the same employer.
  • Voice: The worker decides to speak up in an attempt to change the situation. Voice can take a number of forms, including attempting to repair the situation directly, lodging a complaint, filing a grievance or, less constructively, retaliating with their own inappropriate behaviour.
  • Patience: The worker decides to do nothing in the hopes that the situation will eventually improve. Workers adopt a patience approach when their loyalty to the organization or the cost of exiting is greater than the price of experiencing the negative situation.
  • Neglect: The worker does nothing, based on the belief that the situation will not change or might grow worse. The worker might try to avoid the source of the situation but will generally take no action to change the situation. Workers choose this option when the costs of exiting are too high and their relationship to the organization is sufficiently damaged to prevent either voice or patience (Leck & Saunders, 1992; Rusbult et al., 1988). 

Workers may adopt different strategies when confronted with bullying behaviour or may cycle through the various options. For example, a group of workers facing a co-worker who undermines them in meetings, makes false claims about their work performance, and verbally attacks them may react in different ways. Those workers who are not very invested in the workplace (e.g., they are new or they feel they have options elsewhere) may simply start looking for a new job.

Other workers may at first choose patience (in the hope the worker’s behaviour will change) and then move to voicing their concerns (e.g., filing a complaint or by socially excluding the bully). If the issue remains unresolved, some workers (e.g., those close to retirement) may choose neglect while others will move to exit the workplace.

Recognizing that workers might respond in four different ways to the same negative situation reminds us that there is no single “sign” of a poor workplace environment. Employers interested in preventing harassment and bullying must be careful to observe the myriad ways in which workers react to deteriorating situations.

Reducing the Incidence of Harassment and Bullying

There are several ways to address harassment and bullying in the workplace. First, an employer should (and, in some jurisdictions, must) develop policies regarding harassment in the workplace. The administrative controls should outline acceptable and unacceptable behaviours and actions, indicate employer and worker responsibilities, and create a process for investigating and resolving complaints. Any investigation must proceed in a manner that is transparent, fair to both parties, and as confidential as is possible. Investigations should also identify the root cause of the incident and how to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Workplace policies are important, but they are only as effective as the degree of their implementation and enforcement. Effective policy implementation requires the employer to train all workers, including managers, on how to prevent and address harassment. Training for managers is particularly important. It can help managers spot possible harassment and teach them the difference between legitimate management discretion and bullying management techniques. Training workers around respectful interactions and cultural sensitivity can help distinguish between legitimate interpersonal conflict and bullying and harassment.

Finally, research shows that the leading indicator of workplace bullying and harassment is the organization’s climate. In workplaces where workers feel unsafe, incidents of bullying and harassment are more frequent. Conversely, creating a safe and respectful climate increases workers’ sense of safety and lowers the negative consequences of bullying and harassment (Law et al., 2011). Creating a safe workplace climate is a multi-levelled process, requiring a high degree of commitment to respectful interactions, clear communication, transparent management, and individual and collective accountability.

Workplace Violence

Workplace violence is any act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated, or assaulted in their employment. It can include physical attack, threats of physical attack, threatening language or behaviour (e.g., shaking a fist), or physically aggressive behaviour. The data around the prevalence of workplace violence is mixed. If judged by workers’ compensation claims, workplace violence is quite rare: only 2.5% of all Canadian lost-time injury claims in 2012 were related to incidents of violence (about 6000 incidents)(AWCD, 2014). That said, Statistics Canada reports that 17% of all acts of criminal violence (violence illegal under the Criminal Code) occurred at a workplace. They calculate that this amounts to more than 350,000 acts of workplace violence in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2008). The discrepancy is partially explained by the fact that many of those criminal acts did not result in the acute injury of a worker and, therefore, no workers’ compensation claim was filed. This discrepancy reinforces the limited value of workers’ compensation claim data as an indicator of hazardousness in the workplace.

Whether more or less prevalent, workplace violence can extract a significant toll on workers, leading to injury and psychological ill health (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder). Health-care workers are most likely to experience workplace violence, followed by social workers and workers in retail or food service. It is notable that these occupations tend to be female-dominated. Customers, clients, and patients are the most common perpetrators of workplace violence, although violence from co-workers or supervisors remains prevalent.

Consider This: The Myth of the Disgruntled Employee?

In February 2014, Jayme Pasieka, an employee at the Loblaw’s Distribution Centre in northwest Edmonton, Alberta, burst into his workplace and attacked several workers (Klingbeil et al., 2014). The incident sparked extensive media coverage, much of it focused on Pasieka’s history of mental illness and erratic behaviour. Many commentators speculated that he was a “disgruntled employee.”

These types of incidents tend to receive a lot of media coverage, most of which focuses on the mental state of the perpetrator. The notion of the “disgruntled employee” returning to their place of work to exact revenge for some perceived grievance is well embedded in public mindset. Consider the popularity of the term “going postal”—coined after a postal worker shot a number of co-workers in the United States.

Our familiarity with the disgruntled-employee frame means journalists and employers often use it to quickly explain what caused a workplace incident. In a commentary on a raft of workplace shootings in the United States in 2010, Richard Denenberg and Tia Schneider-Denenberg make this observation:

In sum, the Missouri and Georgia cases exemplify a media tendency to reach for facile explanations—notably the vague concept of disgruntlement—obscuring the complexities that may lie behind an outbreak of workplace violence. Such generic assumptions often conflict with the specific facts, once they are revealed in second-day and third-day accounts. The notion that an aggressor feels aggrieved is essentially a tautology, yielding little insight, unless the reasons for the extreme behavior are adequately explored.

Attention should focus not only on the person but also on any defects in policies, procedures, or judgment that may have allowed rage to fester and ultimately explode. Examining the characteristics of the workplace may enhance our ability to prevent violence as much as probing the character, personality, and belief systems of the offender (Denenberg & Schneider-Denenberg, 2012).

In short, newspaper reporters’ use of the disgruntled-worker frame simplifies the (likely complex) circumstances that led to the violence. This can obscure root causes of the incident by hiding the effect of employer behaviour or inaction.

Risk of Violence

A variety of factors can increase the risk of violence in the workplace. Common concerns are the presence of money, drugs, and alcohol (which make workplaces targets for theft and robbery). Late operating hours and extensive access to the public are also factors that heighten the risk of violence. One of the reasons health-care workers are at greatest risk is their close proximity to people under physical or mental stress. The workplace environment can also play a role leading to violence. Stressful work situations, insecure and precarious employment arrangements, work overload, and unhealthy interpersonal dynamics can also increase the risk of violence.

While acts of violence are unpredictable, an employer can take steps to develop a violence-prevention plan to minimize both the risk of a violent act and the harm caused by the act. Violence prevention should be a part of the organizational policies. Particular actions to consider include workplace design to restrict access, increasing visibility and communication, and creating escape routes for workers. Administrative policies and work practices can reduce some of the common risks: these might include reducing the use of cash, eliminating the use of working alone, and implementing a buddy system. A prevention program should also incorporate training for managers to spot warning signs of violence, and steps to reduce stress levels in the workplace. Governments can also take action by expanding the definition of violence as a workplace hazard.

Consider This: Family Violence

In November 2015, the Alberta Family Violence Death Review Committee, a government committee mandated to investigate deaths due to family violence, reported on its investigation into the 2011 murder of a woman by her spouse at her workplace. The husband had called and visited her repeatedly at work, threatening violence. The employer, co-workers, and security guards at the site were aware of the threats but did little. The woman did not press charges at any time, in part due to cultural pressures. No one attempted to prevent the husband from accessing the workplace on the day he killed her (Sinnema, 2015).

In its report the Committee made the following recommendation:

The Alberta Government amends the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Code to recognize and include family violence as a workplace hazard. Family violence is to be defined as it is in the Protection Against Family Violence Act and must include: direct family violence (where the family violence is at the workplace) and indirect family violence (where the family violence is outside of the workplace) and it directly affects the workplace through employee’s performance or by creating an unsafe work environment (Alberta Family Violence Death Review Committee, 2015, p. 3). 
Recommending that violence as a safety hazard be defined to include violence that may take place outside the workplace (but has workplace consequences) is a significant shift from traditional approaches to violence as a safety issue, which tend to focus only on workplace-based violence. An interesting follow-on question is whether injuries occurring at work that stem from family violence will now be deemed compensable injuries by the Workers’ Compensation Board. At present, such injuries are not considered to arise from the course of work and are thus non-compensable.

Adapted Works

Psycho-social hazards” in Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces by Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication” in Interpersonal Communication by Jason S. Wrench; Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter; and Katherine S. Thweatt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


Alberta Family Violence Death Review Committee. (2015, November 2). Case review public report.

Anthias, F., & Yuval-Davis, N. (1992). Racialized boundaries: Race, nation, gender, colour and class and the anti-racist struggle. Routledge.

Beale, D. (2011). Workplace bullying and the employment relationship. Work, Employment & Society, 25(1), 5–18.

Denenberg, R., & Schneider-Denenberg, T. (2012). Workplace violence and the media: The myth of the disgruntled employee. Work, 42(1), 5–7.

Hirschman, A. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Harvard University Press.

Hutchinson, M., Vickers M. H., Wilkes, L., & Jackson, D. (2010) A typology of bullying behaviours: the experiences of Australian nurses. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 19(15-16), 2319–2328. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2702.2009.03160.x

Klingbeil, C., Wittmeier, B., Dawson, T., & Pruden, J. (2014, March 1). ‘It was a really scary moment’; Knife attacks at Loblaw centre leave two dead, four injured. Edmonton Journal, A3.

Law, R., Dollard, M., Tuckey, M., & Dormann, C. (2011). Psychosocial safety climate as a lead indicator of workplace bullying and harassment, job resources, psychological health and employee engagement. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 43(5), 1782–1793.

Leck, D., & Saunders, D. (1992). Hirschman’s loyalty: Attitude or behavior? Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 5(3), 219–230

Raver, J., & Nishii, L. (2010). Once, twice, or three times as harmful? Ethnic harassment, gender harassment, and generalized workplace harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 236–254.

Rospenda, K., Richman, J., Ehmke, J., & Zlatoper, K. (2005). Is workplace harassment hazardous to your health? Journal of Business and Psychology, 20(1), 95–110.

Rusbult, C., Farrell, D., Rogers, G., & Mainous, A. G. (1988). Impact of exchange variables on exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect: An integrative model of responses to declining job satisfaction. Academy of Management Journal, 31(3), 599–627.

Sinnema, J. (2015, November 3). Family violence ‘a workplace hazard’; Death review committee calls for better protection for employees. Edmonton Journal, A4.

Statistics Canada. (2008). National Yearbook 2008. Government of Canada.


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Conflict Management Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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