Workplace Bullying and Emotional Abuse

Vic Napier


Although work related violence said to be prevalent and increasing, “violence” is a construct that covers many possible aggressive behaviors.  This essay will concentrate on workplace aggression known as “bullying” or emotional/psychological abuse. 

Workplace bullying is described as “persistent criticism and personal abuse in public or private, which acts to either humiliate or demean the person” (Randle & Stevenson, et al. 2007, p.49).  It has also been defined as “'offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient' (NHS Employers 2006, cited in Randle & Stevenson, et al. 2007, p.49 ).

Schneider, Gruman & Coutts (2005) tells us that bullying arises from two sources: the need to experience a sense of power and control over others, and to be part of a group that holds power over others. 

Organizational culture can play a significant role in workplace bullying, particularly when the organization has bureaucratic features.  Organizational values such as a well-defined hierarchy of authorities, a focus on rules and procedures and the use of coercion and punitive actions as motivators all contribute to an environment that supports bullying.  Bureaucracies are purposely impersonal in order to counter the possibility of favoritism; however, a culture that ignores individuality is also blinded to emotional and psychological effects of institutionalized abuse and mistreatment, such as personal insults, lack of respect and assaults on dignity (Johnston 1993).  Furthermore, the issue of the personality of people who work in bureaucracies is an important factor.  Bozeman & Rainey (1998) shows that people who work in bureaucracies have a predisposition to not only accept and reflect the characteristics of bureaucracy, but also to push the culture to further extremes. 

It is notoriously difficult to change organizational culture, particularly in organizations that tend towards the bureaucratic model.  Following studies of professional bureaucracies undergoing changes, Cheng, (1990) concluded that the most effective method to effect change was to identify staff who would participate in the change, and to fire those who would not.  Although this sounds extreme, field experience demonstrates how difficult change can be. 

The Ethics Resource Center (1992) narrative of Don Forbes’ change effort at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) demonstrates just how resistant members of an entrenched bureaucracy can be when faced with mandated change.  Forbes felt forced to threaten the top managers of ODOT with immediate termination in order to gain their cooperation in a change effort targeting ethics.  As it turns out even with that level of motivation, the change effort failed to sustain itself after Forbes left ODOT, after seven years of managing the change initiative.

However, there are some promising avenues in changing the culture and values of  organizations that support bullying and emotional abuse of employees.

Because the culture of bureaucracies includes a high level of respect for authority, a very effective method of imposing change that can lead to shifts in cultural values is simply to impose changes from statutory authority.  Directives from legislatures, state and federal justice departments and similar figures of authority have a high level of compliance. 

Withrow & Napier, (2002) demonstrated that limited change is possible in highly bureaucratized settings when approached with discipline and caution.  Although the change plan targeted an entirely new method for the Human Resources Department (HRD) of a community college to access benefits information, (use of a public online database rather than private HRD controlled information), the transition to the new method went relatively smoothly for the following reasons:

1.      Identifying staff in both the HR department and the college at large, that was supportive of the change, and tasking them with explaining the change to their peers.

2.      Creating a sense of urgency by characterizing the change as an immediate necessity in an era of increasing complexity in benefits information and improvements in the technology to organize and quickly retrieve it.

3.      Developing communications structures that kept the entire campus informed of the progress of the change effort.

4.      Setting objective benchmarks for significant milestones of the project, announcing them publicly and celebrating their achievement.


Change can occur in bureaucratic organizations, and changes in organizational values and culture that foster emotional abuse are achievable.  Achieving lasting change in organizational culture is a huge undertaking, but the positive results can also be very widespread.  If one organization can demonstrate that reducing emotional and psychological abuse is possible, other organizations such as schools and families can be addressed in the same way.  This research is important because it has the potential to influence a range of other organizations.



Bozeman, B. & Rainey, H. (1998). "Organizational rules and the `bureaucratic personality.'" American Journal of Political Science 42(1): 163.

Cheng, S.-t. (1990). "Change Processes in the Professional Bureaucracy." Journal of Community Psychology 18(3): 183-193.

Ethics Resource Center, (1992) Rx Ethics, a Four-part Case Study.  Available at:

Johnston, K. (1993). Busting Bureaucracy. Homewood IL: Business One Irwin.

Randle, J., K. Stevenson, et al. (2007). "Reducing workplace bullying in healthcare organizations. (Cover story)." Nursing Standard 21(22): 49-56.

Schneider, F., Gruman, J. & Coutts, L. (2005). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks CA:  Sage Publications.

Withrow, K. & Napier, V., (2002). Change project: Strategic communication plan, Human resources department, Linn-Benton community college. Unpublished manuscript.






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