Employers create bullying-prone conditions. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), the entire workplace structure and functioning is designed and sanctioned by the employer.

The employer defines all work conditions: employee selection; job descriptions; work assignments; management structure; compensation; leave policies; performance management; and disciplinary and termination policies.

So, bullying within the workplace can only be sustained or eliminated by the employers. WBI studies suggest there are three key conditions that give rise to bullying:

Survival bullies

In lean times, an ordinary person may do undesirable things. Simply put, when unchecked, people will attack one another to survive at work. The spectre of cost-cuts and possible loss of income in a business that is financially precarious, gives rise to cut-throat behaviours that are seldom beneficial to the company in the long run.

The calm, steady and consistent hand of good leadership in the face of both good and difficult times is seen to have long-term benefits for the company. Employees who are retained during lean times tend to work hard to turn the company around when the cost-cutting process is handled with dignity and respect.


A small percentage of employees are willing to harm others to advance their own ends – if they can get away with it. They tend to have Machiavellian personalities, but are not necessarily disturbed or psychopathic. Manipulators can and would stop their behaviour if there were negative consequences for hurting others.

Screening for and detecting people who are truly disturbed is critical. Their anti-social tendencies can be irreversible once let loose within a company.

An applicant’s former subordinates and colleagues are key to assessing levels of narcissism. Asking only the applicant’s boss for a reference risks getting an incomplete behavioural portrait. Bosses of bullies are often like them and consider them as skilled workers.

Culture of bullying

When a culture of bullying is intentionally fostered, employees are pitted against each other in positions or tasks that allow only one winner to emerge from deliberate battles, creating many losers. Winning is created from the failures of the defeated.

There are not many humans who can sustain exposure to such conditions without developing mental health issues. Coping strategies range from substance abuse to extreme bullying of colleagues and subordinates.

An effective leader is able to differentiate between strong healthy competition and destructive rivalry.

According to WBI, if positive consequences follow bullying, the bullies are emboldened. Promotions and rewards are positive. But, it is also positive if they are not punished. Bullies who bully others with impunity become convinced they can get away with it forever. They will continue until stopped. Even reluctant bullies can be taught to be aggressive over time.

Bullies are too expensive to keep

In the increasingly competitive business world, which requires consistently high performing individuals and teams, executives and senior management are beginning to reverse the historical trend. More and more bullies are experiencing negative consequences for harming others and punishment is beginning to replace promotions.



Workplace Bullying Institute


Harvard Business Review


SA Board for People Practice




TUC – changing the world of work for good


Dichthelabel – The Annual Bullying Survey 2019


CRC Health


No Workplace Bullies