Say No Bulling

27 Jun 2011

Testing for Workplace Bullies

The Australian Psychological Society defines workplace bullying as the experience of aggressive and negative behaviours towards one or more employees that results in a hostile work environment. To be classified as bullying, such negative acts must be regular (usually at least weekly) and persistent (continuing for a 6 month period or longer).

The consequences of bullying for victims are significant, and can include absenteeism and early retirement from the workplace and much more serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks and suicidal ideation.

A study undertaken by Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland has found that mere exposure to bullying as a witness or co-worker is also associated with negative outcomes for individuals and organisations. The study, involving over 1,700 workers across 36 organisations in New Zealand found that individuals who observe bullying, which was a staggering 10 percent of those surveyed, had lower well-being and negative perceptions of the work environment.

Research conducted in Australia by The Labour Council of New South Wales showed that the situation in Australia may be worse. Its survey of 840 workers found that 74 per cent of respondents had been the victims of workplace bullying and 56 per cent were aware of systemic bullying at their workplace.

Dr Cooper-Thomas’s study also found that the incidence of bullying was associated with leadership style and organisation culture. Those who experienced bullying were more likely to come from organisations with an inadequate leadership structure, relaxed management style and a lack of oversight.  Whereas a positive work climate and constructive leadership can negate bullying.

This indicates a need to focus on hiring and training practices to identify and/ or train organisational members to prevent bullying or minimise its impact. Most importantly, to hire appropriate managers or train existing managers in practices that will develop a positive workplace climate and influence workers to engage with others in a constructive manner.  Further, to identify individuals most likely to bully others and either avoid hiring them or train them to ensure that these negative behaviours do not occur.

Focusing on managers initially is important because workers tend to be strongly influenced by the leadership style and character of those in charge. Poor leadership can lead to many negative outcomes for an organisation including disengagement and derailment. Positive leadership, alternatively, can inspire and transform organisations. So a good manager can turn around a negative work environment whereas a bad manager can ruin a good workplace or make a negative work environment worse.

RightPeople’s solution to a key part of this problem is the Risk Management Profile (RMP). The RMP identifies behaviours and attitudes associated with risk of bullying and harassment, including integrity, honesty, poor impulse control, stress tolerance and conscientiousness. Together with personality traits, counterproductive workplace attitudes and behaviours such as those in the RMP are the strongest determinants of how individuals behave in our daily lives and interact with other people.

There is significant research indicating that components of the RMP are highly associated with counterproductive work behaviours, including intimidation, exploitation, bullying, harassment and abuse (Dahling et al., 2009; Dingler-Duhon & Brown, 1987; Fehr et al., 1992).

The RMP can be used for both employee selection and staff development to identify the ‘bad apples’ before they are hired or promoted, to target them for training programs aimed at finding more productive means for dealing with organisational issues.

Workplace bullying is a serious problem.  Addressing the issue early can help safeguard your organisation.  Contact us to find out more.


Dahling, J.J., Whitaker, B.G., & Levy, P.E. (2009). The development and validation of a new Machiavellianism Scale.  Journal of Management, 35(2), 219-257.

Dingler-Duhon, M., & Brown, B.B. (1987). Self-disclosure as an influence strategy: effects of Machiavellianism, androgyny, and sex. Sex Roles, 16, 109-123.

Fehr, B., Samson, D., & Paulhus, D.L. (1992). The construct of Machiavellianism: twenty years later. In C. Spielberger & J. Butcher (Eds.), Advances in personality assessment Vol. 9 (pp. 77-116). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

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