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The Cost of Workplace Bullying

Part Two: What Organizations Can Do

written by Ray Williams October 6, 2020
The Cost of Workplace Bullying

In Part Two of this series, Ray Williams describes the costs associated with workplace bullying and what can be done about it. 

Workplace Bullying: The Cost to Organizations

  • According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety Health (NIOSH) mental illness among the workforce leads to a loss in employment amounting to $19 billion and a drop in productivity of $3 billion (Sauter, et al., 1990).
  • In a report commissioned by the ILO, Hoel, Sparks, & Cooper did a comprehensive analysis of the costs involved in bullying They estimated a cost of 1.88 Billion Pounds plus the cost of lost productivity.
  • Based on the replacement cost of those who leave as a result of being bullied or witnessing bullying, Rayner and Keashly (2004) estimated that for an organization of 1,000 people, the cost would be $1.2 million US. This estimate did not include the cost of litigation should victims bring suit against the organization.
  • A recent Finnish study of more than 5,000 hospital staff found that those who had been bullied had 26% more certified sickness absence than those who were not bullied when figures were adjusted for base-line measures one year prior to the survey (Kivimaki et al., 2000). According to the researchers, these figures are probably an underestimation as many of the targets are likely to have been bullied already at the time the base-line measures were obtained.
  • (Above: Workplace Bullying)

What The Study Shows

A number of previous studies have shown a strong correlation between a high staff turnover and bullying within an organization, especially when there is other employment readily available.

‘Of particular note is the fact that we could predict turnover intentions as effectively either by whether someone was the direct target of bullying, or by how much an environment was characterized by bullying,’ said corresponding author, Marjan Houshmand. ‘This is potentially interesting because we tend to assume that direct, personal experiences should be more influential upon employees than indirect experiences only witnessed or heard about in a second-hand fashion. Yet our study identifies a case where direct and indirect experiences have a similarly strong relationship to turnover intentions.’

‘This work provides insight into the bullying targets’ understanding of their experiences and it challenges the ‘passive’ view of workplace bullying that characterizes the targets of bullying as hapless victims who are too vulnerable and weak to fight their bullies,’ Houshmand suggests. ‘Instead, the targets of bullying see ‘escaping’ their own and other people’s bullies as a means to create turmoil and disrupt the organization as an act of defiance.’ (Science Daily)

What Organizations Can Do About Bullying

Often when people have been affected by bullying, they approach a person or body in an administrative position, such as a human resources department, to try and address it. In many cases, it is handled by people who are not trained or qualified to address the matter, and this can lead to conflict, reprisals and outcomes that are not considered satisfactory. Some important recommendations from experts about addressing bullying effectively, are to recognize that inappropriate behaviour is taking place, and to create an environment such that it won’t continue in the future. In some countries, government guidelines outline standards about how responses to bullying matters should be handled.

In the United States, comprehensive workplace bullying legislation has not been passed by the federal government or by any US state, but since 2003 many state legislatures have considered bills. As of April 2009, 16 US states have proposed legislation. In Canada, most provinces have anti-bullying legislation.

These workplace bullying bills would typically have allowed employees to sue their employers for creating an “abusive work environment,” and most have been supported by the notion that laws against workplace bullying are necessary to protect public health. Many of the above bills are based upon the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill. This proposed bill contains several restrictive provisions not found in workplace anti-bully legislation adopted in other countries. Despite the lack of any federal or state law specifically on workplace bullying, some targets of bullying have prevailed in lawsuits that allege alternative theories, such as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and Assault.

Here are some suggestions from experts on what organizations can do:
  • When recruiting people, organizations can reduce bullying by not accepting bullies to work. Many years ago, research showed that people with high emotional intelligence are better workers, even when they lack knowledge (initially). When recruiting, especially for managers, examine their emotional intelligence, not just their knowledge and technical skills.
  • When recruiting employees, prepare very clear job descriptions and clear and visible policies regarding holidays, sick leave, overtime, accidents, sick kids, doctor’s appointments and work hours. Make sure job descriptions do not include punishments but they do include incentives for doing a good job and getting along well with the other employees.
  • Have quarterly meetings with each of your employees and a procedure that allows them to give feedback and express concerns outside the review cycle.
  • Give incentives to healthy workers. You can let your employees take their sick day allowance as a vacation, for example. This is better for you because you will know and plan ahead when they are away and not have to find a replacement when they do not show up in the morning.
  • Have good training for new workers. Have a proper job succession procedure where the person leaving spends time with the new worker to fill them in. New workers are targets for bullying because they can be fooled and tricked by using their lack of knowledge.
  • Have a buddy system for new employees. When you hire a new employee, they are at risk of being bullied because they lack local information and there is a chance their arrival may be considered a threat by some established veteran. Assign a buddy to help them adjust and learn their new work. Be very careful when choosing a buddy and find someone who will be a good protector and a good ambassador for your organization.
  • Have a structured, confidential complaint system. It is very natural for every organization to have unhappy people. Instead of letting them build up into something serious, introduce a procedure to tackle misunderstandings when they happen. Rather than assigning blame and punishing wrongdoers, this system should seek to resolve issues and benefit everyone involved.
  • Review managers’ performance and behavior and limit their power. Power is tempting and not everyone can use the power given to them wisely. Without a monitoring system, managers and other people in power can start taking advantage of their power. Have a proper review of every manger and include their employees’ feedback in it. Much like at universities, where the students write an anonymous review on each lecturer, you should have an anonymous review on each of the managers, including yourself.
  • When you need to remove an employee, do it properly. Do not make their life so hard they will quit. The time, effort and risk are not worth it. If you are worried about the termination payment, remember that unproductive workers who do not wish to be at work and feel threatened can do more damage than that even if they stay one more day.

One thing is for sure; the problem of workplace bullying will not go away anytime soon, and may never be fully remedied until enough people call for a return to a culture of civility and demand that leaders in organizations do something about the problem.

This is Part Two of a two-part series on workplace bullying. Find Part One here.


Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Asia.

Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

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