March 14, 2010

Workplace Bullying In Academia: A Canadian Study

Ruth McKay & Diane Huberman Arnold & Jae Fratzl & Roland Thomas, Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, Volume 20, Number 2, June 2008


This paper examines the results of a workplace bully survey sent to faculty, instructors and librarians at a mid-sized Canadian university in 2005. The potential sources of workplace bullying by colleagues, administrators and students are examined. The survey determined that workplace bullying is of particular concern for employees that are newly hired or untenured. The systemic nature of this phenomenon and the spillover effect from one job domain to another are identified. The findings indicate costs for the university linked to workplace bullying. Costs include increased employee turnover, changed perception of the university by employees and reduced employee engagement.


Workplace bullying is a prevalent and challenging issue for organizations and their employees. Not only is the problem a legal issue, it also impacts the health and welfare of workers. Academics are not immune to bullying behaviours. Students, colleagues and administrators may all partake in, or be subject to, bullying. Workplace bullying is defined by Einarsen and Raknes (1997) as repeated actions and practices of an unwanted nature that are directed against one or more employees. They may be carried out deliberately or unconsciously, but clearly cause humiliation, offence and distress. These actions and practices may interfere with job performance and/or cause an unpleasant working environment. Namie and Namie (2003) define workplace bullying as “the repeated, malicious, health-endangering mistreatment of one employee (the target) by one or more employees (the bully, bullies). The mistreatment is psychological violence, a mix of verbal and strategic assaults to prevent the target from performing work well. It is illegitimate conduct in that it prevents work getting done.” Namie and Namie (2003) note that bullying impacts employee happiness both personally and in terms of job satisfaction and engagement. In providing a definition for workplace bullying in an organization, it is important to use a broad definition that allows for interpretation, acknowledging the subjective nature of experiencing inappropriate behaviours at work (Rayner et al. 2002). A number of terms are used to define essentially the same phenomenon. The most frequently used terms include mobbing (Leymann 1996), harassment (e.g. psychological harassment or workplace harassment) (Québec Commission 2006; European Agency for Health and Safety at Work 2006), and bullying (Einarsen and Skogstad 1996). According to Einarsen and Mikkelsen (2003: 3) these terms “all seem to refer to the same phenomenon, namely the systematic mistreatment of a subordinate, a colleague, or a superior, which, if continued, may cause severe social, psychological and psychosomatic problems in the victim.”

...there are recognized costs associated with workplace bullying. Employees subject to bullying are more likely to leave their job. Studies by Rayner (1998) as well as Savva and Alexandrou (1998) found the turnover rate of bullied employees was about 25%. Also, of those experiencing bullying, over 30% said they intended to leave the organization (Rayner 1998; Quine 1999). According to a U.S. study by Namie and Namie (2003), examining the fate of the bullied, 38% of employees left their job voluntarily for health reasons and 44% were terminated using employer-controlled methods. Workplace bullying is also linked to negative working conditions, decreased worker happiness, health and safety issues and reduced organizational productivity (Marais and Herman 1997). For example, a University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology study estimated that the effects of workplace bullying leads to between one-third and half of all employees’ stress-related illnesses (Personnel Today 2004).

...Our study is unique in that it examines the experience of workplace bullying among academics in Canada. While there has been research completed in this domain, it has been infrequent, and completed primarily outside Canada. University-based studies have been completed in the United Kingdom, Finland and New Zealand. Secondly, some studies focus on samples that include a large representation from non-academic staff, such as secretaries and administrators, which dilutes the experience of the academic. In this study, the only non-academic group included is librarians. The addition of a small group of librarians into the study does not dilute the results as the librarians interact on a daily basis with students. Thirdly, the workplace experience of the academic impacts the education of students and the behaviours they take with them into the workplace...

A number of researchers have looked at workplace bullying in academia. Raskauskas (2006) completed a study examining six New Zealand universities where 65.3% of academic staff reported that they had been bullied. The majority of these bully events involved only one person acting as the bully. The study also examined the nature of the bullying. Most frequently reported were behaviours that intimidated, undermined authority,humiliated an individual in front of colleagues, displayed mood swings and tantrums and involved yelling and shouting by colleagues. In the New Zealand study, more than 50% of the sampled employees reported the bullying to an individual in authority, 37% to their union and 31% to human resource departments. In 2005, Boynton completed a workplace bullying survey of academic staff in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. The survey identified that bullying affected between 12% and 25% of university staff. In addition it found that 66% of those being bullied were considering leaving their job or were trying to leave. In the study, issues of bullying were most pronounced around lower grade abuse, petty insults, spreading rumours, verbal abuse as well as subtle sexism and racism. The research also found that many universities suffer from organizational cultures that institutionalized bullying (Boynton 2005; Lipsett 2006). Einarson and Skogstad (1996) completed a study of Norwegian public and private organizations including a university. The survey concluded that 5.2% of university employees reported being subject to workplace bullying. Björkqvist et al. (1994) examined a Finnish university finding that 30% of men and 55% of women had been subject to some form of harassment within the previous year and 32% of employees had witnessed others being harassed...

Have people been bullied?

The survey began by asking respondents to define workplace bullying in their own words. The respondents identified issues of power, intent, abuse and intimidation. For example one respondent wrote “(b)ullying is when one individual uses power to influence another individual to do, say or feel things that they don’t want. It is an abuse of power...” The respondent was next provided with a list of 60 behaviours identified as workplace bullying. The respondents were asked to identify if they had experienced each behaviour directed at them by an employee, a student, or had witnessed such behaviour over the last 5 years while at XYZ University. The respondents were then asked “Do you think that you’ve been bullied within the last 5 years while working at XYZ University?” This allowed the respondent to determine if the behaviours they experienced constituted, in their view, bullying. The majority of the respondents, 52%, replied “yes”, 38% “no” and 10% replied “not sure.” Those who responded “no” were re-routed to questions about witnessing bullying behaviour and behaving in a way that could be viewed by others as bullying.

How long has this been going on?

Of the HBB respondents, 21% said the behaviours have been going on longer than 5 years and 16% noted it was currently occurring. A majority of the HBB respondents reported having experienced five or more separate experiences over the 5 year reporting time. Of those who had witnessed behaviours identified as bullying, 30% said it had been going on longer than a year. A similarly high frequency of bullying incidents was found by Raskaukas (2006) in her survey of New Zealand universities, where 38% of the respondents reported being bullied ten or more times over the selected 1-year reporting time.

Who is doing what?

The largest groups identified by the respondents as initiating inappropriate behaviours were peers (64%), persons with power over you (45%) and students (27%). When the number of were initiated by peers, 34% by people with power over the respondent and 32% were by students. The survey made a distinction between “incident” and “experience.” An incident was defined as “one behaviour, one time” and an experience as “multiple behaviours and/or multiple occurrences.” This would mean a number of incidents, initiated by the same person or group of people for the same purpose, would lead to one experience. The behaviours initiated by employees as well as witnessed that occurred most frequently were: patterns of not taking your concerns seriously (experienced by 48% of respondents), ignoring or overlooking your contributions (48%), gossip or malicious rumours spread about you (41%), belittling remarks made about you (41%) and made in front of others (31%), and, unwarranted and unprofessional remarks (41%). The most frequent behaviours used or engaged in by students that were noted by respondents were: purposely interrupting class to distract class (experienced by 24% of respondents) and to communicate lack of respect (24%), challenging your authority (21%), gossip or malicious rumours spread about you (19%), questioning your decision excessively and/or aggressively (15%) and unwarranted and unprofessional remarks (15%).

Severity, Location and Motivation of the Potential Bully

The most notable behaviours experienced by the HBB group were rated four or five (extreme) out of five in severity by 57% of the HBB respondents and a three out of five by 34% of the HBB respondents. Based on a question asking the respondent to identify the location for the inappropriate behaviour and the respondent being able to select more than one location, 47% of the respondents said the inappropriate behaviour occurred through e-mail, 36% in an office or workspace when alone with the potential bully and 23% in the classroom. Forty-four per cent of the HBB said that the most severe forms of bullying took place through e-mail. The majority of the respondents believed the initiator of the behaviours intended to cause them harm. The respondents were asked what they thought motivated the person who engaged in these behaviours. The respondents noted a wide range of factors. For example, one respondent stated that the motivation of employee(s) was “power games, paranoia, gender discrimination (and) manipulative approach to management.” A second respondent identified the motivators as “misdirected politics, opportunism (and) liberalism.”

Impact of Bullying on Work

Experiences with bullying behaviours changed the respondent’s productivity at work. It changed the quantity of work the respondents completed (31% of HBB) and the quality of the work completed (24% of HBB). The following comment provides an example of the impact bullying behaviours can have on an employee’s perspective of the work environment and productivity: “more time wasted...need to talk it out with a colleague (more than once) before I could focus.” In addition, the HBB group expressed an interest in leaving the university. Thirteen per cent said the action they were considering taking or were taking, due to the experience they had with workplace bullying at the university, was to leave their job, while 25% said they were searching or had searched for a new job.

Impact and Spillover

The reactions that received five out of five, denoted as a strong response, included: stress (by 55% of HBB), frustration (49%), anger (47%), demoralization (39%), powerlessness (37%) and anxiety (35%). Two additional reactions received four out of five: exhaustion (33%) and irritability (28%). The most likely impacts on the respondent of the behaviours was a change in the respondent’s view of XYZ University (71%), change in their interest in work (56%), problems/changes in sleep patterns (53%), change in their flexibility in dealing with people and challenges (42%) and created a problem or changes in concentration (40%).

There were also specific comments made about the impact of bullying in one job domain within the university impacting an individual’s ability to operate in another job domain within the university.

Problems started with one person in administration (who) acted totally inappropriately. He made my life a living nightmare. This impacted my self esteem and my ability to operate effectively in the classroom. Within several weeks of the bullying starting from this administrator I found my classes became a breeding ground for student incivility. A number of students started making personal attacks on me. The way I was treated outside the class impacted my ability to teach.

I remember the first time a student took aim at me in the classroom. I was so surprised that the student could be so self absorbed and selfish. It impacted the whole class. Then someone who had an impact on my job at XYX started asking questions about my performance. This was done both in front of people and when alone with the individual. One problem area had created another problem area.

While I provided details on my various experiences at XYZ the experiences cannot be fully isolated. It has been more like a snowball rolling down a hill. I felt so frustrated and angry I could not hide it. One event leads to another leaving me unable to manage the whole job...

Lack of Responsiveness by Administration

Respondents, in trying to deal with the (potential) bullying, were more likely to talk to the union (31% of respondents) or a lawyer (15%) rather than equity services (13%), a person in a position of authority (11%) or human resources (4%). When asked if the respondents had reported the behaviours, 49% responded “No, I do not think it would make a difference” while 29% said “No, I think it would negatively impact my job, 27% said “yes”.

Response of University Administration

A recurring theme among the respondents has been a lack of action by the university administration to deal with the problem of potential workplace bullying after being informed or approached about the behaviour. For example, comments from a number of respondents note the lack of adequate response and resolution to their concern:

The issues just hang there—I don’t know where it’s going—if anywhere at all and that feels very alienating and grossly unfair. It seems that the university doesn’t like to deal with these issues and I am left to deal with it on my own.

This is a particular frustration for me. Yes, I did report it to the equity office and I have spoken to the union in the past. In both instances, the immediate and personal support I received was overwhelmingly positive and that was very important to me. However, in terms of the university actually settling the issue or having a clear process in place— well, it didn’t and still doesn’t happen.

From the top down, the main concern was to try to defuse the situation and avoid a law suit, as the person was, on top of everything else, threatening to sue. The university showed a total lack of concern with my distress. Also mediation is expensive, and the university wouldn’t pay for it.

My immediate supervisor and department head dismissed it immediately.

Management not only does nothing about protecting myself and others from bullying, I have also seen them protect those who bully. This enables the cycle to continue.

I have felt physically threatened and my complaints were ignored by management. Equity Services are the enemy! A consistent record of uselessness, a bad PR joke...

Institutionalized Element

Systemic bullying, hazing and abuse generally are identified with poor, weak or toxic organizational cultures. Cultures that are toxic have stated ethical values that are espoused but not employed, and other non-ethical values which are operational, dominant, but unstated. Such cultures thrive when good people are silent, silenced, or pushed out; when bad apples are vocal, retained, promoted, and empowered; and when the neutral majority remain silent in order to survive. Those who are most successful in such a toxic culture are those who have adapted to it, or adopted it as their own. While the study results do not define the entire organizational culture as toxic, there are indications of unhealthy subcultures, within particular departments and among some employees and students. Evidence of an institutionalized element to the university workplace bullying is found in the openness with which some employees and students are exhibiting behaviours viewed as bullying. These findings are significant when linked with the level of awareness of such behaviours and the frequency of the behaviours. This indicates a pervasive and prolonged nature to the bullying and suggests an organizational culture component to the behaviour. The lack of a policy dealing with harassment outside the Human Rights Act may be a contributing factor. It is also possible, due to lack of awareness, the individual events have not been linked together to identify the systemic nature of the issue.

The lack of an overall policy for inappropriate behaviour means that each incident is dealt with in isolation and does not contribute to a set policy by administration for addressing this issue. There is also inconsistency across the organization regarding how workplace bullying incidents are handled. As a result, some faculty, instructors and librarians believe they are not supported when they raise concerns. This also contributes to the ineffectiveness of administrators in addressing such issues as best practices have not been established. The University Collective Agreement guarantees a climate that the academic can function in and states that academics are to behave ethically with their colleagues and students, but does not specifically address personal harassment. The Collective Agreement is between the union and the employer. It does not address employee-to-employee or student-to-employee behaviours, ignoring a significant amount of the problem behaviours identified in this study. University XYZ addresses subsets of harassment, linked to racial, sexual and disability issues, but does not provide protection for all employees against harassment, thus creating two classes of complainant. At the time this university policy was drafted, there was not the awareness and legal recourse found today on issues of personal harassment. The approach to deal with workplace bullying varies greatly depending on the level of awareness and intent of the bully, the victim and witnesses (Hoel et al. 2003). Given the growing intolerance in the courts towards harassment and the vicarious liability the employer has for the actions of the employee, it would be prudent for an organization to introduce a personal harassment policy. Without one the organization appears complicit...


This study has found that the academic bullying of XYZ University includes top-down bullying, by those in administrative and more senior positions, peer-to-peer bullying and bottom-up bullying by students. Given the self-selecting nature of this study, a specific percentage of XYZ University faculty and instructors experiencing bullying over the last 5 years cannot be established. However, this study determined that slightly more than 50 faculty, out of a total of 820 faculty union members, experienced bullying over the last 5 years at a level that should be of concern to XYZ University. The bullying involves multiple incidents, including different individuals behaving inappropriately. There is also a compounding effect; when an individual is treated inappropriately in one domain they may be less effective in another within their job. According to the experiences of the respondents, administration is inadequately addressing inappropriate behaviours within the organization. The respondents do not feel administration is supportive in dealing with issues of workplace bullying. Given the changing legislation, this disregard for the treatment of employees could become very costly for the organization. The obligations under contract law and constructive dismissal are filling the void in the area of personal harassment. The findings of this study support the findings of many recent workplace bully studies confirming that top-down and peer-to-peer bullying is occurring within the organization. University XYZ would be best to establish a personal harassment policy to address this problem. This study also established the systemic nature and spillover effect of workplace bullying within the organizational setting...
Please sign the petition against workplace bullying in academia:


Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this very much... It does lead to other issues...

Anonymous said...

Let's hope that lots of people are thinking about this and don't stop thinking about it.

Bullying can kill.
It must be eradicated from our universities.

Aphra Behn

James said...

We can only hope that people should think about this.

college degree

Anonymous said...

Very useful research. It is true that people try to defuse the situation, which may isolate and scare the victim who is left to deal with it alone. It may be even more difficult if the person is a foreign employee.

Anonymous said...

Bullying allegations may be difficult to prove in academia. What makes my experience peculiar is that the bullying was in writing by my line manager. Even so the HR was unable to deal with it and I was forced to resign after 3 months into the job.

Anonymous said...


I work for a big Russell group university in Northern England.
This comment is about both racist bullying and general bullying of staff who are perceived as gentle, sensitive, kind and therefore easy targets. These abrasive personality trait type of people that i talk about here, often hone in on gentle people and take out there aggression on them as they see the qualities of gentleness, softly spoken, caring, empathy, high sensitivity and compassion as weaknesses.
I work in a support position and I have been shouted at and verbally abused by my so called ‘colleagues’. I am male. I am gentle caring polite person. I find that a lot of staff in the administrative, technical and other support type positions esp. the lower grades are local northerners who appear to have limited cultural capital and lack education. I do not mean all northern people who are local to these ex industrial cities of course, that would be absurd, as a lot of them are lovely kind people, however there is a good percentage that are as I have described and employed by the University. They deal with people in a very abrasive manner and I have witnessed a lot of racism from these people and preferential biased treatment of white students over ethnic students in particular those from South Asian, Middle Eastern and East Asian. I have complained and raised this intolerant aggressive yob type of behaviour to higher management who have turned a blind eye. It has upset me and hurt me deeply on a personal level and on humane level.

A very interesting recent case of racism against non white students at the University of York illustrates some of what I’m saying.

An East Asian student contacted me recently and complained about some serious racism and bullying towards him and other non white students from mechanical staff. He was so distressed that I instantly referred him to council ling that were extremely helpful. I hope it prevented psychological injury. However there are other students who are suffering the same fate. Again I raised this with higher management but my email was ignored. I have been intimidated by some of these locals working at the university myself through body language and tone of voice. A clear signal that they do not like me, even though I do not work directly with them.

It is disgusting and sick that this University relies so much on international revenue from students and that it is meant to be an open, cultured place of learning, yet underneath this glossy marketed veneer lies a rotten core. I really hope this gets exposed.

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