January 05, 2013

Academic bullying in social work departments: The silent epidemic

In the United States, workplace bullying and it’s’ consequences are getting more public recognition. Higher education institutions are not immune from this and academic bullying is also coming to the forefront of recognition at universities internationally and in the United States. Little research has been completed to address the concerns of academic bullying by university faculty and the devastating effects of bullying to faculty, to departmental programs the students, to the university and the greater community. There is a gap in the literature regarding academic bullying and social work departments. This paper summarizes the literature on workplace and academic bullying including defining academic bullying, developing an understanding of the reasons bullies bully, and the consequences. The paper concludes by identifying solutions for academic bullying and exploring ethical considerations for social workers.

Academic bullying is a rising phenomenon on college campuses and social work departments are not going unscathed. The consequences of bullying behaviors is the loss of harmonious and collegial relationships, the erosion of departments, increase medical and mental health expenses, loss time from classes and committee work, and possible violations of the social work code ethics. Across university campuses academic bullying is increasing (Fogg, & Piper, 2008; Keashly & Neuman, 2010; Simpson & Cohen, 2004). For whatever reasons, harassment of social work faculty by colleagues is “The Silent Epidemic.”

...To develop a better understanding of academic bullying, it is important to address the motives and reasons why bullies bully. A review of the literature shows that there are many explanations for the workplace bully. These include the organizational culture, employer responses, and the personality characteristics of the target and the perpetrator.

Organizational culture

The nature of organizations, in and of themselves, cause bullying and organizational practices that promote workplace bullying (Rhodes, Pullen, Vickers, Clegg, & Pitsis, 2010). Organizational culture and/or environments frequently support bullying by creating insecurity and uneasiness amongst workers (De Cuyper, Baillien, & De Witte, 2009; Jennifer, Cowie & Ananiadou, 2003). These feelings trigger the bully into lashing out at their coworkers. Conflict at work can create a hostile work environment where bullying is used as a way workers relieve tensions; Thus, creating a culture which promotes poor behavior (De Cuyper, Baillien, & De Witte, 2009; Jennifer, Cowie & Ananiadou, 2003).

Academic settings by their very nature create insecurity, frustration, and competition. Student evaluations and the tenure and promotion process are sources of frustration for faculty and particularly junior faculty. Collegiality and autonomy, although valued in higher education, are not promoted and often are contradicted. “Autonomy and collegiality are critical to academic freedom and the work of the academic, yet these norms are interpreted as preventing action to address what faculty view as problematic behaviors that, in turn, create a climate of non-collegiality” (Keashly & Nueman, 2010, p. 60). Tenure provides faculty with a sense of entitlement to misbehave and use feedback of others as a means of criticism rather than support causing harm to the target. This decreases collegiality and increases academic bullying (Keashly & Nueman, 2010).

Academic freedom is also a source of conflict on many college campuses (Keashly & Nueman, 2010). Under the umbrella of academic freedom, faculty are, “entitled” to teach their own way. As a result, perpetrators use these opportunities to bully because faculty may not be willing to conform. These unique characteristics of academic settings generate cultures and environments which cultivate and support academic bullies (Keashly & Nueman, 2010; De Cuyper, Baillien, & De Witte, 2009; Jennifer, Cowie & Ananiadou, 2003).

Responses of employers

Academic settings are bureaucratic structures with rigid rules and regulations. As a result, they are not designed to deal with conflict between faculty members. Universities that have unions are also not equipped to work with faculty to faculty conflict. Unions are in place to work between faculty and administration (Keashly & Nueman, 2010). In some cases, unions may protect the bully.

The bully depends on promoting on the fear of the target and the targets silence so that silence about their hostility in organizations remains and the bully remains in control a while advancing his/her own agenda. Silence is an organization and amongst managers exasperates the bullying. In those cases, when targets report their victimization, organizations and employers frequently do not respond and if they did respond, their responses increased the bullying for victims (Namie, 2003). Managers and supervisors are not trained to handle bullying in the workplace, and therefore, responding effectively is not easy (Lewis, 2004).

Some universities are relying more on adjunct and part-time faculty due to the economic crisis. The use of part-time help enhances the hostile work environment because adjuncts are not permanent fixtures in the department and have little or no investment to maintain a healthy and collegial work environment. They are expendable and vulnerable. Thus, they often fall prey to academic bullies by becoming the target, by witnessing the bullying, or participating in a way to save their job (Keashly & Nueman, 2010).

The Target

The personality of the target has been given as a reason that bullies bully (White, 2007, Einarsen, 1999, O’Moore, Seigne, McGuire, & Smith, 1998; and Field, 1996). However, there is contradicting evidence about whether a victim’s personality increases the likelihood that they will be bullied. Some research suggests that bullies may perceive the victim to be aggravating or annoying and therefore, they are bullied (Jennifer, Cowie & Ananiadou, 2003). Other research suggests that anyone is at risk of being bullied. If an individual has less power in the workplace (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Hjelt-Back, 1994) more often than not they become the targets of choice.

Namie and Namie (2009) report that victims of bullying are people who generally have a solid work ethic. Targets want to heal the sick, teach and develop the young, care for the elderly, work with the addicted and abused in society. They are ripe for exploitation. While they focus on doing good and noble things and wait to be rewarded for their quality work, they expose their backs for the bully to sink her or his claws into (Namie & Namie, 2009, p. 23).

Characteristics of the Perpetrator

Personality characteristics of the perpetrator are attributed to perpetuating workplace violence. Perpetrators of bullying in the workplace often have been victims themselves of bullying in the past (Edwards & O’Connell, 2007; Hauge, Skogstad, & Einarsen, 2009). Bullies learn early on that lashing out was a viable form or self-preservation and thus, they continue to use these tactics in workplace settings (Hauge, Skogstad & Einarsen, 2009).

Perpetrators who are in positions of power may use their power to target victims (Farmer, 1993; Edwards & O’Connell, 2007). Supervisors and managers are often workplace bullies because they have more power than workers (Ortega, Hogh, Pejtersen, & Olsen, 2007).

Bullies may also suffer from low self-esteem and use bullying as a means to increase personal worth (Cooper, 1999; Edwards & O’Connell, 2007). The workplace bully may also have decreased coping skills which puts them at risk for bullying behavior (De Cuyper, Baillien, & De Witte, 2009; Jennifer, Cowie & Ananiadou, 2003). According to Namie and Namie (2009), workplace bullies are go-getters who want to get ahead and they are willing to use abuse to do so.

According to Wiedmer (2011, p. 38) and the Bully Online (para 3) report that the bully at work often

• Possess vindictiveness in private but charming in public;
• Display self-assuredness to mask insecurity;
• Portray self as wonderful but actual behaviors contradict this
• Can’t distinguish between leadership and bullying behaviors
• Counter attacks and denies when asked to clarify
• Manipulates others through guilt
• Are obsessed with controlling others
• Use charm and behave appropriately when superiors are present
• Are convincing and compulsive liars in order to account for matters at hand
• Excel at deception, lack conscience, and are dysfunctional

Employees and/or employers that repeat and are persistent with these behaviors at work are deemed workplace bullies (Wiedmer, 2011).

Effects of Workplace Bullying Faculty, Departments, and Universities

Workplace and academic bullying affects not only the target and perpetrator but also other faculty, departments, and the university as a whole. The assumption is that the target is the one who suffers and that workplace bullying is in an individual trend, but research shows this is simply not the case. Workplace and academic bullying is devastating to all involved including the bully (Rhodes, Pullen, Vickers, Clegg, & Pitsis, 2010).

Absence from work and turnover of faculty are the biggest consequences of workplace bullying (Keashly, & Heuman, 2010). Targets and witnesses often leave or are driven out because of the stress and torment of the bully (Rhodes, Pullen, Vickers, Clegg, & Pitsis, 2010; Halbur, 2005). According to “the Corporate Leavers Survey, 2007, two million professionals voluntarily left their jobs due solely to workplace unfairness by not addressing bullying behaviors, and costing corporate America approximately $64 billion annually” (Query & Hanley, 2010, p. 4).

Academic bullying is becoming more commonplace in university settings. Social work is not immune to this phenomenon that has emerged across academic campuses. As professional social workers, it is our responsibility to address these issues. Because of the ethical commitment to social justice, social workers are in the best position to talk about and address this issue. If we, as professional social workers, cannot talk about bullying, and if we cannot do something to intervene on behalf of ourselves and our colleagues, then who will?

Solutions must be developed to create safe collegial work environments for social work faculty that align with the professions code of ethics. Academic bullying should be addressed at all levels, and faculty should use their practice training to create solutions for alleviating academic bullying, including but not limited to: admitting the problem exist, developing solutions directed toward eliminating bullying in the academic environment, and advocacy that supports addressing the underlying issues that foster unrest and the emergence of bullying behaviors. It is imperative that creative problem solving take place in university social work departments and university campuses to prevent and stop academic bullying.

By: Jan C. Kircher, Ph.D.; Cath Stilwell, Ed.D.; Elizabeth Peffer Talbot, Ph.D.; Sandra Chesborough, Ph.D.

Presented at: NACSW Convention 2011, October, 2011, Pittsburgh, PA


Gary said...

Hi Pierre-Joseph
Please visit the Boss Whispering Institute where you will find groundbreaking research that explodes the myth of so called bully bosses intentionally setting out to harm employees. It has been discovered that the exact opposite has been found. Lacking the ability to read others emotions, abrasive bosses are blind to the wounds they inflict.

Anonymous said...

The characteristics of a bully which are cited near the end of the article described my last department head and his assistant. Both were vindictive and insecure, yet were quite charming, so any allegations about their aggressiveness would rarely be believed.

Those two were in serious need of counselling.

Anonymous said...


I'm proof that bosses can and do set out to harm employees.

While I was teaching, my last department head tried for years to get rid of me. He used any under-handed means at his disposal, the pinnacle being putting material in my personnel file that didn't belong there.

It was in there contrary to regulations because I was unaware that he had submitted it and, thereby, prevented me from commenting on it, which was my right. (Of course, if I didn't make any comments, I would have agreed with that material, right?) On top of that, much of the information was fabricated, such as meetings that never happened and so forth.

It was a deliberate attempt at character assassination, not some "blindness" to his actions.