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What is Workplace Bullying?

Understanding Abuse at Work

There is power in naming. Many targets of workplace abuse do not know there is a name for the purposeful traumatization they suffered at work. They experience relief, justification, and empowerment when they are able to define their experience. Below, you will find definitions from leading researchers in the field of workplace abuse. Each researcher, or group of researchers, offers a unique slant, but when studied as a whole, common threads are evident across definitions.


Workplace bullying has been referred to by a variety of terminology, including mobbing, workplace abuse, and psychological terrorism, with the shared characteristics of prolonged exposure to psychological abuse, including gaslighting, manipulation, gossip, and sabotage all with the ultimate goal of eliminating the target from the organization through resignation, transfer, or termination.


Most definitions concede that while one bully often spearheads the abuse, bullying is an outgrowth of toxic organizational cultures in which management contributes to the abuse through omission or commission; therefore, unless the systemic cultural problems of an organization are addressed, bullies will continue to be hired and move up the ranks. 

Workplace bullying is …

"Workplace bullying is] the unwanted, unwelcome abuse of any source of power that has the effect of or intent to intimidate, control or otherwise strip a target of their right to esteem, growth, dignity, voice or other human rights in the workplace."  

~ Jerry Carbo, Esq., President of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition

Carbo, J. A. (2017). Understanding, defining and eliminating workplace bullying: Assuring dignity at work. Routledge.

“Workplace bullying is the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees through acts of commission or omission manifested as: verbal abuse; behaviors—physical or nonverbal—that are threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage, interference with production; exploitation of a vulnerability—physical, social, or psychological; or some combination of one or more categories.” 

 ~ Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie, Founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute 


Namie, G., & Namie, R. (2011). The bully-free workplace: Stop jerks, weasels, and snakes from killing your organization. John Wiley & Sons.


“Workplace mobbing is nonsexual harassment of a coworker by a group of members of an organization for the purpose of removing the targeted individual(s) from the organization or at least a particular unit of the organization. Mobbing involves individual, group, and organizational dynamics. It predictably results in the humiliation, devaluation, discrediting, and degradation; loss of professional reputation; and, often, removal of the victim from the organization through termination, extended medical leave, or quitting. The results of this typically protracted traumatizing experience are significant financial, career, health, and psychosocial losses or other negative consequences.” 

~ Duffy and Sperry (2012, p. 52) – Duffy is a family therapist who provides trauma-informed psychotherapy to targets of mobbing, and Sperry is a Professor of Mental Health Counseling and Director of Clinical Training at Florida Atlantic University 

Duffy, M., & Sperry, L. (2012). Mobbing: Causes, consequences, and solutions. Oxford University Press.


“A malicious attempt to force a person out of the workplace through unjustified accusations, humiliation, general harassment, emotional abuse, and/or terror. It is a ‘ganging up by the leader(s) — organization,  superior, co-worker, or subordinate — who rallies others into systematic and frequent ‘mob-like’ behavior. Because the organization ignores, condones, or even instigates the behavior, it can be said that the victim, seemingly helpless against the powerful and many, is indeed ‘mobbed.’ The result is always injury — physical or mental distress or illness and social misery and, most often, expulsion from the workplace.” 

~ Davenport, Schwartz, and Elliot, Building off of the work of Leymann, spotlighted for the United States the destructive force of mobbing

Davenport, N., Schwartz, R. D., & Elliott, G. P. (1999). Mobbing: Emotional abuse in the American workplace. Civil Society Publishing.


“Psychological terror or mobbing in working life means hostile and unethical communication which is directed in a systematic way by one or a number of persons mainly toward one individual … These actions take place often (almost every day) and over a long period  (at least for 6 months) and, because of this frequency and duration, result in considerable psychic, psychosomatic, and social misery.” 

~  Heinz Leymann , Ph.D.,  M.D., Swedish Psychiatrist and Industrial Psychologist who led the pioneering work in workplace bullying

Leymann, H. (1990). Mobbing and psychological terror at workplaces. Violence and Victims, 5(2), 119–126. 


“Workplace mobbing is the collective expression of the eliminative impulse in formal organizations. It is a conspiracy of employees, sometimes acknowledged but more often not, to humiliate, degrade, and get rid of a fellow employee, when rules prevent achievement of these ends through violence. It is a shared outpouring of irrationality upon the mundane bureaucratic landscape of modern work.” 

~  Ken Westhues, Canadian Sociologist at the University of Waterloo


Westhues, K. (2005a). The envy of excellence: Administrative mobbing of high-achieving professors. The Tribunal for Academic Justice/Edwin Mellen Press.


“Bullying is defined as a situation in which, over a period of time, one or more persons are persistently on the receiving end of negative actions from one or several others in a situation where the one at the receiving end has difficulties defending against these actions. Hence, the concept of bullying at work refers to all situations where one or more persons feel subjected to negative behavior from others in the workplace over a period of time and in a situation where they for different reasons are unable to defend themselves against these actions. The first core of the definition therefore relates to exposure to repeated and enduring negative acts in the workplace. The second core dimension is about an imbalance in formal or informal power between the involved parties. Typically, a victim is constantly teased, badgered and insulted and perceives that he or she has little recourse to retaliate in kind.”

 ~ Ståle Einarsen, Director of the Bergen Bullying Research Group at the University of Bergen in Norway

Einarsen, S. (2005). The nature, causes and consequences of bullying at work: The Norwegian experience. Perspectives Interdisciplinaires Sur Le Travail Et La Santé, (20051101). 

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