Ethics in the Workplace
Dealing with Workplace Conflict

Workplace Bullies Charm their way to the Top

Does it pay to be a Workplace Bully?

I have previously blogged about the potential psychological effect of workplace bullying. They can be devastating and, in extreme cases, lead the bullied individual to commit suicide. Now, in a rather disheartening study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, a team of researchers led by Darren C. Treadway, of the University at Buffalo School of Management, found that many workplace bullies receive positive evaluations from their supervisors and achieve high levels of career success, despite organizational efforts to curtail bullying.

The researchers sought to study the relationship between workplace bullying and job performance. They collected behavioral and job-performance data from 54 employees of a U.S. health-care firm, and found a strong correlation between bullying, positive job evaluations and social and political skill in the workplace.

The study defines workplace bullying as “systematic aggression and violence targeted towards one or more individuals by one individual or by a group.”

The researchers found that many bullies thrive by charming their supervisors and manipulating others to help them get ahead, even while they abuse their co-workers. Because many bullies can “possess high levels of social ability,” they are “able to strategically abuse co-workers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisor,” the authors write.

“If people are politically skilled, they can do bad things really well,” says Dr. Treadway.

The study notes that workplace bullying is prevalent: About half of all U.S. employees have witnessed workplace bullying and more than a third have been the target of bullying, according to past research.

In one case I know about personally an exceptionally hard worker became a disgruntled employee after her boss verbally abused her and co-workers using fear and intimidation to get them to do what he wanted them to do, and to do it better and more quickly than any other department. He denied vacation requests and spread rumors about staffers who got on his bad side. Once, she’d witnessed him make fun of an employee, in front of a dozen other employees, for a pimple she’d tried, not very successfully, to cover.

But when top executives came to town, her boss was charming and personable, even if 20 minutes earlier he had been berating the staff. The boss had convinced top management to promote him even though most of the employees worked in fear of his wrath.

Workplace bullying is on the rise: A survey of more than 4,000 American workers released by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 35 percent of employees had been bullied in the workplace—defined as having experienced verbal abuse, job sabotage, misuse of authority, intimidation and humiliation, and deliberate destroying of relationships. Such behavior was both repeated and harmful to health. As a result of this study and others, many workplaces have launched anti-bullying initiatives, and many states are lobbying for anti-bullying legislation (although bullying is four times more common than either sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job, it is not yet illegal).

One possible reason bullies get ahead is that almost half of the bullied workers don’t report the incidents. Instead, many workers practice conflict avoidance, reasoning that an angered bully is a more dangerous bully and that staying out of the way is the best way to personal survival. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, workplace bullying can be contagious. Bullying behavior (especially if such behavior seems to be rewarded) can encourage non-bullies, or victims, to take up abusive behavior themselves. In this way, the act of bullying by one individual can impact an entire company by fostering behavior that trickles down the entire organizational ladder.

Workplace bullying is an unethical act. It disrespects the person who is the target of the bully. It treats other unfairly thereby violating “The Golden Rule” to treat others the way we want to be treated. Workplace bullying should be dealt with by the bullied individual as soon as it occurs. If you are the target of a bully and would like my confidential advice, e-mail me at or submit the e-mail form.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 4, 2013