Workplace bullying and school bullying: Ties and parallels

At last Wednesday’s Massachusetts legislative committee hearing on the Healthy Workplace Bill (see link below), one state representative asked me about possible connections between workplace bullying and school bullying.  It’s an important and recurring question.

I responded that although I am not aware of any definitive studies examining those links, there are definite ties and parallels.  Here is a more articulate assessment than what I gave the legislator, based on my 10 years of work on these issues:

1.  School bullies who do not learn that there are consequences for their actions may become the workplace bullies of tomorrow.

2.  Kids who experience abuse and trauma may mistreat others when they are older, and workplace bullying may be one manifestation of that.

3.  Sadly, all too often both schools and employers treat bullying dismissively, characterizing it as a personality conflict and sometimes even tacitly (or not so tacitly) blaming the target for being weak or oversensitive, especially if the aggressor is popular and/or powerful.

In short, bullying behaviors and organizational responses are modeled and validated early in life, and the patterns endure into our adulthoods.


Brief report on last week’s Mass. legislative hearing:

9 responses

  1. Pingback: Workplace bullying and school bullying: Ties and parallels

  2. Thanks for this post, David.

    It’s probably just me and my personal perceptions, but I have difficulty using the words “bully” and “bullying.” They’re too euphemistic for me and detract from the seriousness of the behavior/conduct.

    The behavior is abuse and those who conduct themselves in this manner are abusive – regardless of the setting or circumstances.

    Am I being overly concerned with words and possible connotations?

    Thanks again.

    Debra Healy
    Healy Conflict Management Services

    • Hey Debra!

      While I think your point has merit, I long ago gave up the battle over terminology and simply go with whatever someone labels it. Bullying, abuse, harassment, mobbing, mistreatment, aggression, hostility, incivility, whatever.

      The terms have different connotations, to be sure, but if you’ve ever been in a room with a bunch of academicians who are disagreeing over labels and definitions, you’ll know why I’m not picking fights on this one. 🙂


  3. David,
    I couldn’t agree more with this post, I’m convinced that bullying that appears in school will continue into the workplace if left untreated.
    School yard bullies learn to be abusive from the adults in their lives, they need to be taught differently early on, so they grow to become respectful and yet assertive adults.

    • Imelda, I hope that someday we’ll have a better societal appreciation for how these behaviors connect. Thanks for your comment. David

  4. Hi, David –

    I should have clarified: I meant that I, personally, have difficulty with the term “bully.” I’m sure it goes back to my childhood…or something like that. Maybe it’s because while growing up, if you got beat up by a bully, you were a wimp. The word “bully” somehow illegitimizes the impact of the behavior for me.

    Conversely, for me, the word “abuse” steers blame away from the victim – something that has been difficult at times for me. If I keep the blame on myself (i.e., “I’m just being a wimp with this bully, so I deserve it”), I create the illusion that the situation is within my control – if I can just figure out how to be around this person, things will be okay. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking keeps me locked into a victim cycle.

    It often takes a few trips through the victim cycle for me to begin to realize, that maybe the issue really isn’t me – and really isn’t within my control. When I shift my thinking to “This person is being abusive toward me,” it changes my perception of the situation. I stop trying to make something illogical, logical. For me, it has everything to do with applying the “right” term for me.

    I know I haven’t explained this well. I’ve attempted, however, to make it clear that these are my personal feelings about the words “bully” and “abuse” – and, this may not make sense or apply to anyone else.

    I do believe the most important thing is to name the behavior – and, to name it whatever makes most sense and works for you.

    Thanks, David. 🙂


    • Debra,

      Your explanation raises the difficulty of naming this phenomenon and the players in it. The words are loaded with meaning for some based on personal experience.

      When the Namies were planning to launch their efforts in the late 90s, they decided to go with “bullying” because they believed it would resonate most strongly with the public and the media. On that I believe hindsight has proven them to be correct.

      But I also agree that severe bullying constitutes a form of abuse. In fact, while the Healthy Workplace Bill never uses the term “bullying” to define the legally offensive behavior, it does employ the terms “abusive” and “malicious.”

      So….you’ve explained yourself just fine! That’s why I say call it what you want to call it and don’t apologize. The naming/labeling debates will be with us for some time, but hopefully not to the point of frustrating concrete action.


  5. Childhood bullies grow up to become adult bullies who are the ones we are fighting in the criminal world on all levels. Nip it in the bud and make bullying illegal. Those who commit the crime to be held accountable. Maybe they will learn right from wrong since they are not learning it at home. And just maybe the next generation will have a chance. Lead by good example for the world to follow.
    Organized Stalking is a very disturbing, hateful, ignored and growing trend worldwide. They are a bunch of grown up bullies who have been destroying lives for years if not decades.

    Click to access osatv.pdf

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