School bullying and workplace bullying: More alike than different?

Many commentators and advocates — myself included — often have differentiated school bullying and workplace bullying this way:

Most school bullying situations involve a more physically or socially advantaged kid (or kids) going after a physically vulnerable or socially isolated schoolmate. Workplace bullying, however, involves more varied pairings of aggressors and targets, with the latter group including a fair share of employees deemed high achieving or socially popular.

But hold on….

Tara Parker-Pope, health columnist for the New York Times, reports on new research studies about school bullying that challenge conventional assumptions (link here):

…(N)ew research suggests that the road to high school popularity can be treacherous, and that students near the top of the social hierarchy are often both perpetrators and victims of aggressive behavior involving their peers….

Highly publicized cases of bullying typically involve chronic harassment of socially isolated students, but the latest studies suggest that various forms of teenage aggression and victimization occur throughout the social ranks as students jockey to improve their status.

The latest research doesn’t deny the scenario of the strong abusing the vulnerable. Rather, it indicates that school bullying behaviors occur up and down and across the social hierarchy.

To compare, we know that workplace bullying, at least in the U.S., tends to be a vertical phenomenon, with bosses most often the aggressors and subordinates the targets. However, peer bullying is the second most common form. And while those considered vulnerable (by dint of job status, personal situation, or personality) often are targeted, so are those who are regarded as successful and popular because they are regarded as a threat.

Another common thread

Bullying usually doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Organizational cultures can fuel or discourage it. Parker-Pope closes her column with this quote from one of the school bullying researchers, Robert Faris, a University of California, Davis sociologist:

“Historically, all the attention has been on the mental health deficiencies of the bullies,” he said. “We need to direct more attention to how aggression is interwoven into the social fabric of these schools.”

Social fabric. Workplace culture. Varied terms, same lesson: When it comes to bullying, organizational settings and leadership matter.


The Parker-Pope column is well worth reading in its entirety, but even these snippets open more possibilities for seeing school cultures as paving the way for their workplace counterparts. Beyond our families, our first encounters with others in a structured setting come via school. Is it not surprising that bullying behaviors modeled and validated in school settings reappear and evolve devolve in the workplace? More stuff to ponder here.

3 responses

  1. I am in a situation where I am the supervisor and my subordinate bully is being allowed to psychologically abuse all the staff, including me and has been protected by a system that wants to sweep any conflict under the carpet. The bully is male, the rest of us female so there is a sexist overtone.

    • Anne, the “bullying up” scenario is definitely the least likely form in the U.S., but it is no less difficult to deal with — and the gender dynamic certainly compounds matters.

  2. The degree of fear and both social and economic insecurity that permeates our society is sad and unsettling. How did we arrive at this place – where our knee jerk reaction is to first view others as potential threats to our own well-being? This place where we see life as a competition to be “won” – regardless of the expense and loss to ourselves individually and to society as a whole?

    Sometimes the issue just looks so huge and complex that any semblance of a solution appears to be naive.

    Not only is it important we better understand “how aggression is interwoven into the social fabric” but also to better understand the implicit institutionalized support and promotion for this mindset.

    Thanks so much for keeping us informed, David.

    Take care.

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