Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”?

Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces?

You’re probably familiar with the unfortunate term “cancer cluster,” which refers to a neighborhood or some other defined geographic area whose inhabitants develop cancer at a much higher rate than the general population. It’s usually associated with the possible concentration of carcinogens in the defined area, such as industrial chemicals or pollutants.

The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?

Research limitations

Currently, researchers face inevitable limitations on studying specific employers with regard to workplace bullying prevalence and severity. Not surprisingly, employers are reluctant to open themselves up to research studies that may go public, especially findings that might directly compare them to other organizations.

It means that most prevalence studies at our disposal cannot identify whether individual employers are hosts to a disproportionate amount of workplace bullying and similar behaviors. This also inhibits us from drawing conclusions about whether workers in specific occupations are more or less likely to experience workplace bullying.

The “bullying cluster”

So here’s the hypothesis:

Bullying behaviors are not evenly distributed among all employers. Rather, bullying behaviors are disproportionately concentrated in a smaller number of toxic workplaces.

Hence, the bullying cluster.

More questions emerge: For example, what is that disproportionate share? For example, might the old chestnut, the “20/80 rule,” apply here? Could, say, 20 percent of our workplaces host 80 percent of the bullying?

Also, might this be at least a partial explanation of why, in multiple surveys, a fairly large share of respondents report that they’ve never even witnessed workplace bullying? (If you spend most of your work life in functional workplaces, it’s less likely you’ll be exposed to bullying.)

Furthermore, how does this hypothesis relate to other forms of workplace mistreatment? (On this point, I think back to the research of Joel Neuman and Robert Baron, who found positive correlations between all forms of workplace aggression, including bullying.)

Hopefully an enterprising professor or Ph.D. student in organizational psychology is working on these questions, or maybe there’s a terrific study out there that I missed. (If the latter, please send it to me and I’ll amend this post.)

As someone who has been studying workplace bullying for over a decade — albeit not as an empirical researcher — the bullying cluster concept seems self-evident to me. We’re well aware that workplace bullying is not an isolated dynamic. Leadership and workplace culture have a lot to do with it. Organizational consultants are regularly called in to deal with toxic workplaces, and not surprisingly they often find a lot of bullying behaviors within them. And it appears that certain occupational groups — health care, law, and education, to name a few — are associated with high levels of workplace bullying.


If the bullying cluster hypothesis is valid, then both further research and action-oriented responses are impacted. For example:

1. It sharpens our examination of the relationship between workplace culture and bullying behaviors, especially concerning the role of organizational leadership.

2. In assessing and designing interventions for toxic workplaces, bullying would be more seamlessly (if that term applies in such situations) incorporated into any set of responses.

3. When workplace bullying legislation becomes a reality, it’s more likely that eventual claims would emerge from toxic workplaces. Workplaces with fair and ethical employee practices would largely avoid bullying-related lawsuits.

14 responses

  1. Yes, I agree and I am sure that you also know this to be true. Corporate workplaces believe they are beyond reproach and tend to get away with overt and covert bullying.

    The power generation company I worked for has a high level of sick leave due to high levels of bullying ( and they know how to hide both). I’ve seen loads of this over the twenty years I’ve worked there and many investigations that are expensive and the station would refuse to implement the investigators recommendations.

    Large corporations find ways to hide investigators results, hide the number of complaints etc.

    I would never have believed it would happen to me, but my career was destroyed by this company, so what I thought I saw happening to numerous others I have now seen first hand and believe me, even two years later I am still in shock with what they get away with!

  2. I so agree. I’m a victim of workplace bulling to the point of getting fired after 12 years of working there.. im suffering mentalty bad cause I need nothing wrong and the lies told My boss bullied me for 6 heard after I called her on it. Took.a family.medical leave act for 2 weeks because I wrote job stress do to boss bulling. Came back. They worked me 4 days and fired for no reason. They couldn’t give me one.

  3. Yes!! David, this is *right on*!! At the institution at which I experienced bullying there is now a ‘civility initiative.’ Last spring I contacted a member of the committee of that initiative to let her know that I think it is needed and that I hope administrators pay attention to survey results. In her response to me she noted that they recognize that there are “pockets of problems.” These “pockets” are your “clusters.” However, I felt that the reference to ‘pockets of problems’ seemed to minimize the problem … as if it isn’t a big deal if it is contained in these pockets. Also, if you are someone in one of these pockets whose life is deeply affected by the bullying behavior, it is not a minimal problem at all.

    I also wonder, then, what is the distinction between mobbing and bullying clusters?

    Thanks so much for your ongoing work, David.

  4. Yes David, you hit the nail on the head, precisely. The Statewide organization where I worked for 16 years has some pretty unbelievable management and since I left a year ago it has has gotten worse, if you can believe that. People are so afraid of each other there now that its a miracle that anything at all gets done. Bullying has to have management that will accept it, hence the clusters. I have a different organization now and its so refreshing to get into proper management. The old org was supposed to protect citizens health but in reality puts them at risk directly due to their actions/ inaction. They hide their problem well and go after anyone that would tell on them. If people in the State knew what was going on there, there would be a hue and cry about it.

    • IMO, a large part of the problem in my state stems from the fact that the very people hired to combat bullying are THEMSELVES controlling, intimidating and dismissive, if not outright abrasive and contemptuous. In my case they were the regional-office director (sole emplee for a thousand square miles), the capital-city staffer to whom I was referred after a series of calls (none of them returned, so I drove there and asked politely again, to speak with someone), the staff attornewho eviewed y complaint, and, worst of all, the high-hgh mucky-muck to whom I finally reached outs. Good scouts were invariably to find, and harder still no contact: busy signals on main line, operator never picked up, recording says, “Please call later,” no message option. A specific extension yields, “Sorry, mailbox full.” Told by reviewer attorney there would be no need for witnesses, nor for evidentiary documents at the hearing: “I already have what I need to get the picture;” then, months later, a letter about assembling any witnesses and documentation for hearing, etc. Web site is baffling and often directly contradicts Headquarters’ reception brochure, in terms of how-to’s,time line and other elusive specifics of the brochure at Reception — neither one mentioned/visible at my “appointment” to file the initial complaint! At my regional offfice, some six minutes after I came in, having been told by the director that he was free to file my complaint, that official told a man who came in, “Have a seat in the next room: I’ll be right with you,” then to me, seated with thofficial at the reception desk, “He has an appointment.” Next came, “Here, sign this; no time for a debate…” (Key facts were wrong, and he’d only fixed some.) “I’ve already typed it for you. No, you can’t review it and get back to . back to me; it’s for today. No, you can’t submit it online.” (He’d never described his role, so for all I knew, I risked antagonizing my only official rep for the whole appeals process. Neither did he note that state’s review would determine and constitute my sole EEOC complaint.) And those were my investigating officials, for a bona-fide workplace-discrimination case! I still can’t believe it. And I am a worldly, well-educated native speaker with excellent manners and zero “attitude,” someone who’d prepared scrupulously for filing a complaint, their salaries underwritten by my payroll taxes!

      • P.S. Sorry, folks, for all the typos and maimed diction: text entry at this site goes jiggy on my new Android phone. But better imperfect than timed out, with this being the day’s window of opportunity…

  5. You mention healthcare, law, and education as high incidence arenas for bullying. It occurs to me that the populations being served in those areas don’t necessarily choose to be involved with the service being provided, and frequently they have no or minimal choice in terms of who is their service provider. Providers might be more accustomed to dealing with difficult “consumers” and therefore become “better” targets through experience of tolerating regular workplace abuse.

    Though targets don’t expect abusive behaviour from other employees, abuse is not unfamiliar. Targeted individuals may employ a a variety of strategies to attempt to “get things back on track” that they have experienced as potentially effective with a resistant client population…thereby providing the insider bully ample opportunity to strategize, plot, attack, and defend as well as cover their tracks. If this is the case, by the time the problem is correctly identified and the target is prepared to “give up” on recovering or developing a working relationship, the process and techniques employed against them are far more advanced than might be the case in more conventional workplaces.

    Perhaps having a fairly thick skin to begin with increases the likelihood that bullying becomes entrenched in supposedly pro-social workplaces. Of course, it is also possible that the “almost psychopathic” bullies choose to infiltrate those workplaces for exactly that reason. In addition, any workplace where bullying is overt enough for co-worker peers to be aware and witness the targets ineffective efforts to address the issue, up goes the fear factor. The more insecure the pool of potential targets is, the more bolder and more entrenched the bullying becomes. The bullying becomes normalized in pretty short order, and senior management has the difficult task of trying to get the situation under control without admitting that it has spiralled out of control! Too frequently it appears they try to start addressing “new” problems without acknowledging ever having had “old” and poorly managed ones. Bystanders are not so easily fooled, and don’t report until they are at a breaking point.

    Or maybe not…but that’s what it looks like from where I am right now.

  6. “Most institutions in any society that is invested in an individualistic orientation hold up the person as a sinner, culpable, afflicted, insane, or irrational. Programs of change follow a medical model of dealing only at the individual level of rehabilitation, therapy, reeducation, and medical treatments, or punishment and execution. All such programs are doomed to fail if the main causal agent is the situation or system and not just the person. TLE calls for a paradigm shift of two kinds. We need to adopt a public health model for prevention of evil, of violence, spouse abuse, bullying, prejudice, and more that identifies vectors of social disease to be inoculated against, not dealt with solely at the individual level.” ~ The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

    • Coincidentally I just picked up the Zimbardo book a week ago. Though I haven’t had a chance to dig into yet, my initial response to the passage you quoted is that bad and dysfunctional organizations are more likely to attract folks more prone to engage in bullying and other abusive behaviors. That said, it would be wonderful if workplace bullying could reach the point of being considered a severe public health problem. Indeed, how is it that something so destructive that it would easily be labeled so outside of work, suddenly becomes a “part of the job” once the office or plant doors close behind us?

      • Deep apologies that my reply is so late! I’m on vacation and am behind on checking messages and reading blogs. I can answer that last question for you and give you references on that as well. The references are, Social Marketing Campaign by Philip Kotler and Tina Rosenberg’s, Join The Club. Kotler is the nations, if not the worlds, authority on for profit marketing. (Management Ideas and Gurus, Tim Hindle) Tina Rosenberg is a journalist. She did an interview with Terry Gross about her book that you would probably enjoy and find pertinent.

        Presenting public health issues to the general public is more difficult that marketing and selling tooth paste and tennis shoes. I’ll give a great example of this. I heard on NPR that around one in ten inmates in American prison’s are raped. According to RAINN and other highly credible sources around one in ten female undergraduates in America are raped. These are both clearly serious public health issues.

        But, if you tell a father who is about to send his daughter to college this then he is more likely to punch you in the face than thank you. If he doesn’t punch you then he will probably say something like, “My daughter can take care of herself.” And, he is likely to say that even if she weighs one hundred and ten pounds soaking wet and has never had a self defense course. Both reactions are irrational but likely.

        Rosenberg explains that at the height of the HIV crisis in certain parts of Africa people knew the statistical rate of infection and all knew one or more individual dying or deceased because of the disease. But, the majority of the population believed that it couldn’t happen to them and took little precaution with their own health. Our defense mechanisms are strong and formidable.

        In order for this to be perceived as a public health issue it must be presented to the general public in such a way that they will be receptive and empathetic. It’s tricky but it’s been done successfully before!

  7. I see much of the work of the Mental Health Commission of Canada as relating directly to the issue of public mental health/illness in workplaces. This fall…very soon I expect, there will be a release of a workplace psychological safety standard that will explicitly reference the issues around workplace violence, which explicitly includes workplace bullying. The standard will be a voluntary one, but will probably quickly adopted as the standard against which workplace practices will be benchmarked.

    Click to access Workforce_PHSW_Update_September2012_ENG.pdf

  8. Liz says: I am a working school nurse covering 4 schools of children from zero to many health problems.The responsibilities are enormous as are the medications whose regimens must be instructed to administrators. If I or any of my nursing peers register justified complaints regarding safety/ bullying of our potential patients or us,the query is why did you choose this work? This is not a query ever to any under performing teacher with a teacher’s aide,a planning period and a lunch break.It does not matter if a nurse is a BSN,an APRN or receives certifications in specialties, in education institutions, the nurse is the maid. You say this a public health issue. That is a laugh. There are Public Health Nurses ,well educated who are treated the same way and paid poorly. The best nurse cannot speak up except for her patients. For yourself, well the system does not like a demanding nurse

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: