Revisiting “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership”


I recently had occasion to revisit an article I wrote back in 2008, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” which appeared in the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, published by Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater). Here’s how I introduced it:

Workplace bullying presents serious challenges to organizations, but it remains one of the most neglected problems in the realm of employment relations. Accordingly, this article addresses the implications of workplace bullying for organizational leaders and suggests measures that can be undertaken to respond to it. First it will describe common bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations. Next it will examine how organizations can act preventively and responsively to this destructive phenomenon. Finally, it will tie together these threads in the context of individual dignity and the practice of values-based leadership.

Although much has occurred in the realm of workplace bullying and employee relations since the article was published, I think it holds up well as an examination of the implications of bullying at work for organizational leaders. The article has been very positively received, now ranking among the 1,000 most downloaded articles on the Social Science Research Network out of over 528,000 pieces posted to the site. You may freely access the full piece here.

Here are a few snippets, which cover familiar ground to long-time readers of this blog:

It starts at the top. Organizational leaders must send a message that workplace bullying is unacceptable behavior. Executives and managers who preach and practice dignity will see that quality resonate throughout an organization. Establishing a culture of open, honest, and mutually respectful communication will have the salutary effect of reducing bullying and other forms of employee mistreatment.


Education and policies are only the beginning. The next step, a much more difficult one, is to enforce policies relating to bullying by conducting genuine follow-up investigations and where necessary, assessing reprisals, when complaints arise. Unfortunately, bullying targets often report that organizational responses to their complaints about bullying made their experiences worse. One of the most common laments is that “HR was useless” in handling complaints about bullying and in some cases turned out to be complicit with the aggressors, especially those higher up on the organizational chart.


One of the most difficult decisions from both an ethical and business perspective is what to do with an abusive manager or executive. He may be seen as a “rainmaker” who is good at attracting business. He may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine his fate. Oftentimes, a workplace bully will have mastered “kiss up, kick down” tactics that hide his abusive side from superiors who review his performance. “Oh, I cannot believe he’d do anything like that to someone” is a common refrain from those who have been shielded from a bully’s conduct.

If I could write a revised version today, I would say more about the importance of hiring and developing leaders with empathy and character. In the article, I talk about the value of social intelligence, but that’s not enough. We need more executives and managers with heart quality in addition to social smarts.

For those interested in workplace values, ethics, and social responsibility generally, I also suggest browsing through the full archives of the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, which has grown into an excellent resource for scholars and business leaders alike. You’ll find a lot of great stuff there.


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3 responses

  1. “We need more executives and managers with heart quality in addition to social smarts.” I am at a place in my evolving understanding of this issue, that bullying is an accepted corporate culture with the blessings if not modeled on the behavior of the top management. This is why the “Market Basket Effect” was so radical and successful. It will take a movement of the employees backed by society (the Heathly Workplace Bill) to end this corporate culture directed by those comparatibly few who hold the economic power.

  2. Pingback: Revisiting “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership” | lornastremcha

  3. You put forth a very valid argument- we do need more executives and managers with heart quality in addition to social smarts. Sometimes, management can get caught up in the gossip and forget that their position is to be neutral and to eliminate themselves from the cliques that tend to develop in the workplace. I strongly believe and have witnessed both types of executives and managers. It can be extremely discouraging to employees to see their manager fuel and tolerate the bullying. However, I’ve also seen managers who are empathetic and take a stand against bullying- the effect on employees has been quite amazing. It’s often hard to find a manager who possesses such qualities- the ability to be a courageous leader without be condescending and the ability to have people respect you, not fear you.

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