Harassment at work

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Maarit Vartia, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health

Introduction

Harassment at work occurs when someone is offended, humiliated, socially excluded, emotionally assaulted or his/her work is negatively affected repeatedly, regularly and over a period of time. Harassment is an escalating process during the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position, and feels him/her self defenceless. This article will start by defining the phenomenon, followed by some information on: the prevalence of exposure to harassment at work; causes of harassment; and the effects of harassment on those exposed to bullying, observers and organisations. Finally, interventions for the prevention and management of harassment will be briefly outlined and discussed.

Understanding harassment at work: Terms and definitions

Harassment at work has been studied and discussed both among researchers and practitioners for over twenty years now. In 1976 the psychiatrist Carroll M. Brodsky wrote the book "The Harassed Worker", but it took another ten years before the problem received more attention. Heinz Leymann, who nowadays is widely considered as the pioneer of workplace harassment research, started his research in Sweden in the mid 1980's [1].

Various terms are used to describe repeated and long-term negative treatment at work, and there is no single definition for this phenomenon. The term workplace "bullying" is the English term most commonly used by researchers all over the world. However, nowadays the term "harassment" or sometimes "psychological harassment" is being used more widely. The term "mobbing" is used in some countries and by some researchers. Sometimes mobbing is used interchangeably with the term bullying; and sometimes to it is used to differentiate between negative behaviour by groups (mobbing) and negative behaviour by a single person (bullying or harassment). A variety of other terms, for example unwanted behaviour, inappropriate behaviour, and intimidation, are also used.

Although no single definition on harassment at work exists, most definitions used by researchers and practitioners share some common features or criteria. The definitions emphasise that harassment is a set of negative behaviours that occur repeatedly over a period of time, and that the target of harassment begins to feel him/her self as being defenceless during this process. As single events, the negative acts may be seen inoffensive, or at least tolerable, but the situation can develop into bullying when the negative acts become frequent, persistent and long term. The definition presented by Einarsen and colleagues (pg.22) [2] includes these general features:

"Bullying at work means harassing, offending, or socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone's work. In order for the label bullying to be applied to a particular activity, interaction, or process, the bullying behaviour has to occur repeatedly and regularly (e.g. weekly) and over a period of time (e.g. about six months). Bullying is an escalating process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts. A conflict cannot be called bullying if the incident is an isolated event or two parties of approximately equal strength are in conflict."

The feeling of being defenceless demonstrates the imbalance of power between the parties. When the perpetrator is a line-manager the formal power structure can create the feeling that the individual is not able to defend him/her self. Defending oneself can be difficult in a situation where a group of workmates bully/target one single employee. The impossibility to defend oneself or to find recourse to change the situation is often in-built in the forms of harassment (e.g., social isolation).

Harassment is an expanding process [2] [3] [4], whereby the negative acts become increasingly serious with time. The bullying tends to become more direct as the victims become isolated and humiliated. Ultimately both psychological and physical means may be used to harass the individual [2], and the victims become stigmatised during this process [3]. At the same time, a negative attitude towards the victim increases in the workplace, and limited support from workmates is available anymore. Over the course of this process, he/she becomes a "case". According to Leymann [4] expulsion is the last phase of the process, in which the victim is forced out of the workplace.

Forms of negative acts

There can be many different isolated types of negative and hostile acts. Negative behaviour against a person can be active (e.g., verbal aggression) or passive (e.g., withholding information). One way to classify the negative acts is the classification into either person-related and to work-related harassment [2].

  • Examples of work-related harassment include: unreasonable deadlines or unmanageable workload, excessive monitoring, removal of responsibilities, and pressure not to claim one's rights, withholding information which affects one's work.
  • Examples of person-related harassment include: vilifying the individual, spreading gossip or rumours, social isolation, ridicule and insulting remarks, humiliation, shouting, and intimidating behaviour.

Harassment can express itself also in very subtle forms: such as, negative gestures, dismissive shrugs, or different forms of subtle pressure. Sometimes negative behaviour happens only when an interaction occurs between the target and the perpetrator when there are no observers to these actions. In these kinds of situations the target often feels that it is impossible for him or her to prove the presence of harassment. Physical violence or the threat of violence has been suggested as being one form of harassment [5] [6]. Harassment can express itself also in the form of insulting e-mails, text messages or phone calls. Sexual harassment is one form of workplace harassment.

Prevalence of harassment at work

Negative behaviour and experience of harassment can be found in all countries, types and sizes of enterprises, and across all levels of organisations. Survey results on the prevalence of harassment at work have revealed somewhat conflicting figures. Based on a samples from 15 different countries, between 3% and 4% of serious bullying/harassment was observed; and between 10% and 15% less severe incidences were reported [2]. A meta-analysis, with 86 independent samples, found a lower prevalence of bullying/harassment in Scandinavian countries; in comparison with other European countries or non-European countries [7].

In the recent Fifth European Working Conditions Survey [8], 4.1% of employees reported being subjected to bullying or harassment at work in the present year across the EU-27. The highest prevalence was found in France (9.5%), Belgium (8.6%), the Netherlands (7.7%), Luxemburg (7.2%), and Austria (7.2%). In some countries, very low prevalence was measured; Bulgaria (0.6%), Poland (0.7%), Italy (0.9%), Slovakia (1.2%), Turkey (1.3%), Kosovo (1.4%), and Albania (1.5%).

In the EU level, bullying or harassment seemed to be somewhat more common in the service sector (4.6%), as compared to the industry (3.1%). This was the case for countries such as e.g., the Netherlands, France, Latvia, and Slovenia. However, in Austria and Malta, the situation was found to be the other way around. In an earlier EWCS, conducted in 2005 [9], the risk of experiencing bullying was highest among workers in the healthcare and the hotel and restaurant sectors. The European Survey of Enterprise on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-1) found the health and social work (48%), education (48%), public administration and defence (45%), and electricity, gas and water supply (42%) to have the highest percentage of enterprises reporting concern with bullying or harassment [10]. It is somewhat difficult to find representative national data that have examined the prevalence of harassment in different sectors. In a representative survey conducted in Finland, employees working in healthcare and social sector, and in education reported experiencing harassment more often than employees from other sectors [11]. In a survey in 70 organizations from 18 sectors in Britain, bullying was found to be most common in prison service, post- and telecommunications, and teaching [12]. When comparing the public and private sectors, some studies have found a higher prevalence in the public sector (e.g., in Sweden, Finland and UK [11] [12] [13]); but in Norway the occurrence of bullying was found to be higher in private enterprises than in the public sector [14]. (More information on national studies is also available [15]).

In comparing and interpreting the prevalence figures from different countries it must be remembered that differences between countries may reflect not only differences in actual prevalence of the bullying; but also awareness and recognition of the issue, and sensitivity to the issue in different countries. Differences in the definition of harassment and different survey methodologies used make comparing of the results from different studies difficult.

Who are the perpetrators?

The perpetrators are most often co-worker(s), superiors or managers, and sometimes subordinates. At times, there can be negative treatment from third parties (such as, clients, customer, patients or pupils); which is called harassment. The overall picture seems to suggest that supervisory bullying is more prevalent, than bullying by colleagues. For example in Britain, supervisors and managers are most often reported as being the perpetrators [16]. In an analysis of 40 samples from different countries it was found that 65.4% of the targets were being harassed by their supervisors, 39.4% by colleagues, and 9.7% by subordinates respectively [15]. However, in the Scandinavian countries, the perpetrator has been found almost equally to be a colleague or a supervisor or manager [13] [14]; whereas in some samples peer bullying has been found to be the most typical situation [17]. Among business professionals in Finland, women were found to be harassed by superiors and colleagues in approximately equal proportions; whereas men were most often harassed by their superiors. One fourth of harassed women were harassed by subordinates, but none of the men reported harassment by subordinates [18].

Antecedents of harassment

The onset and escalation of harassment seem to be a complicated process with multiform causes. In order to understand what is happening and why, it is important to examine the problem from both the work environment and the individual perspective; and to view harassment also as a group level phenomenon.

Work environment factors as triggers of harassment

The work environment hypothesis suggests that certain features present in the psychosocial work environment can act as triggers or risks, and may contribute to the development of harassment. Of work environment factors, role conflicts and role ambiguity, high workload, control over one's work, lack of participation in decision making, changes at work and job insecurity, lack of skill utilisation, cognitive demands and lack of task-related feedback have been found to be associated with harassment in the workplace [12] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25]. Also poor social climate or competitive climate in the workplace or competition between employees in the organisation may trigger negative behaviour and harassment [18] [21] [25].

Leadership style is crucial. Early studies showed that low satisfaction with leadership was associated with the perception of harassment [21]. More recent research suggests a strong relationship between laissez-faire leadership (a type of leadership style in which leaders are hands-off and allow group members to make the decisions) and harassment at work. It also shows that laissez-faire leadership is associated with several workplace stressors (including, increased amount of role conflicts and conflicts between colleagues), which then may promote harassment [26].

In addition, the meaning of organisational culture is important when considering the causes of harassment. Some types of workplaces where the organisational culture permits, even rewards harassment, have been observed [27]. This is evident in some organisations where bullying is viewed as acceptable to induce performance and strive for excellence [18]. Both the targets and the bystanders of harassment have been found to assess their work environment more negatively than workers in harassment-free workplaces [22] [25]. For more information see Salin & Hoel [28].

Individual antecedents

The role of gender

In the Fifth EWCS, the difference between women and men reporting bullying or harassment in the EU level was not remarkable (i.e., 4.4% women and 3.9% men). No differences between genders were found in Ireland (women 5.4%, men 5.5%), Germany (women 4.6%, men 4.6%), Spain (women 2.3%, men 2.2%), Sweden (women 2.7%, men 2.8%) or Norway (women 4.2%, men 4.3%). Women reported exposure to bullying or harassment more often than men in Finland (women 8.2%, men 4.2%), the UK (women 6.0%, men 3.3%), the Netherlands (women 9.4%, men 6.3%), Luxembourg (women 9.1%, men 5.8%) and Estonia (women 2.8%, men 0.4%), while in France the situation seemed to be the other way around (women 8.4%, men 10.5%) [8].

Observed gender differences may be context specific. Studies have found that male assistant nurses and female police officers, who represent a gender minority in their profession and in their workplaces, were more often exposed to harassment than their colleagues of the opposite gender [29] [30]. In addition, it seems that both the gender of the target, the gender of the perpetrator and the gender of the non-observing third party all seem to be important factors in deciding whether negative behaviour is perceived as bullying [30].

Individual characteristics of the perpetrators and targets of harassment

Results from studies attempting to clarify the personality traits of the targets and victims of harassment have been somewhat conflicting. It seems, however, that there is no such thing as a general victim personality profile [31] [32]. A relationship between neuroticism or low emotional stability and bullying has been found in many studies [25] [31] [32] [33]. Some victims have been found to be less extroverted [31] [33] than the non-victims. Some studies have suggested victims of bullying to be less conscientious [31]; whereas some other studies found victims of bullying to be more conscientious than non-victims [34]. For more information see e.g. Zapf & Einarsen [35].

The individual characteristics of the perpetrators have most often been depicted from the viewpoint of the victims. Self-regulatory processes with regard to threatened self-esteem, lack of social competencies and bullying or harassment as a result of micropolitical behaviour have been suggested to be the three main explanations of the behaviour of the perpetrator [35]. In addition, workers who have been bully victims before [19] are more likely to engage in bullying behaviours themselves.

Consequences of harassment

Individual consequences

Becoming harassed at work can be seen as posing a considerable risk for health and well-being for those exposed. Several early and more recent studies have shown relationships between bullying and lower job and organisational satisfaction, [[Work-related stress: Nature and management| general stress], mental health, and psychosomatic symptoms (such as, depression, anxiety, irritability and sleep problems [21] [36] [37] [12] [38] [39] [40]. For example, the Fifth EWCS found that workers who were bullied were less than half as likely, when compared to non-bullied workers, to report being satisfied with their work [8]. The same survey observed a higher prevalence of bullied workers, again compared to non-bullied workers, reporting that: they had poor general health, their mental health was at risk, health and safety at work was at risk, they were absent for more than five days, and they had presenteeism. Interestingly, results from the Fifth EWCS suggest that being bullied has an impact on sustainable work, with fewer bullied men (45%) and women (47%) reporting that they would still be able to do their job aged 60, in comparison to those who reported no bullying (61% and 60% respectively). In a longitudinal study, prolonged exposure to bullying posed an elevated risk to the onset of depression [41]. Victims of harassment also report symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD [42]. In addition, exposure to harassment seems to increase sickness absence [43] (Kivimäki, Elovainio & Vahtera, 2000). The detrimental impact of bullying on mental health of the individual is further evident in a meta-analysis of 13 longitudinal studies by Nielsen and Einarsen [44].

Harassment by superiors or managers has been proposed as being more harmful than harassment by co-workers [45]. Some forms of negative acts may also be more detrimental than others. Among municipal employees, criticism and devaluing of one's work and effort, and offensive remarks and criticism of one's private life were most strongly correlated with feelings of stress and mental distress reactions [39]. The Pan-European Opinion Poll on Occupational Safety and Health, conducted with a representative sample in 31 European countries in 2013, found that 59% of respondents felt that being subjected to unacceptable behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, is a common cause of work-related stress [46]. Differences between men and women have also been found [47].Observers (bystanders) of harassment report on average more psychological symptoms than those who say that there is no bullying in their workplace [36] [39] [47].

Costs for the organisations

Manifestation of harassment has both direct and indirect consequences and costs for organisations and society as a whole. In harassment cases, investigation of complaints, transfers, and disciplinary processes incur additional costs for the organisation. It has been calculated that the cost of one case for the organisation will amount to approximately £28,000. This does not include the cost incurred due to loss of productivity, negative media attention and/or the impact on public relations [16]. The 2014 EU-OSHA report [48] on the financial cost of work-related psychosocial hazards provides a more thorough review on the cost of bullying to organisations and to society.

Interventions for the prevention and management of harassment

Policy level interventions include the development of statutory regulation and legislation and national policy, specification of best practice standards at national or stakeholder levels, the signing of stakeholder agreements for a joint strategy for the problem, and the signing of declarations at the European or international levels [49]. At the European level there is no specific legislation targeting work-related stress or harassment, however this is considered to fall within the scope of the EU framework directive on health and safety at work [50] [51] (Eurofound, 2013) ), and more specifically demonstrated by “sectoral and cross-industry social dialogue dealing with various aspects of working conditions” (pg. 57) [52].

The autonomous framework agreement on harassment and violence at work was signed in 2007 by the European social partners, ETUC/CES, BUSINESSEUROPE, UEAPME and CEEP [53]. The aims of this agreement are to increase awareness and understanding among employers, workers and their representatives of workplace harassment and violence; and to provide them with an action-oriented framework to identify, manage and prevent problems of harassment and violence at work. According to the agreement, enterprises need to adhere to a clear statement emphasising that harassment and violence will not be tolerated. Procedures outlining how to deal with individual cases, should they arise, should also be included.

Specific legislation against harassment has already been passed in many countries: for example, Sweden, France, the Netherland, Finland and Belgium. In Sweden, the Victimisation at Work Ordinance was enacted already in 1993. Many actors believe that legislation will force employers to address harassment and is therefore useful; but an evaluation of the Swedish ordinance revealed also some problems [54]. The shortcomings were associated both with the regulatory framework itself; as well, as the lack of involvement of key actors, employers, trade unions, and labour inspectorate. For example, the Labour Inspectorate was insufficiently prepared at the time that the regulations were introduced, both in terms of its inspectors' level of knowledge and with respect to specific workplace enforcement strategies and methods [54]. Implementation of anti-bullying policies for the prevention of harassment, as well as handling complaints and incidents of harassment in the workplace are recommended by many researchers and practitioners. In addition, both nationwide strategies (such as, the code of practice by Heath and Safety Authority in Ireland) and organisational policies have been implemented extensively during the past years [55]. In Belgium, the law obliges employers to include appropriate measures against abusive behaviour in their policies to prevent psychosocial risks at work.

According to the first EU-wide Enterprise Survey of New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-1) conducted in 2009 [56], only 30% of EU enterprises had at the time procedures to deal with bullying and harassment, although there was substantial variation between individual member states. Such procedures were most common in Ireland, the UK, Sweden, Belgium, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands. In Ireland, procedures to deal with bullying and harassment existed in almost 90% of the enterprises. In Estonia, Hungary, Greece, Lithuania, only a few percent of enterprises had procedures to deal with bullying and harassment. Procedures to deal with harassment were most common in the health and social sectors, and in education, and most rare in manufacturing and construction. The procedures were also more common in large (250+ employees) than in smaller enterprises. In addition, concern regarding bullying or harassment in enterprises was found to differ between countries; from being very high in Turkey and Poland, to low, for example, in Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia and Lithuania [56]. Results from the second European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-2), conducted in 2014, showed that whilst slightly more than 45% of EU enterprises currently have procedures to deal with bullying and harassment, this continues to vary between individual countries [57]. Such procedures continue to be more prevalent in the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Finland (70% or more) and the least common in Hungary, Estonia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Albania and Portugal (less than 20%) [57].

Hoel and Einarsen [58] argued that the existence of the legislative framework is insufficient to address the problem if is not followed by other primary and secondary interventions implemented in the workplaces.Management and employees training, organisational surveys and risk assessment with measures on possible antecedents of harassment (such as, psychosocial working conditions, organisational culture, management and leadership practices) and psychosocial work environment redesign are examples of primary-level interventions. The aim is to reduce the occurrence of harassment by decreasing the risks of harassment in the work environment and by increasing awareness and recognition of and knowledge about harassment and its' consequences. Commonly used secondary measures include: conflict management training and training for investigation of complaints, and mediation. Strategies that can be used the prevention of harassment and in situations where harassment has taken place include: assertiveness training, social support, counselling and therapy [59].

Links for further reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Workplace violence and Harassment: European Picture (2011). Available at: [11]

Health and Safety Authority Ireland, Code of practice for employers and employees on the prevention and resolution of bullying at work, 2007. Available at: [12]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Facts 23: Bullying at Work, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2002. Available at: [13]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Calculating the cost of work-related stress and psychosocial risk, 2014. Available at: [14]

Eurofound - European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, ‘Physical and Psychological Violence at the Workplace’, Dublin, Eurofound, 2013. Available at: [15]

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