The Urgent Need to Reduce Workplace Bullying on Campus

Workplace Bullying in Higher Education - Image of two colleagues arguing at a table

While some colleges and universities are developing workplace bullying prevention programs (we’ll list examples in a minute), it is evident that we have a lot of work yet to do. And this work needs to be done; unaddressed, workplace bullying impacts the processes of tenure and promotion, the collegiality of the department, and the academic freedom of its junior members. In this article, find out what a policy should include, and what institutions have existing policies you can learn from.

by Clara Wajngurt, Ph.D.

What is workplace bullying? By this term, we’re referring to hostile behavior that includes repeated harrassment, physical harm, verbal abuse, or other conduct that is viewed as threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or sabotaging – behavior that interferes with the performance of the one who is being bullied. (See Namie & Namie, “Risk Factors for Becoming a Target of Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” in M. Duffy and D. Yamada, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Press, 2018, 1-17.)

These are the characteristics of workplace bullying:

  1. Repetition – persistent ongoing nature over a period of time.
  2. Systematic – showing or involving a method or plan.
  3. Risk to health and safety – refers to a risk to the emotional, mental or physical health of person) (s) in the workplace.
  4. Imbalance of power – a person (generally the bully) may use one’s position or physical dominance over those perceived to be weaker.
  5. Difference/standing out – the target is perceived to be new or different from the rest of the group in the workplace.
  6. Perceived threat – the target is perceived as being a threat to the bully.
  7. Unwanted/unreasonable behavior – behaviors (on the part of the bully) that interfere with one’s work responsibilities.

What Workplace Bullying Looks Like in Higher Ed

Imagine the following scenarios of how workplace bullying manifests itself in an academic setting.

A unit director submits work to a vice president who makes comments that discredit or devalue the work of the director. The vice president criticizes the director, shows a lack of patience, and fails to demonstrate, in a sensitive, professional manner, how to proceed.
A faculty member in the professorial ranks makes cruel, insulting comments at a department meeting about an untenured faculty member’s “psychological problems.”
In the performance review of a faculty member who is up for promotion, the department chair undermines the faculty member’s professional standing, does not identify reasonable means for improvement, and ignores the faculty member’s contributions to the department.

In each of these scenarios, workplace bullying is committed by a person who occupies a higher position on the academic ladder; there is a power imbalance. A chairperson who is disrespectful in their relationships with faculty colleagues can do a lot of damage. Examples of this include micromanaging, being consistently over-critical, delivering unconstructive feedback or no feedback, denying access to resources, or other intimidating and controlling behaviors. When these behaviors become repetitive, they constitute workplace bullying. One can see a continuum, in which harassment begins with instances of incivility; these become repetitive, developing into bullying behavior; and if the bullying is escalated and adds physical force, it becomes workplace violence.

Higher education is prone to workplace bullying because (a) there are few boundaries and parameters around the exercise of academic freedom in higher education, and (b) the process of tenure and promotion reinforces power imbalances, where certain individuals control the process and decision making more than others. In fact, Keashly and Neuman found in 2013 that 25-35% of faculty have experienced workplace bullying as targets, and 40-50% reported that faculty witnessed someone else being bullied in their workplace environments. Hollis (2016) found in her study that 62% of respondents (faculty and administration/staff) at four-year institutions and 64% at two-year institutions reported being affected by workplace bullying. (See Hollis Bingley’s The Coercive Community College: Bullying and its Costly Impact on the Mission to Serve Underrepresented Populations, Emerald Publishing Limited, 2016, and Keashly & Neuman’s ariticle “Faculty Experiences with Bullying in Higher Education: Causes, Consequences and Management,” in Administrative Theory & Praxis, 32(1), pp. 48-70.).

While some colleges and universities are developing workplace bullying prevention programs (we’ll list examples in a minute), it is evident that we have a lot of work yet to do. These initiatives are not part of the accreditation review process, and we find that most universities don’t deal proactively with workplace bullying; people fear reporting instances of workplace bullying. Members of the academy are afraid they will lose their jobs or that in retaliation for reporting could sabotage their future job prospects. In an unhealthy academic work climate, individuals being bullied may believe that the department or the institution is unlikely to take any action to rectify the situation once it’s reported. If past complaints have proven fruitless, that may further discourage reporting, especially given that grievances can take time to resolve.

This lack of response is especially likely and problematic if the bully’s title is full professor or dean – or if the bully occupies some other leadership position “above” that of the bullied. Sometimes, the people who are bullied will think that such behavior on the part of the bully is normal (either because it is treated as such in that departmental culture, or because the bully is skilled at gaslighting). Bystanders and coworkers may be reluctant to intervene, believing that this is simply a situation the bully and the bullied must “work it out.”

All of this contributes to a climate of competition and combativeness, as faculty compete to get ahead in the research process or move up the hierarchical ladder. The power imbalances and the stresses and tensions created by the high pressures on research productivity create a situation ripe for bullying. The impact of workplace bullying is that the one who is bullied can exhibit poor quality work, low job satisfaction, poor relationships on the job, absenteeism, and job disengagement. This fear and imminent lack of teamwork impacts the processes of tenure and promotion, the collegiality of the department, and the academic freedom of its junior members.

Putting Together a Bullying Prevention Program

To address this issue, colleges and universities need to institute not only a code of professional conduct but also a specific workplace bullying prevention policy that is compliant with the university mission and respected by campus constituents. Faculty and staff need to understand which behaviors are acceptable, and which behaviors lead to disciplinary action. Also recommended: The creation of interventions and workshops to ensure that faculty and staff know what to do and where to go if there is a perceived bullying incident on campus. A workplace bullying policy should include:

  • A statement of commitment.
  • A definition with examples of behaviors that are not tolerated.
  • Prevention measures, so staff know the steps to take to reduce the factors that contribute to or enable bullying.
  • Clarity in the duties of chairs, directors, or supervisors – both clear definitions and clear accountability measures.
  • Who the independent contact officers are who can provide help for those who are bullied, bystanders, and the bully as well.

The following universities serve as pioneering examples, as each of these institutions has implemented a workplace bullying policy:

Note that these are policies beyond and in addition to workplace violence prevention policies that deal with physical assault or with wrongful physical contact. Workplace bullying policies are distinct, addressing behaviors that may not involve physical force but that do entail mental, emotional, and psychological harm to members of the academic workplace. Depending on your state, there may also be a healthy workplace bill that has been introduced in the legislature and that provides a framework for such policies.

More broadly, here is a quick list of best practices for universities to consider as they work to create safe and nurturing environments for their faculty and staff:

  1. Consistently review performance management processes to see if college/department goals are being accomplished.
  2. Work on building trusting relationships with colleagues.
  3. Make sure that department chairs and other leaders provide consistent and predictable routines.
  4. Openly condemn unacceptable behavior.
  5. Institute a code of professional conduct – and create well-defined measures of accountability for adhering to it.
  6. Create interventions and workshops on eradicating bullying.
  7. Establish a procedure of contacts when a bullying incident occurs.
  8. Establish flexible reporting procedures and communication channels.
  9. Establish effective mechanisms for monitoring internal conflict management systems.
  10. Implement a healthy workplace policy, and ensure that your workplace policy defines specific cases.

Closing Advice to Faculty, Department Chairs, Deans, and the Provost

Implement a healthy workplace policy for your department that is consistent with your university’s mission and goals. Establish a procedure within your department for how to respond internally if a bullying incident occurs, before approaching human resources. Encourage leadership activities and establish flexible reporting procedures and effective communication channels. Be sure the duties and/or accountability of faculty or administration are well-defined. In this way, college and university faculty and staff will be more free to strive to be their best every day, and to focus on maximizing their productivity and potential in teaching, research, and service.


Clara Wajngurt has written many peer-reviewed articles on workplace bullying prevention and has written two books on this subject. Her educational background includes a BS in both Mathematics and Psychology from City College of New York and a Doctorate in Algebraic Number Theory from City University of New York Graduate School. She has conducted many workshops at the college in math anxiety and in the encouragement of more diverse groups to enter STEM fields. She has also observed many unfortunate instances of workplace bullying in her university where she is proactive to prevent workplace bullying on her campus both amongst faculty and staff and students.


Image Credit: Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash.

Fix Your Climate

If you enjoyed this article, you may also interested in the new book Fix Your Climate: A Practical Guide to Reducing Microaggressions, Microbullying, and Bullying in the Academic Workplace. In this handbook, two leading experts on hierarchical microaggressions – Myron Anderson and Kathryn Young – present in-depth scenarios, strategies, and worksheets for addressing these issues on your campus.

Fix Your Climate book cover

You might also be interested in these recorded webcasts: