School of Business and Economics

Inspire magazine Home View all articles Past issues

Workplace BullyingDrawing Together Expertise to Develop Effective Interventions

The recent Cox Report into Bullying and Harassment of House of Commons Staff and the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement provide concern and comfort in equal measure...

Concern, that in the world today there is still a pressing need for such investigations and movements. Comfort, that individuals are raising awareness of this phenomenon as well as identifying pathways to reducing the extent of negative behaviour in society.

Societal norms create a climate within which an organisation’s culture resides, and therefore norms and values implicitly promoting unacceptable interpersonal behaviour are likely to be modelled by individuals and acted out at work.

The current societal drive to highlight injustices in behaviour and promote an altogether more acceptable model for human actions provides a strong context for us to reflect on progress made within reducing workplace bullying.

Need for More Research

It may well come as a surprise to many people then that in research and practice, high-quality evidence on the development and evaluation of bullying interventions is limited at best.

Examples of preventative approaches exist, but these are either espoused, not directly evaluated or, where evaluations exist, data is limited in providing definitive answers to the success of an approach.

It seems an organisational default position is to generate a policy and assume this is sufficient to address a complex, socially oriented and dynamic phenomenon. This is all the more concerning when one considers the ever-increasing knowledge and understanding we are exposed to on this topic.

The research base on bullying at work, while still plagued with debates around conceptualising and measuring bullying, has matured into one where genuine insights into antecedents, mediators, moderators and outcomes are offered.

"Leadership styles influence the extent of bullying at work with autocratic and aggressive management styles correlating with bullying behaviour."

Arguably, it is now time for organisations and institutions across the sectors to collaborate, use existing knowledge and experiences to develop and evaluate more robust, evidence-based bullying interventions.

With this need in mind, working with Dr Christine Sprigg and Dr Sarah Brooks (University of Sheffield Management School) and Dr Sam Farley (Leeds University Business School), we have established the Dignity and Respect at Work Intervention Group, or DRAWING.

DRAWING is a collaborative network comprising representatives from academia, practice, professional bodies, unions, charities, NGOs and private sector organisations who are tasked with sharing expertise and knowledge to help generate and evaluate a set of practical and evidence-based interventions for workplace bullying.

Areas of Focus

The network is in its early days, but there are four areas we are focusing on to help drive effective bullying at work interventions.


Organisational explanations for workplace bullying dominate the extant literature, stating that the work environment fosters a culture in which bullying and harassment can emerge. Antecedents within this perspective include strained and stressful environments, politically motivated work culture, role ambiguity, role conflict and organisational change.

The lens within which these antecedents are viewed is a stress one, promoting the idea that the stress and strain ‘caused’ by role conflict, organisational change and more, results in individuals experiencing or engaging in bullying at work.

One practical example of applying the work environment hypothesis to interventions is with the development of risk assessment tools. These tools aim to help organisations assess the level of risk for bullying which they can then use to help drive through risk-reduction interventions.

For example, Hoel and Giga (2006) developed the Bullying Risk Assessment Tool (BRAT) to assess individual experiences of factors related to organisational fairness, team conflict, role conflict, workload and leadership. Initial evidence within a UK study suggested some support for this tool in relating to experiences of workplace bullying.

One of the objectives of the DRAWING team is to provide organisations with an early approach to preventing bullying within the workplace.


Another perspective views bullying as a form of conflict escalation. Here, the bullying antecedents highlighted previously are seen as a catalyst for conflict to emerge. Therefore, early adoption of conflict management strategies should prevent conflict from reaching the destructive levels of bullying. Where perceived conflicts are handled well, bullying levels seem to be evident.

Members of DRAWING are looking at the methods and approaches used within conflict management research and practice to develop organisational, group and individual level approaches to managing conflict to prevent it escalating into bullying.


The role of the leader within workplace bullying is central to ensuring that practices are embedded within the culture and functioning of an organisation or group. The leader provides a role model that influences and guides the behaviour of other employees. Research points to leadership styles influencing the extent of bullying at work with autocratic and aggressive management styles correlating with bullying behaviour.

Additionally, evidence suggests that a laissez-faire approach to leadership can also promote bullying behaviour, through the leader’s inaction in dealing with bullying as it arises.

Here, DRAWING members are exploring which effective leadership styles and competencies are needed to manage and prevent workplace bullying. The aim is to then develop training packages to help foster and develop these competencies.


Bystanders are employees who witness bullying but are not involved directly as either a bully or target. They are however a very important (and often neglected) group, as they are likely to represent the largest number of people negatively impacted by ongoing workplace bullying.

Bystanders can play an active role in discouraging or escalating bullying through supporting the target of aggression, speaking up on their behalf or through active/passive support for the perpetrator’s actions.

In DRAWING, we are considering how organisations can foster a safe environment in which bystanders can voice their concerns over witnessed bullying behaviour and how to develop bystander training which stimulates positive bystander actions when witnessing bullying towards another person.

What Lies Ahead

The challenge for the DRAWING network is not only to develop practical and evidence-based interventions, but to establish appropriate metrics on which to evaluate the usefulness of these interventions.

Ultimately, effective organisational actions should help to establish cultural change which not only benefits employees within the organisation, but also society as a whole.

Share this page

About the author: Iain Coyne

Iain Coyne is Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology and Deputy Director of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Society. Iain can be reached on

Iain Coyne