Published: March 18, 2013

Late in February 2013, Staff Council, the CU-Boulder Ombuds Office and the CU Women Succeeding Symposium partnered to bring an internationally recognized scholar on workplace bullying to our campus. A diverse mix of campus staff that included supervisors, staff and HR representatives attended Dr. Loraleigh Keashly’s two workshops on Developing Peer Strategies for Addressing Workplace Bullying. All were seeking information about a topic many of us thought we had left behind on elementary playground: bullying.

What is bullying? Dr. Keashly’s research shows that for a behavior to rise to the level of workplace bullying, it must be all of the following: Persistent, patterned with micro-aggressions and micro-inequities, unwelcomed and unsolicited by the person targeted, violating standards of appropriate conduct towards others and intended to harm the victim. A single incident, although hurtful, does not rise to the level of bullying. Legitimate, constructive, and fair criticism of work performance and the exercise of freedom of thought and inquiry - as long as the recipient is treated with respect and dignity - are also not considered bullying.

How pervasive is workplace bullying? Dr. Keashly’s research shows that 13-30% have experienced bullying and that 40-50% of workers have either witnessed or have been confided to regarding a bullying incident. Interestingly, academic environments are at the higher end of those two ranges.

Who is doing the bullying? For female targets of bullying, the most common type involves peer-to-peer with female supervisors being slightly less likely than males to bully. For male targets, the most common relationship is the supervisory one with males being less likely to bully a peer. Faculty are twice as likely to have more than three colleagues gang up on another faculty member; staff are more likely to have a single perpetrator.

After the workshop, when one of the attendees was asked how he would define bullying, he replied, “One of the challenges in addressing the issue of bullying is coming to a consensus on a working definition of the term. Very few entities have a legal definition of bullying. Accordingly, the CU-Boulder campus does not have a policy specific to ‘bullying;’ however, the campus takes seriously, and regularly addresses, the types of inappropriate behaviors that constitute bullying, when those behaviors are properly reported.”

When a person experiences or witnesses a bullying incident, he or she quickly decides five things:

  1. Is this negative or hostile behavior?
  2. Is this incident egregious enough for me to act?
  3. Is it my responsibility to confront this behavior?
  4. How should I confront the bullying actor?
  5. Taking action.

The good news is that peer action against bullying works. Staff who witness bullying and then acknowledge it to either the targeted person, the bully, or when necessary report it to the most appropriate authority are believed. Peers of bullying targets who refuse to echo inappropriate comments or join in on hostile behavior can quickly signal to the bully that such behavior is not tolerated within the department.

Many employees view taking action as a risky, all-or-nothing confrontation with the person doing the bullying. Dr. Keashly provided a matrix of actions that people can take depicting low risk-low involvement vs. high risk-high involvement options. A low-risk option is to wait for an opportunity to meet with the targeted person to acknowledge that you saw what happened and that you felt it was inappropriate. Sometimes, that validation is all the person being targeted needs to address the situation. Dr. Keashly’s research shows that witnesses are believed by the targeted person (i.e. they are not just imagining it) and supervisors; even the bullying person can see his or her actions in a different light.

Dr. Keashly also identified the scope of bullying and its cost to an organization. Within the U.S., targets of bullying encounter it over a 16.5 month duration period, on average. She also noted that university studies have shown that 35% of employees identifying as being bullied reported a duration period of more than three years. The longer it goes on, the more likely others will be drawn into the situation, undermining department morale and productivity. Long-term targets tend to take more sick time as the stress mounts. Many leave, some stay but ‘check out’ after being worn down by the situation.

Dr. Keashly asked attendees at the beginning and the end of the workshop whether or not they felt comfortable acting on a bullying incident. Most scored their comfort level higher at the end of the workshop, as a result of the tools she provided. These tools, as well as a video of one of the sessions, will be on the Ombuds, Human Resources and Staff Council websites. If they have not been posted by the end of March, please contact and they will be forwarded to you. If you have a bullying situation needing immediate resolution, please contact Human Resource’s Office of Labor Relations at 303-492-0956.

Submitted by Boulder Campus Staff Council