Gary Namie, PhD, Workplace Bullying Institute

Since 2007, the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) has run a national scientific survey assessing the prevalence and nature of abusive conduct, the construct used in the survey. The late January 2021 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey was WBI’s fifth national survey.

The empirical study of workplace bullying has grown steadily since the pioneering work of Heinz Leymann in Sweden (Leymann, 1990). Research is now global. Sprinkled throughout the literature are examples of national scientific surveys in various countries such as Britain (Fevre, et al., 2011) and Ireland (Hogan, et al., 2019).

The American advocacy agency, WBI, added to its research portfolio of self-selected sample surveys of targeted people the national surveys with representative samples beginning in 2007.

The prevalence survey simultaneously gauges American changes in the rate of abusive workplace conduct over time and offers a standard to which prevalence assessed within organizations can be compared. The WBI Survey national statistic about workplace bullying is the most cited in popular news media outlets.

Zogby Analytics, a public opinion research organization, conducted the online survey of 1,215 adults in the U.S. during the period of Jan. 23-25, 2021. Thousands of adults were randomly invited to participate in this interactive survey. Each invitation was password coded and secure so that one respondent could only access the survey one time.

Using information based on census data, voter registration figures, CIA fact books and exit polls, Zogby used complex weighting techniques to best represent the demographics of the population being surveyed. Weighted variables included age, race, gender, region, party, education, and religion. Based on a confidence interval of 95%, the margin of error for 1,215 is +/- 2.8 percentage points.

In addition to reporting survey results from the 1,215 person sample, Zogby provided to WBI the survey response results for only Employed (or temporarily unemployed) respondents (n=787).

Wording of the key question: “At work, what has been your personal experience with the following types of repeated mistreatment: abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage or verbal abuse?” [Note: the term “workplace bullying” did not appear in the survey.]

The percentage of adult Americans who claim to direct experience with abusive conduct totaled 30% (13% current + 17% past (>1 year ago)). Another 19% witnessed it, thus 49% of adult Americans were “affected” by severe mistreatment at work, summing the direct and vicarious experience rates.

By applying the 49% rate to the size of the labor force in Dec. 2020, we arrive at an estimate that 79,287,984 workers are affected by abusive conduct at work.

As mentioned before, we also had a subset of Employed-only respondents. Their rates of direct experience were 19% (current) and 20% past, totaling 39%, a full 30% higher than the rate estimated by the general public.

A third of respondents chose to work remotely. When personal experience was crossed with work location, we found that remote workers were mistreated at a 43.2% rate, higher than either the national rate (30%) or the rate for employed respondents (39%). One-quarter of respondents believed COVID was to blame for increasing harmful mistreatment.

Other key results:
– 67% of perpetrators are male, selecting female targets in 42% of cases; whereas women perpetrators select female targets in 65% of cases
– 61% of cases involve perpetrator and target of same gender, vexing legal resolution
– 65% of perpetrators hold higher rank, 21% same rank, 14% lower rank
– 40% of targeted individuals are managers
– 48% of respondents reported organizational culture factors are responsible for abuse
– 63% of employer reactions worsened the problem
– Targeted employees have a 67% chance of losing their jobs simply because they were targeted
– 90% of respondents support the enactment of a new law supplementing nondiscrimination laws

The 2021 results can be compared to 2017 survey data. The two surveys coincided with the beginning and ending of the Trump administration, an accidental timing. The prevalence rate jumped from 19% to 30% in that time. And 58% of respondents reported that politicians modeling public disrespect encourages perpetrators and rule-breaking at work.

In 2021, 4% of respondents admitted being perpetrators, an estimated 6.5 million Americans. The rate exceeded all past self-report rates. Perhaps the mainstreaming of workplace bullying has a disinhibiting effect on aggressors.

While #MeToo raises alarm over workplace sexual harassment, both employment law and public attention ignore the epidemic rate of workplace bullying. Research shows that bullying is more health-harming than sexual harassment. All other forms of interpersonal abuse have been made illegal, stigmatized or demonized — made taboo. Work abuse alone is not taboo. Rather, it remains a widely accepted normative practice within organizations.

Only enactment of anti-bullying legislation in the U.S. (survey shows support crossing ideological lines) can compel employers to prevent and correct it.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, COVID-19, Submission does not consider occupation or industry, Workplace Mistreatment and Threats, Workplace Mistreatment; Threats; and Violence