NCP Logo

The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971

Dealing with bullying at work: the Norwegian lesson 

Dr. Ståle Einarsen 
Department of Psychosocial Science 
University of Bergen, Norway


This paper presents some general guidelines on how to deal with bullying at work based on research, counselling and third party mitigation in Norway during the 90thies.

First of all, the concept of bullying must be restricted to situations were someone persistently over a period of time are treated in an oppressive, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting manner without being able to counterattack or defend against these actions. Bullying may easily become a misused and inflated concept.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that bullying is a set of interrelated phenomenon where the behaviour as exhibited by the offender and the behaviour as perceived by the victim may not be identical. Thirdly, blaming it all on the personality of the bully or the victim is a dead-end-street. Harassment will not prevail if not permitted or supported by the corporate culture and/or the management. We may all find ourselves in the position of a bully or a victim if the right circumstances arises. Although the behaviour involved may be identical, bullying may have very different aetiology, being either dispute-related or predatory. To help and support a victim may be both demanding and difficult. Some guidelines are given that my ease these efforts. 


Since the early 1970s, bully/victims problems in Norwegian schools have received substantially interested both by the public and by researchers. Following the Norwegian Work Environment Act of 1977 which secures the rights of employees to remain mentally healthy during work and which places a high value on the psychological aspects of the work situation, focus was set on a seemingly parallel phenomena in the workplace, in Norway called "mobbing at the workplace".

The first documentation using a nation-wide sample showed that some 17% had observed others being bullied at their present work-site. Some 5% of the Norwegian Working population are at any point in time exposed to ongoing bullying at work (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996). Although a great concern was expressed during the late 80thies, the issue was still a taboo.

Prominent Labour Union officials claimed bullying to be our most severe work environment problem, causing much dispute and anxiety among employees and employers alike. However, during the 90thies the issue became less of an taboo and organisations started dealing more constructively with this problem. Currently, bullying is accepted as a potential problem in most organisations and included in work environment policies and procedures. Bullying also became an issue in the revised Norwegian Work Environment Act in 1993. The present paper presents some general guidelines on how to handle bullying at work based on our research and experiences from consulting and counselling in cases of bullying during the last 8 years (see also Einarsen et al, 1994; Einarsen, 1998)

What is bullying at work? 

Following Hadjifotiou (1983) we may define bullying as all those repeated actions and practices that are directed to one or more workers, which are unwanted by the victim, which may be done deliberate or unconsciously, but do cause humiliation, offence and distress, and that may interfere with job performance and/or cause an unpleasant working environment. Among 137 Norwegian victims of bullying and harassment at work, social isolation and exclusion, devaluation's of ones work and efforts, and exposure to teasing, insulting remarks and ridicule, were the most commonly negative acts, as reported by the victims (Einarsen et al., 1994).

The concept of bullying must however not be used on all kinds of annoyances experienced in organisations. Bullying at work is long term aggression, be it physical or non-physical, directed towards a person who is not able to defend himself in the actual situation, leading to victimisation of this person Although there may be many unpleasant experiences in need of our attention and a need of a label that may cause such attention, we must defer bullying from becoming a popular but misused concept.

In Norway, bullying (or mobbing as we use as our term) being a very popular term, almost lost a lot of its meaning (Munthe, 1989). During the 80thies it seemed to be used about almost everything and even in a very joking way, resulting in a situation were bullying was seen as something rather minor to be easily accepted and tolerated. If someone resented bullying and reported to be seriously hurt, they were seen as neurotic and hypersensitive persons, and were most likely to be blamed themselves for their misfortune. 

More than one phenomena

When discussing bullying we are really talking about a host of different situations and context where aggressive behaviour occur. First of all, bullying may either be dispute-related or predatory, although mixed cases may exist. Predatory bullying are cases were the victim has personally done nothing provocative that may reasonably justify the behaviour of the bully. In such cases the victim are accidentally in a situation where a predator are demonstrating power or the victim may be attacked because he or she belongs to a certain out-group, for instance by being the first women in a local police force.

The victim may even be bullied by being an easy target of frustration and stress caused by other factors. Examples of predatory bullying is destructive leadership, scapegoating processes and acting out prejudice. Dispute related bullying occurs as a result of an highly escalated interpersonal conflict and may be of three kinds, aggressive behaviours used as tactics in an interpersonal conflict, malingering as a tactic, and resentment to perceived wrong-doing or unfair treatment by ones opponent. Although interpersonal struggles and conflicts are a natural part of all human interaction and must not be considered bullying, there may be a thin line between the fights between two parties in an interpersonal conflict and the aggressive behaviour used in bullying. In some instances, the social climate at work turns more than sour and creates conflicts that may escalate into harsh personified conflicts and even office wars, where the total destruction of the opponent is seen as the ultimate goal to be gained by the parties (Einarsen, et al., 1994).

In such highly escalated conflicts both parties may deny the opponent's human value, thus clearing the way for manipulation, retaliation, elimination and destruction. If one of the parties acquires a disadvantaged position in this struggle, he or she may of course become the victim of harassment. Interpersonal conflicts where the identity of the parties are at stake - for instance when one of the parties attacks or denies the other's self-image - are often characterized by intense emotional involvement. The latter includes feelings of being insulted, of fear, suspicion, resentment, contempt, anger and so forth. In such cases people may subject each other to bullying behaviour or resent the behaviour of their opponent to a degree where they feel harassed and victimised. It may also be true that claiming to be a victim of bullying may be an very effective strategy in interpersonal conflicts, in some cases even used by both parties. In highly intense interpersonal conflicts, aggressive outlets may come from both parties, making the situation rather complex. 

Subjectively or objectively defined?

When first learning about the treatment experienced by a victim, one may be quite certain that this is a clear-cut bullying case and most likely of a predatory kind. When starting to interview the alleged offenders or even colleagues observing this situation, you may get quite a different picture, especially if the bullying in fact is dispute related.

Who to believe?

First of all, we must acknowledge that the meaning assigned to an particular episode will differ, depending on both the persons and the circumstances involved. Employees are probably not equally vulnerable or resilient to work harassment. Personality factors such as self-esteem and self-efficacy, personal factors such as gender and age, as well as the social circumstances of the victim (for instance your position at work, being the only women among men, being foreign and so on) will make the individual more or less able to cope and defend.

Studies of sexual harassment have shown that an incidence considered mildly offensive by one individual might be seen as serious enough to warrant a formal complaint by others. Brodsky (1976) makes a distinction between subjective and objective harassment. "Subjective harassment" refers to the awareness of harassment by the victim and "objective harassment" to a situation where actual external evidence of harassment is found. As evidence of objective harassment, statements from coworkers, employers or independent observers may be used. Yet, it may not be the nature of the harassing conduct in itself that makes the victim suffer. The frequency of the acts, situation factors relating to power differences or inescapable interactions, or the victim's attributions about the offender's intentions may cause as much anxiety, misery and suffering as does the actual conduct involved. 

Relying to heavily on bullying as an objective phenomenon may also be difficult due to the bullying process and its effect on the victims. In fact, bullying seems not to be an either-or phenomenon, but a gradually evolving process (Einarsen et al, 1994). During the early phases of the bullying, victims are typically subjected to aggressive behaviour that are difficult to pinpoint by being very indirect and discrete. Later on more direct aggressive acts appear.

The victims are clearly isolated and avoided, humiliated in public by being a laughing-stock of the department, and so on. In the end both physical and psychological means of violence may be used. Victims of long lasting harassment are also attacked more frequently than victims with a shorter history as victims (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996). In the long run bullying seems to place a stigma on the victim which may make the organisation treat the victim as the problem. It is typical that upper management, union representatives, or personnel administration accept the prejudices produced by the offenders, thus blaming the victim for its misfortune.

Third-parties or managers may see the situation as a no more than fair treatment of a difficult and neurotic person (Einarsen, et al., 1994; Leymann, 1990). The history of the war is always written by the victor. Conclusion: Lack of clear objective evidence does not necessarily imply that the victim is malingering. The story told by the victim should be considered as a description of a very real pain suffered by the victim and an expression of how the victim perceives his or her interaction with significant others in the workplace. When conducting internal investigations or if the victim is advised to make a formal compliant, one must also provide objective information. Yet, the core issue is not whether someone bullied or not, but whether it may be reasonable that a person being in the position of this particular victim may have felt bullied. 

Causes of bullying at work?

Why is bullying taking place? A rather popular view is that this kind of anti-social behaviour are deeply rooted within the personality structure of the office bully. From two decades of research on bullying among school children, Olweus (1991) concludes that bullies are self-confident, impulsive and aggressive.

Self-reported bullies at work describe themselves as rather aggressive persons with a low self-esteem (Einarsen, 1998). Yet, a distressed victim may have violated expectations, annoyed others, performed less competently, and even violated social norms describing polite interactions and hence provoked aggressive behaviours in others (Einarsen, Raknes & Matthiesen, 1994).

In research among children, a small group of victims were characterised as "provocative" victims (Olweus, 1991). Such victims were found to be both anxious and aggressive, and were experienced by most other pupils as annoying. On the other hand, highly aggressive persons may more easily exert aggressive behaviour when being in a conflict situation or when operating within an aggressive or permissive corporate culture. Brodsky (1976), who studied some 1000 cases of work harassment in the U.S. concluded that for harassment to occur the harassment elements must exist within a culture that permits or even rewards such kinds of behaviour.

Even further, bullying will only take place if the offender feels he has the blessing, support, or at least the implicit permission by his superiors to behave in this manner. If not being permitted or supported by the people in power, a bully knows he may find himself the victim of aggressive counterattacks and severe punishment.

In some organisations, harassment may even be institutionalised as a part of the leadership and managerial practice. Authoritarian leadership styles are still highly valued in many companies. Many male dominated organisations such as the police force or factories are characterised by a shop floor culture where rather extreme hazing rituals are used to test newcomers.

Likewise, continuous teasing and ridicule prevail which may be difficult to cope with, especially if the work group climate is characterised by "humour going sour" (Brodsky, 1976). Blaming it all on the "psychopaths at work" or the "neurotic" victims are therefor in most cases a too simplistic solution to the problem of why bullying take place.

Based on case studies, Leymann (1990) claims that four factors are prominent in eliciting harassment at work: (1) deficiencies in work design, (2) deficiencies in leadership behaviour, (3) a socially exposed position of the victim, and (3) a low moral standard in the department. Some of our own studies (Einarsen, Raknes & Matthiesen,1994; Einarsen & Raknes, 1997) showed work places plagued with bullying to be characterised by high levels of role conflict and employees that were dissatisfied with their social climate, their superiors leadership behaviour, the possibility of self monitoring ones work, and a lack of stimulating and challenging tasks.

The tension, stress and frustration caused by a job situation characterised by high role conflict, lack of self monitoring possibilities and poor performing supervisors, may in itself be perceived as harassment when attributed to hostile intentions (Brodsky, 1976).

Role-conflict and lack of work control may also be related to bullying and harassment through its creation of elevated tension, stress and frustration in the work group. A high degree of ambiguity or incompatible demands and expectations around roles, tasks and responsibilities may have created a high degree of frustration and conflicts within the work group, especially in connection to rights, obligations, privileges and positions.

This situation may then act as a precursor of conflict, poor inter-worker relationships and a need for a suitable scapegoat. An employee low on social status and power may in such an situation be the subject of stigmatising actions by colleagues or shop-floor management, which again may make the victims constantly less able to cope with his or her daily work and thus becoming continually more vulnerable and "a deserving target". Hence, frustration in the workplace may lead to bullying, especially if there are few anti-aggressive elements in the work-culture or among managers and supervisors.

Conclusions - guidelines for third-party intervention

In addition to the above issues some general guidelines should be followed when dealing with bullying at work (see also Orton, 1982; Einarsen et al., 1994). First of all we must accept the principle that the bullying, or whatever the victim perceives as unwanted behaviour, must stop. Communicate this message clearly throughout the organisation and to the parties involved in a particular case. When first addressing a case, preserve a basic nun-punitive attitude towards the alleged tormentors.

You are not on a crusade against all evil, you are there to stop an unwanted behaviour and to restore a fair working climate. Interviews and discussions with offenders must therefor have the basic approach of an impartial investigation. Go for practical solutions when they arise, do not keep on searching for the truth. If the bullying is dispute related it may be much more easy to find realistic ideas for change than the absolute truth of what really happened.

Dwell with the past long enough for the parties to be able to tell their story, not a moment longer. Most people, even the bullies, have a general attitude against bullying. Raising the awareness of the problem through information, training programs and so on, will quite likely help to reduce the problem, and it will make it easier to address the bullies in particular case.

A non-punitive atmosphere will more easily reach these anti-bullying attitudes in the bullies. On the other hand, we must be prepared to teach the bullies basic social norms. Some may even need coaching, guidance or special training programs. Communicate clearly what the organisation sees as unwanted behaviour, both to offenders in each case and to all employees in general.

Victims of bullying are by definition in a difficult situation and a weak position. Be prepared to protect the victim from further stigmatisation and retaliation and be aware that measures may be taken to prevent the situation from getting even worse. You must also be prepared of the possibility that the victim shows a disturbed behaviour. Some victims have been provocative in the first place, others are highly depressed and distressed. The latter will of course affect their behaviour.

They may be very demanding, in need of your full attention and support, and they are highly sensitive to any sign of mistrust or disbelief. Some victims will be in need of professional support and help, psychological and sometimes medical. There may even be a need for a rehabilitation program to secure the reintegration of the victim into the work group and into productive work. 

Although the principles above relate both to prevention strategies and management of individual cases, do not use individual cases to raise awareness about bullying en general.

Single cases should be settled with the involved parties alone, do not create public trials. Prevention programs must be implemented independently including general efforts to improve leadership, organisational climate and working conditions, the development and communication of an organisational policy against bullying, as well as training programs for managers, supervisors and human resource management.

Brodsky, C.M. (1976). The harassed worker. Toronto: Lexington Books, DC Heath and Company.

Hadjifotiou, H. (1983). Women and harassment at work. London: Pluto Press

Einarsen, S. (1988). Bullying and harassment at work: the Scandinavian approach.

Aggressive and Violent Behavior: A review journal, In press. 

Einarsen, S. & Raknes, B.I. (1997). Harassment at work and the victimization of men.

Violence and Victims, 12, 247-263.

Einarsen, S., Raknes, B.I. & Matthiesen, S.M. (1994). Bullying and harassment at work and their relationships to work environment quality - an exploratory study. The European Work and Organizational Psychologist, 4, 381-401. 

Einarsen, S., Raknes, B.I., Matthiesen, S.B. & Hellesöy O.H. (1994). Mobbing og harde personkonflikter. Helsefarlig samspill på arbeidsplassen (Bullying and personified conflicts. Health endangering interaction at work. Bergen, Norway: Sigma Forlag.

Einarsen, S. & Skogstad, A. (1996). Bullying at work: epidemiological findings in public and private organizations. European Work and Organizational Psychologist, 5, 2, 185-201.

Leymann, H. (1990). Mobbing and psychological terror at workplaces. Violence and victims, 5, 119-126.

Munthe, E. (1989). Bullying in Scandinaiva. In E. Roland & E. Munthe (Eds): Bullying an international perspective. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Olweus, D. (1991). Bully/victim problems among schoolchildren: Basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program. In K. Rubin & D. Pepler (Eds.), The development and treatment of children aggression (pp. 411-448). Hillsdale: New Jersey, Erlbaum.

Orton, W.T. (1982). "Mobbing". Publ.Hlth. Lond, 96, 172-174


Article Menu - Members Directory - Navigation Page - Home