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Bosses Get Bullied Too: Exploring Upward Bullying

We explore what we mean by upward bullying; why definitions matter; the risk factors for workplace bullying and are current workplace policies and processes effective. 

Introducing Upward Bullying

Most will be aware academics, government, and industry have long been interested in workplace bullying because of the short and long-term impacts on individuals and organisations. 

  • Firstly, at an individual level, there is increased absenteeism and related mental health issues.
  • Secondly, there is an indirect financial cost at an organisational level, including reduced workplace productivity and performance through stress.
  • Thirdly, a direct financial cost, with targets of workplace bullying more likely to leave an organisation rather than seek a resolution.
  • And finally, it is an organisation’s ethical and moral responsibility to provide a workplace free from harm through intervention and action.

Research into bullying began in 1969 and focused on incidents between pupils in schools, which included violent and non-violent acts such as social isolation. This remained the central area of focus until seminal work carried out by Leymann in the 1980s, who argued bullying could equally occur in the workplace with negative consequences.  Leymann’s research was fundamental in beginning research into the detrimental effects of bullying on employees in the workplace, such as depression, feelings of helplessness and loss of productivity.

Leymann used the term ‘mobbing’ to refer to the phenomenon.  It was not until Andrea Adams and her Radio 4 series, An Abuse of Power, that the term workplace bullying entered the lexicon. Adams’ work focused predominantly on the misuse of legitimate power by managers or supervisors to bully subordinates.

However, research has identified three types of bullying in the workplace:

1. Vertical Downward Bullying

First is the most recognised and reported, Vertical Downward Bullying; when a manager or supervisor bullies a subordinate.  In Downward Bullying we identify the manager as having legitimate power which they can misuse or abuse to undertake the bullying activity.

Since the 1990s, research into workplace bullying has focused on these types of incidents.  This was for good reason; you only need to look at the annual Civil Service People Survey (CSPS) statistics below on workplace bullying and harassment, noting it can take many forms ranging from denial of leave or unreasonable taskings to physical altercations. 

Studies have found this to be the most prevalent, with 41% of Australian public sector workers and 58% of UK civil servants reporting a manager has bullied them in the previous 12 months.  While a large body of research has focused on the public sector, it is worth noting the private sector has yet to be found to be immune.

2. Horizontal Bullying

Secondly is Horizontal Bullying.  This is more recognised in a school or training environment but is the second most reported type of bullying in the workplace – when a peer bullies a peer.  Horizontal bullying or violence is defined as “hostile, aggressive, and harmful behavior … towards a coworker or group … via attitudes, actions, words, and/or other behaviors”.  It is proposed that peer-on-peer bullying doesn’t occur based on the target per se, but rather on what the target represents to the bully, for example, when an individual feels threatened by a high-performing peer.

3. Vertical Upward Bullying

The least recognisable and least reported is Vertical Upward Bullying, when a subordinate bullies a manager or supervisor.  Branch et al. identified, because of the lack of formal power, upward bullies are more likely to use covert methods such as rumour, gossip, and withdrawal of information to create the necessary power imbalance to undertake the bullying.

Previous research has identified gender can play a factor.  For example, some subordinates not recognising the legitimacy of the female boss.  This finding was noted in the 2021 House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) report, where “overt hostility towards, and bullying of, women (often first into post)” was reported by interviewees.

Zapf et al. reviewed the empirical evidence on the prevalence of workplace bullying and the perpetrators.  They found “64.5% were bullied by supervisors, 39.4% were bullied by colleagues, and 9.7% were bullied by subordinates”, leading to the assumption “generally, superiors are seldom bullied by subordinates”.

Since perpetrators of bullying are predominantly assumed to be in a position of power, there appears to be limited support or lack of understanding for managers when they are a target of upwards bullying.  This can result in the “bullies receiving support from higher management” rather than the manager (target), and due to this lack of support, managers are more likely to leave the organisation than reach a resolution. Managers are also less likely to report the bullying as they do not want to be seen as a failure and feel it is a reflection on them.  Research has also found perpetrators of Upward Bullying can and do use the internal grievance system to target their managers.


This short article aims to bring awareness to the phenomenon of Upward Bullying.  It highlighted bullying, in any form, is not just a personal issue but an organisational one.  Noting workplace bullying has both direct costs (replacing personnel) and indirect costs (lower morale, productivity, reputational damage, and decreased operational effectiveness).

However, the costs of bullying go beyond financial considerations and can impact mental health, trust, and result in increased personnel disengagement.  It has been proven at an individual level, it will impact “negatively on the psychology and physical well being of those who have experienced it”, resulting in absenteeism through stress. Therefore, it is an organisation’s ethical and moral responsibility to deal with the issue.

Leaders and managers are responsible for countering all forms of bullying and creating a culture of respect, inclusion, and accountability.  It has been recognised managers are more likely to leave an organisation because of the current lack of recognition of Upward Bullying and limited support available to them.  And sometimes, the current policy and processes protect the subordinate due to an inherent bias assuming the power lies in the legitimate hierarchical structure.  An organisation can only support their managers if they acknowledge there are different types of bullying, including Upward Bullying.  Thus, recognising the differences is the first step in ensuring the right policy and processes are in place to deal with it, no matter what form it takes.

Article written by Sharon Docherty, June 16, 2023 - click here for references. 

Bullying and Sexual Harassment at Work Workshop

In October 2024, the Worker Protection Act comes into force and will oblige employers to take a proactive stance towards tackling sexual harassment in their workplaces. 

This upcoming workshop will help you review and prepare for the October Worker Protection Act and dispel confusion around key legislation regarding employee rights.