When we think of the word bully, do we automatically envision a student in our schools? What if the bully is actually an adult? An online survey was completed by 324 Michigan K-12 educators and staff from over 100 school districts and public school academies throughout the state. In it, over 27% of respondents indicated they felt bullied in their K-12 workplace by another adult during the first seven months of the school year. Also, 41% indicated one or more adults in their buildings were being bullied by another adult.

Is adult-on-adult bullying in the workplace happening in your district? What does a school leader do with that information? First, a little background.

While most states have anti-bullying legislation and require school districts to approve policies to protect students, legislation and policies to protect the adult workers in K-12 from bullying are almost non-existent. School district workplace policies may include language regarding harassment. However, the legal definition of harassment indicates protection for a particular class of persons, such as by gender, race, or age, but does not include language about bullying among adults. Bullying is not illegal, but what should a school district do to provide a safe place in which to work and learn and model appropriate interpersonal relationships for students?

Definition and background

Definitions of adult bullying vary, but a summary can describe it as the repeated and persistent nonphysical mistreatment of a person. That mistreatment includes verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, attempts to frustrate or wear down, humiliate, pressure, and provoke that threatens the psychological integrity, career, safety, and health of the target of bullying.

Since beginning in the 1980s, research studies in businesses, organizations, health care, and higher education have discovered that up to a third of the United States workforce experience bullying by another adult in their workplace. This adult bullying can occur on a daily basis or happen infrequently. To find out if adult bullying was occurring in the K-12 workplace, a questionnaire asking recipients to respond to a school climate survey was emailed to over 2,400 professional and non-professional staff in school districts of various sizes and locations in Michigan. Survey questions, referring to various negative acts (based on the Negative Acts Questionnaire-Revised) that could occur in their K-12 workplace, asked, without mentioning the word bullying until after these questions, if the respondent had experienced a particular negative act, and if so, how often. Those negative acts can be broken into three categories:

Workplace Intimidation
– Those negative acts affecting your job such as someone withholding information that affects your performance, being ordered to do work below your level of competence, having key areas of responsibility removed or replaced with more trivial or unpleasant tasks, having your opinions ignored, being given tasks with unreasonable deadlines, excessive monitoring of your work, persistent criticism of your work or work-effort, pressure not to claim something to which by right you are entitled such as expenses or leave time, and being exposed to an unmanageable workload.

Emotional Intimidation – Those negative acts affecting your working relationships and emotions such as being humiliated or ridiculed in connection with your work, others spreading gossip and rumors about you, being ignored or excluded, having insulting or offensive remarks made about your person or your private life, hints or signals from others that you should quit your job, repeated reminders of your errors or mistakes, being ignored or facing a hostile reaction when you approach, practical jokes carried out by people you don't get along with, having allegations made against you, and being the subject of excessive teasing and sarcasm.

Physical Intimidation – Those negative acts affecting your physical safety such as being shouted at or being the target of spontaneous anger; intimidating behaviors such as finger-pointing, invasion of personal space, shoving, blocking your way; and threats of violence or physical abuse, or actual abuse.

What we found

School leaders, school board members, and K-12 educators and staff each have roles in developing policies, training, preventing, and resolving student bullying incidents in schools that would lead us to anticipate that the adults themselves would not experience bullying in their workplace. However, our recent research has shown that adult bullying in schools occurs at a similar frequency level and in similar ways as those in other types of workplaces. Results showed that:

  • 27.8% of respondents felt bullied by another adult in their K-12 workplace.
  • 41% were aware that one or more adults in their building was being bullied.
  • Adult bullying in the K-12 workplace occurred at equivalent rates as student bullying.
  • 32.7% of bullying was by an administrator or supervisor.
  • 27.8% of bullying was by a same level colleague.
  • 74.1% reported being bullied by the same gender as themselves.
  • Neither age nor education level of target had a significant effect on adult bullying rates.
  • Longevity in profession or within a school building did not affect adult bullying rates.
  • Grade level (elementary, middle, or high school) or type (alternative, vocational, traditional, central office) of school did not affect adult bullying rates.
  • Neither school size or rural, suburban, or urban location affected adult bullying rates.
  • Incidences of adult bullying were reported in 73.8% of situations (to administration, human resources dept., union, board).
  • 65.1% indicated their school district never addressed the problem of adult bullying in any way.
  • 18.6% of targets of bullying were reprimanded, disciplined, experienced retaliation, or moved to another building after reporting bullying incidents.
  • In only 18.2% of reported incidents did adult bullying stop or the bully was disciplined or fired.
  • Union membership did not have a significant effect on adult bullying rates or outcome of bullying.
  • There were no witnesses or witnesses did nothing in 45.8% of adult bullying incidents.
  • 28.5% of witnesses were upset or stressed by the adult bullying incident.
  • Targets of bullying experienced health problems, stress, humiliation, job absences, and expressed thoughts of leaving the K-12 education profession.

Next steps for school leaders

What steps can a school leader take to make the K-12 workplace safe for all adults, model appropriate behavior for students, and recognize the costs incurred through workplace bullying?

1.  Recognize that adult bullying is most likely happening in your district. You may not see it, or personally experience it, but it is there.

2.  Develop and approve an adult bullying policy and procedures to address all bullying incidents. Work with legal counsel and your human resources department to develop a policy that is specific, enforceable, and enhances your school climate. Be clear and give examples of unacceptable behavior, and outline steps that will be taken if adult bullying occurs. Clarify the difference between harassment of legally protected classes and adult bullying, and combine and differentiate with your harassment and anti-violence policies.

3.  Implement policy and provide training for administrators, teachers, and all building and support personnel. All K-12 personnel need to be aware of the policy and the procedures for recognizing, reporting, and enforcing the policy. State the district's position on adult bullying and emphasize action that could be taken if adult bullying is identified.

4.  Provide a safe, non-threatening process for reporting adult bullying. Make sure the reporting process is easily accessible by the target, private, safe, and documented.

5.  Acknowledge and investigate all reported incidents of adult bullying. Every report of adult bullying needs to be acknowledged and investigated. Conduct third-party investigations or have a third-party witness at the meeting with the accused bully to remove personal relationship bias and prevent favoritism, and document all verbal denials or admissions. Interview witnesses to the incidents and document their accounts. Follow legal advice for documenting the investigation.

6.  Set a timeline and limit for investigation and resolution. Schedule the investigation, interviews, resolution, and deadline for appeal in a timely manner.

7.  Demonstrate respect and privacy for all involved in reported incidents. Those reporting adult bullying incidents deserve respect and the right to privacy. Remember, it is not their fault they have to report bullying.

8.  Protect the target. Don't forget to protect the target from retaliation for reporting suspected incidents, and work with them to monitor future workplace relationships. Don't victimize the target a second time. Provide access to counseling. Adult bullying is not about performance but relationships.

9.  Do not force mediation. Do not require the target to be in proximity with their abuser. Use conflict resolution procedures that ensure physical and emotional safety. Look for options for resolution that fit the circumstances.

10. Follow investigation with discipline as needed, or dismissal of charges to clear record. Complete the investigation and, if needed, discipline the bully, work on a plan of assistance, provide coaching or counseling, or release the employee. If the accusation is invalid, clear the record.

11. Provide written reports to the person reporting the incident and to the person accused of bullying. Document the investigation and provide a copy of the resolution to the target and the bully. Follow legal requirements for FOIA and document retention.

12. Observe workplace reaction to the incident and provide information as legally allowed. Others in the workplace may be involved or aware of the bullying incident. Inform those involved of resolution and follow-up to get the pulse of school climate and workplace relationships.

13. Consistently follow policy and review procedures for effectiveness. After incident resolutions, revisit the policy and procedures used to prevent, report, and resolve adult bullying and adjust as needed.

14. Recognize budget implications of adult bullying. If allowed to continue, adult bullying will increase employee absenteeism, the need for worker replacements as employees leave, and cause health insurance cost increases due to stress-related illnesses in both the target and witnesses.

15. Recognize the long-term effects of adult bullying on school climate, student bullying, community relations. Adult bullying affects working relationships and workplace climate. Stop the cycle of bullying. School leaders influence school workplace climate. When the workplace is unsafe, and workers are stressed, student behavior issues may increase, the learning environment suffers, and school-community relations become strained.

Adult bullying in the K-12 workplace occurs with an emotional, financial, health, and career toll on the target. It impacts the bully, witnesses, the school, and, ultimately, the students. Do not ignore the problem. As one target commented, "I am considering leaving the profession because treatment like this is not right and not helpful in our main purpose of providing an education to our students."

We must be proactive and work to prevent, stop, and eliminate all bullying, both adult and student, by recognizing that bullying exists in the workplace. We need to create and enforce anti-bullying policies, provide training for prevention of and resolving bullying, and identify best practices to ameliorate situations that allow for adult bullying. We also need to create safe and non-retaliatory methods for targets to report bullying, using conflict resolution options or mediating bullying incidents and providing avenues to a positive resolution. Furthermore, it’s important to discipline bullies, provide options for targets to recover from bullying, and, most importantly, provide all a safe, non-threatening place to work and learn.

Cynthia J. Kleinheksel is a K-12 educator in Holland, Michigan. Richard T. Geisel is a professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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