Turning the tables: the growth of upward bullying in nursing academia


Bullying in the workplace has become a major problem. The subsequent international trend to impose legislation around workplace bullying has led to a significant increase in bullying claims. The intention of such legislation is positive, yet some of these claims can be destructive, particularly when bullying allegations arise from situations where managers are trying to ensure that employees handle reasonable workloads efficiently and effectively. Some employees seek union and human resources support to deal with the apparently ‘errant’ manager. Pity the poor manager, who is merely trying to have people undertake the work they have been employed for, and for which they receive good compensation.

We are not saying that real instances of workplace bullying by managers do not occur; of course, they do. We are saying that the misuse of organizational policies around bullying contributes to the little-known phenomenon of ‘upward bullying’, where subordinates are supported in a dysfunctional and time-consuming process of bullying their managers.

A decade or so ago, the word ‘bully’ conjured up images of a schoolyard tyrant demanding lunch money from the meek. Lately, it seems that we hear the word used daily, with the terms ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ applied to the workplace as well as the school playground. Workplace bullying is commonly defined as ‘repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees’, which can take many forms and manifest in various ways, including harassment and discrimination (ACTU 2009). It seems that the workplace has become so demanding, with increased workloads and time and financial pressures, that it often breeds a toxic culture. Coupled with this, hierarchical structures that characterize many contemporary organizations set up power differentials that can promote unacceptable and dysfunctional behaviour. Some authors (Hutchinson et al. 2008) who discuss the causes of bullying argue that the very nature of organizational structures create complacency and risk-aversion, rendering them ineffective in the management of bullying behaviour.

Whatever the causes (and the literature will argue that there are many), the reported incidence of bullying is rising in the Australian workplace with levels reported at 6·8% (Dollard et al. 2012); nursing is not exempt. Literature abounds regarding bullying among nurses. We know that nurses ‘eat their young’ (Meissner 1986). We lament the existence of horizontal violence in a profession that we nurses like to claim is concerned with caring and compassion for others. In nursing academia, we, too, should know better. We are in a prime position to establish a culture that frowns on bullying, harassment and the ill treatment of others. Yet, bullying is no less a problem in academia than it is in other industries (see for example http://bulliedacademics.blogspot.com.au/). In the academic environment, entrenched traditions establish an organizational climate where bullying behaviours can become so widespread that they are ‘institutionalized’ (Giorgi 2012, p. 270).

A recent study by Zabrodska and Kveton (2013) found that nearly 8% of employees in a university in the Czech Republic self-reported as being victims of bullying. In reviewing similar work from around the world, these authors noted that bullying rates were significantly higher in Anglo-American universities. There are obvious cultural reasons for the variation in incidence of bullying in the academic environment in different countries, but Zabrodska and Kveton (2013) suggest that the neoliberalism characteristic of Anglo-American universities is a key factor. They posit that the different business model that characterizes the neoliberal university sees a shift in emphasis from service to commodity provision; students become ‘clients’ and autonomy of academics is reduced.

This ideological shift is just one of the many recent changes to the academic environment that have placed increasing pressure on people working in universities. The strain of global and local financial crises (and the associated threat to job security), coupled with changing modes of educational delivery and pressure to increase student numbers, raises specific challenges for the tertiary sector. For long-serving staff members, the prospect of having to do more, do it differently and doing it with less can add to what is already an increasingly difficult environment (Winefield et al. 2003). The academic sector is under stress and is not necessarily well placed to respond to the rapid rate of change in contemporary society; universities are typically multi-layered bureaucracies that house a culture resistant to change.

Upward bullying thrives in organizations that are struggling to respond to change. Upward bullying occurs when persons in positions of authority are bullied by subordinate members of staff (Branch et al. 2012). This form of harassment may manifest itself differently to what is commonly recognized as workplace bullying and it is reported less frequently. Wallace et al. (2010), in a study of upward bullying in New Zealand organizations, including academia, found that 75% of employees had engaged in some form of upward bullying behaviour. Why, then, is there little awareness of this problem? Upward bullying has major physical and psychological issues for the victims, with the impact spreading to the organization more broadly (Branch et al. 2012). Is reluctance to report incidences borne from individuals' fear of being seen as ‘toothless tigers’? Or perhaps, processes are not yet in place to protect bullied managers. The limited recognition of the problem will no doubt impact on the victim's motivation to report an issue. The inadequacy of accepted definitions of bullying likely adds to the reluctance of the victim to make a formal report. The Australian Human Rights Commission's (2011) fact sheet, for example, suggests that bullying is something perpetrated only by senior staff or colleagues.

One may question how upward bullying can happen when traditional structures place power in the hands of senior staff. We say that there are many types of power. Overt aggression, more commonly seen in downward or horizontal bullying, is obvious. Upward bullying can be more difficult to assess, as it will often take the form of destructive, disruptive and passive behaviours. Examples of such upward bullying include refusal to take on reasonable work allocation, inefficiencies in completing tasks, spreading malicious gossip and rumour-mongering, going over the boss's head and exploiting relationships in the organization. Upward bullies may also ‘borrow’ power from external organizations like unions to exert pressure on a manager. Ironically, lawyers and government representatives, whose purpose is usually to protect the bullied, may be brought on to further badger the victims.

At most risk of upward bullying are middle managers as they are most accessible to staff who engage in bullying behaviour. Without the support of their own supervisors, these managers are vulnerable. We can cite anecdotal examples of middle managers subjected to bullying by employees when they sought to protect junior members of staff from blatant harassment. Often not supported by their own superiors, these managers suffer all the consequences of bullying and have nowhere to turn.

We posit that bullying in academia – no matter who the target – results from attempts to manage the stress and frustration that results from internal and external pressures. Perhaps employees find it easiest to channel their rage towards a person they see as representative of the organization that is the source of their own stress and frustration. Perhaps, it is simply that individuals who respond negatively to reasonable expectations of an effective manager exploit the intolerance that organizations have for bullying in general. No matter what the cause, one thing is clear: ignoring the growth of upward bullying (or ineffectively managing these problems in nursing academia) will have serious implications for the nursing profession. The alleged perpetrators of bullying are teaching those who will soon enter our hospitals, clinics, healthcare services and educational institutions. For a discipline that prides itself on being the caring profession, why are we not better at caring for each other?


This paper received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Conflict of interest

No conflict of interest has been declared by the authors.

Author contributions

All authors have agreed on the final version and meet at least one of the following criteria [recommended by the ICMJE (http://www.icmje.org/ethical_1author.html)]:

  • substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
  • drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content.