November/December 2016

Workplace bullying impacts district climate

By Sandra Malahy
Sandra Malahy, Ed.D., is superintendent of Lostant CUSD 425.

A recent study of teachers in 26 school districts in Illinois found that teacher-to-teacher bullying is a problem. Nearly 20 percent of the teachers who responded to the study indicated they had been bullied on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis, by other teachers, in the last six months. Nearly 73 percent of the teachers indicated they witnessed bullying in their school during that same time period. Three of the 294 respondents self-identified as a bully in their school. These results mirror those of a 2013 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute that found that nursing, teaching, and public service are the top three bullying-prone professions.

Student bullying has received substantial attention in recent years, but little attention has been focused on the adults in our schools. First-hand observation and knowledge of a number of teacher-to-teacher issues coupled with a lack of district policy or state law for guidance in resolving such behaviors prompted this investigation. Because adult bullying in our schools has not been studied with the same urgency as student bullying, it was important to determine which types of bullying exist to determine the types of policies that are needed.

An instrument, The Negative Acts Questionnaire-Revised (NAQ-R), recognized by the Workplace Bullying Institute as a statistically reliable and valid instrument, was used to survey over 1,000 teachers in Illinois. This instrument determines both the frequency and the types of bullying that occur in work environments. Twenty-two questions categorized into three types of bullying behaviors identify the type of bullying — work-related, person-related, or physically intimidating — experienced by the participant.

Work-related descriptors included withholding necessary information affecting your performance; being ordered to do work below your level of competence; having your opinions ignored; being given tasks with unreasonable deadlines; excessive monitoring of your work; pressure not to claim something to which by right you are entitled (such as sick leave, holiday entitlement, travel expenses); and being exposed to an unmanageable workload.

Person-related descriptors included being humiliated or ridiculed in connection with your work; having key areas of responsibilities removed or replaced with more trivial or unpleasant tasks; spreading of gossip and rumors about you; being ignored or excluded; having insulting or offensive remarks made about your person, attitudes, 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 are approached; persistent criticism of your errors or mistakes; 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.

Physically-intimidating behaviors included: 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.

Of the three types of bully behaviors, survey respondents indicated they encountered 12 of the 22 descriptors five to 16 percent of the time on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. The two descriptors with the highest frequency were being ignored or excluded, and having your opinions ignored.

The results of this study and others indicate that the education field is an especially bullying-prone profession. Policies addressing teacher-to-teacher bullying are few, if any, according to Catherine Bradshaw and Kate Figiel in a 2012 report prepared for the National Education Association. A review of district policies and employee handbooks in the 26 districts in this study found only one contained anti-workplace bullying language, and it stated that all employees must maintain a safe environment that is free from bullying.

Since 2009, several bills have been introduced relating to workplace bullying in Illinois. However, all have ended with a committee in session sine die — adjourned without action and no date for further discussion.

The Illinois School Code Section 105 of the Illinois Compiled Statutes, does not address workplace bullying. The Code of Ethics for Illinois Educators is found in 23 Ill.Admin.Code section 22.20, and is included by reference in IASB's PRESS policy services. The language does not specify the terms “bullying,” “workplace bullying,” “negative acts,” or “unethical conduct,” because these are not addressed in statute.

Although school employees are to receive ethics training, at least every two years, this training does not work, according to Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute. He reports ethics training is ineffective, because organizational leaders do not take vision, mission, values, ethics, and conflict-free work zone language seriously. Nor does the federal government officially address negative workplace acts. There are no federal laws that address workplace bullying, and adult bullying no state in America has anti-bullying laws for the workplace. Verbal bullying which may include teasing, taunting, or gossiping, is legal because it is not covered under violence policies and laws. Federal laws require governmental enforcement, which in turn generates costs, which explains why there are no plans at this time to draft or pass a federal workplace bullying law. In the absence of federal law, state law, and school board policies, our schools may very well continue to provide teacher bullies a well-paved path toward negative workplace acts.

The findings in this research reveal that teachers are being bullied by other teachers. School boards must ensure they have a policy in place that addresses workplace bullying. Initial talking points may include define workplace bullying, define district expectations, inform teachers how to report bullying, list action steps that will be taken if incidents of bullying are reported, and provide clear notice how bullies will be handled. School administrators may also conduct an annual workplace survey to determine the overall organizational health in his or her school. School boards may engage the services of The Workplace Bullying Institute at for anti-bullying training for school personnel.

Preserving a positive climate is vital, but another reason for boards to enter into this work is that litigation can be costly and time consuming. Minimum action should include consulting with school district attorneys for employee handbook language that makes district expectations known regarding workplace bullying and repercussions for violating the expectations.

There is no doubt teacher-to-teacher bullying in our schools is a problem. It is only a matter of time before workplace bullying is brought to the forefront as a result of costly litigation. The initial effort of school boards should be to adopt policy language and provide professional develop training so that district expectations are known.  

Adult Bullying Resources

Baughman, H., Dearing, S., Giammarco, E., & Vernon, P. (2012). Relationship between bullying behaviours and the dark triad: A study with adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 52: 571-575.

Bradshaw, C. P., & Figiel, K. (2012). Prevention and intervention of workplace bullying in schools. A report prepared for the National Education Association. Retrieved from

Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Educator Code of Ethics:

Malahy , S. (2015). Workplace bullying: Teacher-to-teacher .(Doctoral dissertation).

Marzano , R. & Waters, T. (2009). District leadership that works: Striking the right balance. Bloomington, Ind.: Solution Tree Press.

Namie , G. (2014). 2014 WBI U. S. Workplace Bullying Survey, found at

Namie , G. (2014). Frequently asked questions about the healthy workplace bill. Retrieved from

Paulhus , D. L. & Williams, K. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36: 556-568.

Rockwood, P. R. (2010). “Board and superintendent perceptions of the Illinois professional standards for school leaders critical for superintendent success.” Graduate Theses and Dissertations. Paper 11833.

Workplace Bullying Institute (2014). About us. Retrieved from