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Lessons From “Office Space” About Bullying at Work

Workplace bullying is a real epidemic. Learn how to spot it, the effects, and what you can do to address it.

Another day at the office. Is it joy or dread? If you’ve seen the movie Office Space, a cult parody of everyday corporate life, you know what I’m talking about. Is there a Bill Lumbergh in your work life? if you are dealing with a boss or colleague who, with repeated smarmy callousness, makes your workday as unbearable as it can get, it isn’t uncommon.

According to recent statistics, one in five Americans are bullied at work, and as many witness bullying in the workplace. It’s an abusive behavior that currently affects 60 million people in the U.S., and is mostly carried out by people in supervisory and/or managerial positions who inflict misery on their direct reports. Workplace bullying refers to a type of unethical conduct, and is defined in a fairly specific manner: “harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks…repeatedly and regularly.”

Workplace bullying is mostly carried out by individuals in supervisory and/or managerial positions who abuse their power and inflict misery on their direct reports.


Below you can learn how to spot bullying behavior before it becomes an issue, understand the effects, and what you can do to address workplace bullying. Because nobody wants to be the next Lumbergh.

Deconstructing the Bullying Behavior

There are two characteristics that are key to understanding whether bullying is happening to you or others in your work environment: 

1) The negative behavior must occur more than once. 

2) The parties in conflict are not of equal strength-one has more power than the other, either because of his/her status, physical strength, social influence, or similar.

Do you remember that scene from Office Space when, after reluctantly complying with repeated requests of moving his workstation, Milton ends up in a super-cramped cubicle but is told by Lumbergh that he must move to the basement? And when he moves his desk to the squalid, dingy, poorly lit company basement, he is told by Lumbergh that now is a good opportunity for him to work on the cockroach problem? That is what bullying is about. You don’t have to be actually sent to the basement, but bullying is when somebody is metaphorically doing that to you. They are belittling you and slowly diminishing the type of contribution you were hired to make. Even when the bullying is not so openly diminutive, it can still kill an employee’s motivation and passion for his/her work.


‘Office Space’ Might be Fiction, but The Effects of Bullying Are Not

There are serious negative consequences for people on the receiving end of the bullying behavior, as well as for the organization where the bullying takes place. Forty percent of bullied targets experience adverse health effects. In addition, there is a strong correlation between bullying at work and 

  • intention to leave (i.e., the more vicious the bullying, the more the target wants to quit);
  • reduced focus and motivation at work;
  • decreased organizational commitment and satisfaction; and
  • workload stress resulting from negative relationships with colleagues.

In fact, not only are the bullied likely to be persistently victimized, but they often have to put up with a work culture that is condoning the bullying, and, at times, even faulting the bullied targets for the bully’s behavior. Still today, despite public campaigns to raise awareness on this issue, 71% of employer handling of bullying and 60% of coworker reactions remain averse to the targets. 

As Peter tells the two Bobs who call him in to figure out how employees like him spend a typical workday at Initech, there is no point in doing more than fifteen minutes of actual work a week because nobody is going to recognize what he does. Doing more work would only expose him to more harassment from the eight bosses to whom he reports.


Using a position of power to dictate office unnecessary office moves … or, removing preferred office accessories … may be a sign of workplace bullying.


Grabbing the Bull(y) by the Horns

Bullying is real and costly. This is why it needs to be surfaced and corrected. There are three things organizations must do to deal with it head-on.

1) Know It, Measure It. There are several effective measures to track bullying in the workplace. A particularly robust method entails 21 items that focus on specific behaviors work bullies tend to engage in. For example, whether anyone is withholding information that is critical to the work of others, ignoring their opinion, ordering them to do work below their level of competence, assigning impossible deadlines, constantly criticizing them, etc. Measuring the occurrence of these behaviors on a regular basis would go a long way toward surfacing and sizing the problem – a critical first step to eradicate bullying at work. 

2) Create Safe Avenues for Speaking Out. It is difficult to report bullying behavior because one of the obvious risks is that the bully will retaliate against those who reported his/her conduct. This fear is often bolstered by the impression that employees have no real ally or support when the bullying is perpetrated by a manager. In such cases, a common belief is that both HR and management will act to cover things up and provide legal protection to the company, rather than address the issue and support the bullied targets.

The problem with this type of response is that it will make the organization’s culture even more toxic and unethical – letting a bully go unaddressed means opening the door to more bullies. This is why companies should manage the costs and risks of bullying directly. Instead of sweeping things under the rug, they must create different channels employees can use to report any form of bullying they’ve directly experienced or witnessed. In particular, surveys, hotlines, and independent counselor are good approaches organizations can start putting in practice to support the bullied targets and stop abetting the bullies. 

3) Raise Awareness. This is where training plays a critical role by generating the type of understanding and awareness that oftentimes is lacking in the workplace. The behaviors that define bullying can be subtle, and they may be mistakenly viewed as a legitimate exercise of the power that comes with being in a certain role. This is why bullying is often left unaddressed and the bully finds a thousand accomplices around him/her. When it comes to education, though, it’s critical to shed light not just on the behaviors, but also on the psychological mechanisms that lead bullies, victims, and bystanders to continue a vicious cycle of negative behavior.


No organization should discount bullying and its consequences. The costs are too many and too high. October is Bullying Prevention month, so if you read this, make sure to do something to raise awareness and help someone who may need it. 


image source: screen capture from “Office Space – Milton’s Last Straw” on YouTube