Maureen Duffy, Ph.D. and Len Sperry, M.D., Ph.D.

Maureen Duffy Ph.D.

Overcoming Workplace Abuse

Why Changing an Abusive Workplace Culture is So Difficult

Workplace abuse is sustained by negative organizational culture and environment.

Posted Jun 07, 2014

For example, a longitudinal study (Campbell, 2004) of the organizational culture of a mid-sized U.S. public university found that over a six-year period, during which the university experienced significant turnover in its top-level management, including a new President who was widely regarded as a change agent, the core values of the institution and its culture remained stable.  The researchers used the Hofstede et al (1990) measurement of organizational cultures that asks the following four questions to understand workplace culture and environment:

  • What things do people very much like to see happen here?

  • What is the biggest mistake one can make here?

  • Which work problems keep you awake at night?

  • What kind of people are most likely to make a fast career around here? 

In the Campbell organizational culture study, these questions were posed to a variety of university organizational members at an initial period and then to a similar range of organizational members 6 years later.  In spite of all the leadership changes and the pressures from the external environment, the university’s organizational values were found to have endured and to have changed very little.

If organizational culture and values promote the health and well-being of organizational members and the organization itself, the fact that they endure over time is likely to be a good thing.  But when elements of the organizational culture endure, as they are prone to do, and are damaging to organizational members, than it’s certainly not a good thing.

When workplace abuse—bullying, mobbing, and harassment—is present within an organization, the need to recognize the abuse and change organizational culture to stop it and prevent it from happening in the future becomes urgent.  The health and well-being of the target-victims of workplace abuse is at stake, and, ultimately, so is the health and well-being of the organization itself. 

Organizational culture is the environment within which workplace abuse takes place. Only behaviors that are viable within a particular environment can survive or be maintained.  Because workplace abuse--bullying and mobbing--are not uncommon events in modern workplaces what this means is that there are a lot of organizational cultures providing favorable environments for its development and continuation. In a nutshell, workplace abuse requires an organizational environment that fosters it.  If the organizational environment didn’t foster it, workplace abuse would not flourish and would wither away.

In abuse-prone workplaces, the following aspects of organizational culture are more likely to be found:

  1. There is a significant disconnect between the espoused values of the organization and the actual ones.  For example, organizational leaders express the importance of getting input from all of the stakeholders to an important decision but don’t actively seek input from those stakeholders, are not good listeners, and express discomfort or disapproval of divergent opinions and questions that might suggest a different way of doing something.  It’s common knowledge within such organizations that leadership and management say one thing but do another. 

  2. Organizational communication practices support unethical communication.  For example, gossip about the personal lives and problems of organizational members is routinely tolerated.  Comments about personality rather than performance predominate. In-group and out-group formation within the organization is readily observable. Leaders lack transparency in their decision-making and are not open about their processes of decision-making—only about the results of their decision-making. While the organization may profess that it has a caring environment, the actions of its members say the opposite and speak more loudly. 

  3. Organizational members in mobbing and bullying-prone organizations are often demoralized or apathetic. There is no big picture or inspiring narrative that galvanizes and motivates them. The organizational culture does not nourish creativity and innovation and, in fact, may actively discourage it. “This is how things are done around here” is both a report and a command.  Management strategies tend to be weak and disorganized.  The organizational culture is critical and disempowering. Organizational members who are different from the norm within the organization and who bring different ideas and ways of doing things are at greater risk of becoming targets of workplace abuse.

These negative aspects of organizational culture frequently found in mobbing and bullying-prone organizations are enduring, persistent, and undeniably difficult to change.  But they can’t be impossible to change or we might as well give up on the hope of reducing and preventing workplace abuse.  It is imperative that organizational cultures become unfavorable environments for the development of workplace abuse like mobbing and bullying.  Remember, if the environment does not support and sustain abusive workplace behaviors, they will wither away. So the goal is to create workplace environments and cultures genuinely inimical to the growth of workplace abuse and that’s the subject of the next blog!


Campbell, C. R. (2004). A longitudinal study of one organization’s culture: Do values endure? Mid-American Journal of Business 19(2), 41-51.

Hofstede, G., Neuijen, B., Ohayv, D. D., & Sanders, G. (1990). Measuring organizational cultures: a qualitative and quantitative study across twenty cases. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35(2), 286-316.