Workplace Bullying in Education


Journal of Bullying and Social Aggression


Volume 1, Number 2, 2015




By: Deidra Alexander Sorrell, Ed.D.




The purpose of this research was to examine the lived experiences of elementary school educators facing workplace bullying within the public school system settings. This qualitative inquiry used the hermeneutic phenomenological design. Constructivism served as the theoretical framework for this study because it allowed the participants and the researcher to collaboratively construct reality through the interpretation of data (Eichelberger, 1989). The advocacy/participatory worldview supported the researcher’s efforts to provide a voice to marginalized and disempowered individuals (Patton, 2002). The researcher interviewed six elementary school educators and three major themes emerged from the data. The themes included: (a) experiences with workplace bullying, (b) coping, and (c) environmental factors contributing to workplace bullying. All of the participants were female and over forty-years-old.  All of the participants experienced bullying after taking medical leave due to preexisting health issues, which caused more stress and anxiety. As a coping mechanism, all of the participants found the teachers union ineffective in solving their disputes. Lastly, the participants felt that nepotism and favoritism served as environmental factors contributing to the workplace bullying. This findings in this research presented recommendations for the counseling profession. The first recommendation is for counselors to improve their empathy toward victims of workplace bullying so clients feel validated in therapy. In addition, it is recommended that counselors receive training on the prevalence, symptomatology and procedures to help victims of workplace bullying.




Workplace bullying is repeated verbal abuse, psychological abuse, or both within an organizational environment. This mistreatment is typically coworker to coworker, supervisor to subordinate, or group to individual (Cranshaw, 2009). This type of bullying is an interpersonal hostility that is deliberate, repeated, and severe enough to cause harm to the targeted person’s health or economic status (Namie & Namie, 2009).  Further, “workplace bullying is driven by the perpetrator’s need to control another individual, often undermining legitimate business interests in the process” (Namie & Namie, 2009, p. 1). Approximately 37 million or 27% of adult Americans reported direct experience with bullying or abusive behaviors at work. Those affected by workplace bullying (e.g. direct bullying and witnessing bullying), increases the number to 65.6 million, which is the equivalent of the combined population of 15 states (WBI, 2014). Because workplace bullying is legal, many targets of this abuse reluctantly resign, transfer offices, or end up being terminated (Namie & Namie, 2009). The actions just mentioned leave the problem of bullying unaddressed within the workplace (Namie & Namie, 2009).

Problem Statement

Bullying in the workplace is considered “A severe and pervasive problem with devastating effects, both personally and professionally” (Carbo & Hughes, 2010, p. 387). With one in ten professionals suffering from workplace bullying (Onorato, 2013), workplace bullying is a serious modern problem that is often undetected and ignored in many organizations (Einarsen, 1999; LaVan & Martin, 2008). Workplace bullying research pioneer Heinz Leymann stated that negative behaviors are common and part of everyday life, but in workplace bullying, the behaviors are repeated and done deliberately to harm (Leymann, 1990). Mobbing, often used synonymously with workplace bullying, has a similar definition to workplace bullying, but involves the group/organization abuse of an individual or a group of individuals (Cranshaw, 2009). Leymann (1996) used the term workplace bullying and mobbing interchangeably, stating that mobbing is the European translation of workplace bullying. The terms “psychological harassment” or” terror” is also used in place of workplace bullying to differentiate it from childhood bullying.

Workplace bullying has to be displayed in a systematic manner (Ocel & Aydin, 2012). Even though Leymann (1996) originally defined workplace bullying as taking place over a long period of time (e.g. 6 months), Ocel and Aydin (2012) specified that the bullying can take place over a period of time with no specific number of weeks or months. Einarsen et al., (2011) stated that workplace bullying must be intentional, which is different from an uncivil coworker who is merely arrogant, obnoxious, or unintentionally offensive. Vanderkerkhove and Commers (2013) added that workplace bullying must involve a power imbalance that is typically seen in downward mobbing. Downward mobbing, which is the most prevalent form of workplace bullying and an abuse of power, involves the bully as the supervisor/manager and the target as the subordinate.  Gök (2011) added that other forms of mobbing include upward mobbing, where employees harass, create obstacles, or undermine the efforts of a supervisor. Horizontal mobbing is typically colleague-to-colleague but involves a power imbalance between the two equal employees. The target of workplace bullying must view the behaviors as oppressive, unfair, and/or undermining for the behaviors to be considered workplace bullying (Ocel & Aydin, 2012). Lastly, Salin (2003) added that the behaviors of workplace bullying must create a hostile work environment.



Workplace bullying is considered a global phenomenon with more prevalence in the United States (Martin & LaVan, 2010). One reason this phenomenon is more prevalent in the United States workforce is the U.S.’s individualistic culture (Lutgen-Sandvik, Tracy, & Alberts, 2007). Research on culture and management conducted by Hofstede (1993) concluded that the United States’ culture prides the dimensions of power, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long term versus short-term orientation in the workforce. With the dimension of power, there is a given inequality among people in the workforce. Individualism emphasizes that people work as individuals as opposed to groups. Within a masculine culture, qualities like assertiveness, power, and competition are valued. A workforce with uncertainty avoidance prefers structured over unstructured situations. Employees who emphasize long term versus short-term orientations tend to delay gratification in hopes of a larger reward in the future. European countries, especially Scandinavian countries, have cultures based on feminine characteristics (Lutgen-Sandvik et al., 2007). Asian and African cultures tend to have cultures that are more masculine, but grounded in tradition and social collectiveness instead of individualism (Hofstede, 1993).  Differences in cultures may explain some of the global disparities in the prevalence of workplace bullying.

Coupled with the American values of individualism, assertiveness, masculinity, and achievement, workplace bullying seems to thrive in the current state of downsizing, increased competition, and macho management (Martin & LaVan, 2010; McAvoy & Murtagh, 2003). Macho management is tough leadership that creates a toxic workplace (Rayner, Höel, & Cooper, 2002). However, macho management becomes workplace bullying when the agenda is to torment and harm the employee as opposed to merely promoting superior organizational performance (Onorato, 2013). Baillien and De Witte (2009) found that organizational change, role conflict, and job insecurity also fuel workplace bullying. Role conflict is characteristic of employees gaining contradictory messages regarding the scope and expectations of an individual’s role at work (Einarsen et al., 2011).  Organizational change can also create increased competition among employees based on fears of downsizing (Baillien & De Witte, 2009). Both role conflict and organizational change can cause job insecurity.

Background of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is not a new phenomenon because throughout history people have had power over one another (Murphy, 2013). Bachrach and Baratz (1962) first explored the concept of power, authority, and influence within work organizations. Brodsky (1976) recognized that, aside from sexual harassment, a certain type of work harassment could repeatedly torment, wear down, intimidate, and frustrate a person. German Psychiatrist Heinz Leymann assigned the term workplace mobbing to psychological terrorization in the workplace in the 1980s (Leymann, 1990; Leymann, 1996). Leymann’s research acknowledged that psychological abuse in the workplace was an old concept that was never systematically described. In Leymann’s research, the psychological harassment at work typically starts with an initial critical incident (e.g. envy over wages) and progresses to stigmatization where the bully feels justified in punishing the other person (Leymann, 1990).  After the harassment takes place, the situation is typically reported to management where the investigator may be prejudiced against the victim. What Leymann found was that even though the victim is harassed (e.g. lied about), the manager may believe the lies and perpetuate the bullying by expelling (e.g. transferring, firing, or recommending resignation) the victim.

Even though Leymann’s research provided insight into the details of abuse in the workplace, the topic of mobbing was not a priority in the United States (Bjorkqvist et al, 1994). In the United States, there was more interest in preventing sexual harassment than general work harassment. As a result, work harassment remained a typically European effort. However, in 1992, the European term workplace mobbing was later linked with the term workplace bullying by the American journalist Andrea Adams (Namie, 2003). In addition, social psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie introduced the term workplace bullying to the United States and advocated for the rights of American workers by establishing the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute in 2003.

A dysfunctional organizational structure is the perfect environment for workplace bullying (Einarsen et al., 2011). A dysfunctional organizational culture thrives on ineffective leadership, poor communication, little recognition of achievement, heavy workloads, and lack of manager support (Vanderkerkhove & Commers, 2003). Leymann (1996) added that examples of poorly organized institutions that report the most workplace bullying are hospitals, religious organizations, and schools. However, bullying can be anywhere and with anyone. Ortega, Hogh, Pejtersen, and Olsen (2009), found that unskilled workers had a higher prevalence of being bullied in the workplace than managers or supervisors. People who worked with things (e.g. manufacturing) in male dominated job environments, and people who worked with clients or patients in female dominated job environments, reported more workplace bullying than individuals working with customers did. Salin (2003) added that the increasing casualness and informality of the workplace are reasons for increasing workplace bullying. When organizations move away from what is considered professional behavior, when there is no policy for behavior, and when tough management is preferred, the result is an environment of workplace bullying. Onorato (2013) argued unethical issues in the current American society have influenced or “rubbed off” into the professional environment.  Einarsen et al. (2011) added that workplace bullying originates with scapegoating a professional or group of professionals. In predatory workplace bullying, a professional who is different from the majority (e.g. the first woman firefighter) might be scapegoated and victimized because they have caused changes in the organization. In dispute-related workplace bullying, the office politics or organizational climate may pit employees in certain job positions against others (e.g. younger teachers against older teachers).

Einarsen et al. (2011) stated that workplace bullies victimize others because of a pathological personality. Buckels, Jones, and Paulhus (2013) found that aggressive adults have psychopathologies similar to sadism, narcissism, and antisocial behavior. People who took pleasure in hurting others (e.g. sadists) or individuals who hurt others for personal gain (e.g. narcissists and anti-socials) are typically low in empathy and comfortable with victimizing others. Narcissists in particular typically lack empathy and have a grandiose sense of self-worth (Klein, 2009). Organizational leaders who are also narcissists may use their organizational power to abuse through relational aggression or indirect aggression (e.g. bullying). In addition, Salin (2003) stated that bullies often view targets as rivals or threats to the career. This rivalry may justify the act of bullying to get rid of the target. As stated earlier in this research, envy is typically an underpinning emotion in workplace bullying (Leymann, 1990). Therefore, toxic organizational structures, personality disorders, and emotions can all lead to bullying behaviors with managers and among colleagues.

Examples of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying includes many hostile behaviors that are not limited to harsh criticism, setting impossible deadlines, withholding information, social isolation, spreading rumors, and attacks on physical or personal characteristics (Ocel & Audin, 2012). Meglich-Sespico, Faley, and Knapp (2007) added that the negative and unwanted acts of workplace bullying include ridiculing and humiliating, verbal threats, interfering with work talks, and even assigning demeaning work tasks. Leymann’s (1996) example of workplace mobbing, often used interchangeably with workplace bullying, includes ganging up on the target in staff meetings or in other areas in the work environment. Some targets of workplace bullying reported criticism about something as trivial as clothing, while other targets reported social exclusion and then criticism for not going to lunch with coworkers (LaVan & Martin, 2008). One female target of workplace bullying shared that in her male dominated workplace, she was subjected to sarcastic remarks and even referred to as a “butch” based on her choice of haircut (McKay & Frantzl, 2011).

Cyberbullying is also on the rise as a form of workplace bullying (Privitera & Campbell, 2009). Cyberbullying as a form of workplace bullying that uses modern communication technology (e.g. cellular phones, computers, email, websites, and social media) to send derogatory or threatening messages. Cyberbullying is purposeful in the direct or indirect psychological harm of another individual. As a result, enduring workplace bullying makes the victim feel like he or she in in a battle (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, & Alberts, 2006). The experience feels like torture or even a nightmare and the target feels likened to a child, prisoner, or even a slave, with the bully playing the role of the narcissistic dictator.

Rayner and Höel (1997) added that there are five categories of workplace bullying including threats to professional status, threats to personal standing, isolation, overwork, and destabilization. When professional status is threatened, the bully may belittle the opinion of the target in private or public settings to humiliate them (Quine, 1999). Threats to personal standing include name calling, insults, or teasing with the intention of psychologically harming the targeted employee. With isolation, the bully prevents the target from accessing training or other pertinent resources to be successful on the job. Overworking an employee includes placing impossible deadlines and undue pressure on the employee while unnecessarily interrupting the employee from achieving deadlines. With destabilization, the bully may fail to give credit to the employee or assign the employee meaningless tasks, thus indicating the removal of the employee’s job responsibility or title. As stated earlier, bullying behaviors may result in feelings of job insecurity and or role conflict as explained in the research by Baillien and De Witte (2009).

Targets of Workplace Bullying

As stated earlier, workplace bullying is legal because workplace bullying does not fit into the criteria of racial discrimination, gender discrimination, or sexual harassment (Namie & Namie, 2009). Sexual harassment differs from workplace bullying because it includes unwanted sexual attention (Rayner & Höel, 2002). Nevertheless, there are some gendered aspects of workplace bullying (Salin & Höel, 2013). The research on the gendered aspects of workplace bullying is contradictory, but provides insight into the complexity of this phenomenon. Rayner and Höel (2002) indicated that men and women reported victimization at the same rate. However, the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI; 2014) reported that 69% of bullies are men, while 31% of bullies are female.  However, when the bully is female, she chooses a female target 68% of the time. Male bullies choose female targets 57% of the time and male targets 43% of the time. The gender preferences speak to the power imbalance characteristic of workplace bullying (Namie & Namie, 2009). Given the statistics of male victims, female victims historically report bullying at a higher rate than male victims (WBI, 2014). There are also gendered differences in the way males and females are victimized. Men reported experiencing more peer harassment in the workplace, with women experiencing indirect or relational aggression (e.g. gossiping and slander; Crothers & Minutol, 2009).

Workplace bullying is similar to workplace harassment as outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects certain racial or cultural groups from harassment (Onorato, 2013). Muir and Blamires (2006) stated that ethnic minorities are twice as likely to experience workplace bullying than Caucasian employees. The WBI (2014) reported that Hispanic employees reported the highest prevalence of bullying (57%), with African-American (54%) and Asian (53%) workers ranking second and third. Caucasian workers reported workplace bullying 44% of the time based on the WBI’s 2014 survey. Ethnic minorities typically endure being ignored, given repeated reminders, and persistent criticism by managers at a higher rate than Caucasian targets. Moreover, Klein (2009) added that 39% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) professionals reported workplace abuse in the workplace.

Modern workplace racism is more subtle and difficult to prove in comparison to workplace racism and harassment in the past (Fox & Stallworth, 2005). Racism and discrimination may take the form of a subtle microaggression (e.g. subtle humor, ostracism) or microinequity (e.g. inequitable treatment; Fox & Stallworth, 2005). In addition, this type of workplace bullying may occur within racial/ethnic groups as well. Discrimination within racial groups can be based on specific skin color or skin tone (e.g. colorism; Hall, 2010). More studies are needed due to the limited research on the incidence of workplace bullying among and within racial and ethnic groups (Fox & Stallworth, 2005).

Leymann’s research stated that there is no specific personality type of a target of workplace bullying (Leymann, 1996). However, data from the WBI’s 2014 survey found that witnesses to workplace bullying described victims as compassionate and kind (WBI, 2014). Olewus (1993) added that similar to childhood bullying, workplace bullying targets tend to be provocative or submissive victims. Provocative victims are individuals with obnoxious personalities that stand out to the bully (Olewus, 1993). The submissive victim is an individual who is anxious, shy, or socially awkward who may appear weak to the bully.

Further research adds that the victims of workplace bullying are typically new hires with a non-confrontational disposition (Namie & Namie, 2009). However, Einarsen and Skogstad (1996) stated that older workers have a higher rate of victimization than younger employees. Perhaps new hires are bullied, but these new hires are also older. Therefore, in the vulnerable state of being new to the organization, and possibly older, the bully tries to test the waters to see how the employee will respond to the mistreatment.

Another way that individuals are vulnerable to workplace bullying is that the victim is in denial or does not know that they are being bullied (Samnani, 2013). Subtle forms of workplace bullying are often internalized by the individual and confused with environmental factors. Moreover, most victims of workplace bullying do not even report the issue (Namie & Namie, 2009). For targets who report workplace bullying to an internal source (e.g. human resources), the victim typically resigns, is terminated, or transferred from the job. Only in rare cases is the bully punished for his or her behavior.

Workplace Bullying in Education

Academia was once considered a safe place to work; however, bullying and mobbing are part of the academic landscape (Klein, 2009). As stated earlier, workplace bullying is prevalent in organizations such as hospitals, religious organizations, and schools (Leymann, 1996). Thirty-one percent of educators in higher education reported being victims of workplace bullying from administration (McKay et al., 2008). However, research on workplace bullying in academia is lacking in comparison to the research conducted in other professional environments such as nursing and business (Keashly & Neuman, 2010).

Workplace bullying in academia differs from workplace bullying in business

based on the characteristics. Earlier research supported that general workplace bullying was characteristic of downward mobbing with managers and supervisors typically bullying subordinates (Vanderkerkhove & Commers, 2003). However, in higher education, the bullying has a horizontal methodology with more tenured colleagues bullying other colleagues (Klein, 2009). When the bullies in academia have tenure, the bullies have the job security and seniority to remain on the job longer, with little consequence (Klein, 2009). Unique from the traditional examples of workplace bullying, which include harsh criticism and social isolation (Ocel & Audin, 2012), bullying in academia undermines the educator’s access to success (Klein, 2009). In academia, the educator’s professional standing (e.g. tenure), authority, accomplishments, merit pay, and even resources (e.g. office space, classroom time) may be undermined when bullied. Klein (2009) also found that individuals vulnerable to workplace bullying in academia include professors with accents, individuals viewed as outspoken, professionals viewed as high achieving, or professors out of sync with the workplace culture.


Purpose of the Study

There is a scarcity in the number of research studies done with regard to workplace bullying among public schools (e.g. kindergarten through 12th grade) or lower education staff members. Cemaloglu (2011) found that at least one third of educators reported stress and exhaustion in his or her work environment. Often times, the reported stressful work environment includes workplace bullying perpetrated by the leadership style of the principal. The type of bullying in lower education seems similar to the downward mobbing methodology in general workplace bullying. Blase et al. (2007) also found that 42% of American public school educators reported mistreatment and harm from principals, thus considering teaching a high-risk profession.  Blase and Blase (2006) found that principal mistreatment fit into three levels:  indirect/moderate aggression, direct/escalating aggression, and direct/severely aggressive behaviors. In level one (indirect/moderately aggressive) behavior, the principal may show a lack of support of the teacher by discounting their thoughts and needs or withholding resources (e.g. professional development courses; Blase & Blase, 2006). In addition, level one principal’s may have favorite teachers that do unethical or unprofessional tasks (e.g. having an affair with a teacher or having a teacher repair the principal’s car during work hours). Level two principals seemed more severe, spying on teachers (e.g. listening on the intercom into classrooms), sabotaging teachers (e.g. telling other staff to not help the teacher), criticizing, stealing from the teacher, and making unrealistic demands. Level three principals were accused of blatantly lying about teachers, threatening, presenting explosive behavior (e.g. yelling), and providing unfair reprimands or evaluations of teachers.

Some of the mistreatment by principals even spilled into the mistreatment of students by teachers feeling forced to apply punitive measures to misbehaving students (e.g. unfair suspensions or expulsions). In another example, teachers were forced to violate special education laws for disabled students (e.g. not complying with the child’s individual education plan; Blase & Blase, 2003). Blase and Blase (2006) provided the first empirical report on the actual experiences of abused teachers in public education. This study stated that there is a lack of research in this specific area of workplace bullying (e.g. lower education) and urged for more research to follow the given study (Blase et al., 2007). The purpose of this research was to gain an understanding into the lived experiences of elementary school level educators, who have endured bullying at work. In addition, this study examined the coping skills, and the professional climate with regard to workplace bullying. In order to examine these experiences, the researcher used Phenomenology as the research approach.

Research Question and Research Design

The research question that guided this study was: What are the lived experiences of elementary level public school educators who have been bullied or experienced bullying at work? Phenomenology was an appropriate research design for the topic of workplace bullying because the goal of this research was to gain meaning and understanding from the participants’ perspectives of their lived experiences (Moustakas, 1994). Moreover, a phenomenological approach typically gains descriptions of experiences by facilitating in depth interviews with participants (Englander, 2012). For that reason, the phenomenological approach was appropriate for this topic because interviewing provided a voice for the participants in this study. Phenomenology seeks to understand the world through the daily experiences of others (Moerer-Urdahl & Creswell, 2004). Hermeneutic phenomenology, in particular, relies on rich detail and intentionality to gain a deeper understanding of what the individual has experienced. With the interview being the primary data-gathering tool used in hermeneutic phenomenology, information gathered is considered an exchange of views between the two people discussing a mutual theme of interest (Kvale, 1996). Through the rich details of the interviews with elementary school level educators, the researcher was able to hear the why and the how of the experience of workplace bullying (Moustakas, 1994), thus gaining greater understanding (Groenewald, 2004). Through phenomenological data analysis, the researcher was able to assign meaning to the descriptions of the experiences gained in the interviews.


The researcher interviewed a total of six participants whose educational experience took place in a variety of states. The research location used in this study depended on the availability and location of the research participants. Most of the participants were in various states that were not close to the researcher. As stated earlier, phone interviews were conducted by calling the participants and using the Call Recorder application on the researcher’s cellular phone. One participant resided in the Washington DC metropolitan area. A face-to-face interview was scheduled with that participant. To ensure the confidentiality of that particular participant, the researcher interviewed the participant at the Bethesda Library in Bethesda, Maryland, in a reserved study room.

Participant Selection

Participants were sought through an advertisement asking for research participants by way of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) website. The Workplace Bullying Institute is an international organization that educates, provides guidance, and helps provide research into the phenomenon of workplace bullying. The organization was founded by Gary and Ruth Namie, who authored the text The Bully at Work (Namie, 2009). Participants also came through the National Association for the Prevention of Teacher Abuse (NAPTA) website. Similar to the WBI, NAPTA provides education and support to educators who have experienced bullying within their workplace. The researcher of this research contacted the founders of these organizations. The organizations posted the call for participants advertisement on their websites. Potential participants began contacting the researcher within 24 hours.




Participants for this study were sought through purposeful sampling. Purposeful sampling is a process where the researcher decides who should be a participant in a research study based on his or her characteristics or experiences (Patton, 2002). Since this research topic sought to gain an in depth understanding of the lived experiences of educators facing workplace bullying, the researcher utilized purposeful sampling in selecting participants. Purposeful sampling was appropriate for this research because it ensured that there was representativeness in the sample (Maxwell, 2013). The researcher deliberately chose six educators who had actual experiences with workplace bullying at the elementary school level. To reduce limitations to this study, the researcher screened to ensure that the participants were knowledgeable about the actual definition of workplace bullying. By using purposeful sampling, and properly screening participants, the researcher gained a sample of educators that truly experienced workplace bullying.

Data Collection

After gaining informed consent from the participants, the researcher collected data by interviewing participants. The interviews were lengthy (e.g. one hour or more) and required the researcher to establish a rapport with the participants (Moustakas, 1994). To gain rapport, Moustakas (1994) suggested that researchers consider the participants in research studies as “co-researchers” as opposed to merely participants. With this in mind, the researcher empowered participants by considering them equal partners in gathering data for this research. The researcher used a pre-interview meeting to prepare the participants for the interview. The pre-interview meeting ensured that the actual interview ran smoothly by creating a relaxing and trusting atmosphere beforehand. The researcher used the opportunity of the pre-interview to gain informed consent, explain the process, and explain confidentiality. Because some participants wanted to know what the interview questions would be before the interview, the researcher provided them. The pre-interview sessions were held by phone or by electronic mail. As a result, the participants seemed to find comfort in the transparency of the researcher.

The actual interview included predeveloped questions about the participant/co-researcher’s experience with workplace bullying as an educator (Giorgi, 2009). Additional open-ended follow up questions were used to gain clarity and understanding. Giorgi (2009) suggested using a predeveloped question such as: “Please describe for me a situation in which you experienced a phenomenon” (p. 24)? The researcher began the interview by asking the participant to describe a situation in which he or she experienced workplace bullying. The researcher utilized hand coding to analyze the data. The researcher chose hand coding over computerized coding because there was no computer software that would do the type of data analysis needed for this phenomenological study (Groenewald, 2004). Phenomenological data analysis is personal and goes beyond the data to find meaning.

Data Analysis

The first step in analyzing the data is organizing the large amount of data collected in the interviews (Moustakas, 1994). With the transcribed interview data, the researcher organized the data using the process of horizontalization. By looking at every horizon or statement relevant to the topic, the researcher organized the statements into meaning units (Moustakas, 1994). In order to determine meaning units, the researcher reduced the statements down into the meaning within the description (Giorgi, 2009). The researcher accomplished this by creating a large visual board and placing it on the wall. On the visual board, each participant had an area for the researcher to organize data. Each participant chose a color to replace their name for confidentiality and organizational purposes. Under each participant’s colorful name, his or her interview data was organized through horizontalization.

The information was then clustered into common categories or themes after removing all overlapping or repetitive statements (Moustakas, 1994). The clustered themes and meanings produced textural descriptions of the experience, with the result being the essence of the phenomenon of workplace bullying (Moustakas, 1994). Giorgi (2009) urged researchers to make this process fruitful. In other words, the process of transforming raw data should educate the world to the meaning of workplace bullying as well as the psychological implications of this problem (Giorgi, 2009). The researcher accomplished this by looking at the color coded meaning units on the large visual board. The researcher was able to organize the meaning units into various categories. The researcher noticed that some categories emerged from the data analysis process. The researcher found similarities in the participants’ demographics (e.g. age and race), experiences, health consequences, and coping mechanisms. This study involved six educators who had first-hand experiences with workplace bullying. The educators lived in various areas of the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Their certification and areas of expertise were diverse and ranged from classroom teacher to school counselor. All of the participants had experiences as elementary school level educators and 20 or more years of experience working in education. Because of their years of experience, many of them had experiences working in elementary schools and middle schools. Table 1 provides demographic information for each of the participants. Names were not used for the participants. The participants were identified as colors.




Table 1

Participant Demographic Information

Participant Gender Racial Background Age Geographical Location of School Role in Education Current Employment Status
Coral Female Caucasian 62 New Mexico Resource Teacher Retired
Rose Female Hispanic 55 California First Grade Teacher Retired
Yellow Female Caucasian 54 Georgia Social Worker Currently working
Purple Female Caucasian 55 Maryland Music Teacher Retired
Lime Green Female Caucasian 57 Florida Counselor Currently Working
Lavender Female Caucasian 46 Tennessee General Education and ELL teacher Currently Working


All of the participants were female educators, with the majority of them being Caucasian. One participant identified herself as Hispanic. The mean age of the participants was 52 years old. The participants worked in a variety of states, however some of them moved out of the country after they left the field of education. Half of the participants retired from education. When interviewed, the participants shared that they retired early or felt forced out because of the bullying. The remainder of the participants still worked in the educational field, with two of them still working in the bullying environment. Only one participant described herself as being in a better working environment because of her transfer to another school.

                        The researcher began data analysis by organizing interview data gathered through the interview process. Moustakas (1994) stated that organization is the first step of data analysis. The process used for organizing the data was horizontalization. With horizontalization, the researcher read the transcribed interviews and found statements relevant to the topic (Moustakas, 1994). By gaining these relevant statements, the researcher was able to identify several meaning units for each participant. Each meaning unit was color coded to represent colors chosen as “pseudonyms” by the participants during the interview. For example, Participant #2 chose the color rose, so the meaning units associated with Participant #2 were colored rose. The horizontalization process was represented on a large visual data board, so each participant had a color-coded space for their meaning units.

The Findings

                        After each meaning unit was color coded, they were clustered into common categories or themes (Moustakas, 1994). The categories were based on the research questions and categories that emerged from the research process. The initial categories in this research were: (a) lived experiences, (b) feelings, (c) coping, and (d) reasons (e.g. professional climate). The categories that emerged in the research were (a) health consequences, (b) implications for the counseling profession, and (c) the aftermath of workplace bullying. As stated above, on the visual data board, each participant had a color-coded space. In each space, the participant’s meaning unit was organized into the above categories.

A textural narrative of one of the participant’s stories will be shared in the remainder of this manuscript. The interview question will be the heading for each topic. Based on the interview questions, the narrative will include each participant’s experience with workplace bullying. The narrative will also include how the participant coped with the bullying. In conjunction with the coping skills, the participant explained how she felt when bullied, what physical or emotional consequences she faced, and her experiences with counseling. The third question explored whether her professional climate affected the bullying. In answering the professional climate question, the participant provided detail into her perception of why the bullying took place and why she was targeted.

Textural Narrative of Participant # 2: Rose

Rose was bullied for five years by her female principal. According to Rose, the principal was seen as a good person who would not bully others. Rose considered herself a hardworking teacher who did not want the bullying to occur. Before Rose was bullied, she observed other teachers bullied in the school. After observing the bullying, Rose was later picked on by her principal. Rose shared the specifics of how she felt targeted by her principal.

I was told that my lesson plans were not right and not detailed enough. It took me three hours to do the work. The principal would come in to my classroom to see what I was doing and if my activities were commensurate with my lesson plan.  It was so stressful to write a lesson plan so detailed because I could not control what my kids would do.  One time the principal asked me why I was not working with a specific reading group at a certain time (as stated on my lesson plan). It was picture day, which modified the times of the activities listed on my lesson plan. As a result, I was very nervous because I had to keep track of everything, even things that were not in my control. One day a parent wanted to talk to me. All I could think about was how I could fit that into my lesson plan schedule. On another day, a kid was crying during my lesson. All of those things pushed me off my rigid schedule.


Rose stated that the principal was very demanding of her. When she asked other teachers about what was expected of them, they did not have the same demands as Rose. Rose felt picked on and singled out. Rose felt that she was treated differently no matter how hard she tried. Rose shared how she was highly educated and dually certified, but still treated negatively.

I am a certified counselor in addition to being a teacher. In a committee meeting we all volunteered to serve certain roles if there was a school emergency or school lock down. My colleagues were impressed with my expertise but the principal just glared at me. As a result, the principal assign me to serve in a counseling role on the committee. She gave the task to someone else and assigned me a trivial task. I felt disrespected and humiliated.


Rose stated that she typically arrives to work very early. One day in particular she arrived to her classroom a few minutes late because she was assisting a parent. When she arrived at her door, she heard the principal apologizing to other parents about her unprofessionalism and unreliable behavior. When Rose was able to speak to the parents, they responded, “You are nothing like I thought.” According to Rose, this made her think that the principal spoke negatively of her in the past. Rose shared other experiences with feeling that her efforts to be a good teacher were thwarted by the principal.

The principal never acknowledged anything good that I did. I am an excellent and creative teacher. For example, I supported a student who was usually in the “red” based on his behavior. I was successful in helping him choose positive behaviors. He had problems in other people’s classes, but I had no problems from him. He had attention problems and was very hyperactive, yet I had tolerance for that type of behavior. I provided some accommodations to him by allowing him to research on the computer. He was very interested in polar bears so this kept his interest. While the student was on the computer, the principal looked in my room and gave me bad feedback for not including the student in the group. The principal stated that I allowed him to play on the computer. I told the principal that he was getting some accommodations, not playing. The principal said that he needed to sit with the others and to give him work that is more challenging. However, what he really needed was what I was providing for him. Putting him with the rest of the class did not work. The principal always sabotaged all of the good that I was trying to do.


The principal would regularly walk through Rose’s classroom and send e-mails about mistakes in her room. For example, the principal stated that the classroom was messy because there were crayons left on the classroom floor. However, when the classroom was clean, the principal typically said nothing. Another e-mail stated that Rose should not have been showing movies in her classroom. However, according to Rose, the class was working on a particular lesson where the textbook suggested showing a movie clip. Rose stated that she was only showing part of the movie, not the whole movie. Besides, there was no school-wide policy against showing movies and other teachers showed movies in their classrooms.

On another occasion, the principal changed a deadline for turning in test scores. Rose understood that the due date was on a Monday. However, on the Friday prior to the deadline, Rose was on a leave of absence. In Rose’s absence, the principal changed the deadline from Monday to that Friday. As a result, all of the teachers had to scramble to get their grades done. Rose stated that a co-worker called her and alerted her of the change in dates. Rose went in to work that evening, finished the work, and turned it in that evening. By that following Monday, the principal had the test scores and responded, “How did you get this done by the deadline”? Rose felt like the principal was trying to sabotage her.

Rose explained that she did not complain about her mistreatment because she did not want the principal to know she was hurting her. Rose stated that the principal threatened to change her from a third grade teacher to a fifth grade teacher. At Rose’s school, every teacher dreaded teaching the fifth grade. By Rose’s last year of teaching, she felt physically and mentally weak after all of the bullying. However, Rose explained how she still tried to make social studies fun for her students.

I setup a make believe town and gave each person a job. For example, my student named Marco was in charge of “Marco’s car lot”. The lesson was called “What’s in your Community”? The community had professional businesses, hospitals and even police services. The students learned geography, reading and math from this activity. Even the kids who struggled with English were able to learn from the visual maps and pictures. I took the large map of the community and placed it on the wall. All of the other teachers were impressed but the principal said nothing. For some reason, I was instructed by the principal to take my map down. The following Saturday, we had a meeting/training at school with an invited guest trainer. My map was down but the other teacher’s lessons were up. I felt that the principal tried to humiliate me because she took the guests to my classroom with nothing to show. I just sat there because there was nothing for me to present. The guests seemed to see that the principal was being a jerk to me. Other teachers said that it was unnecessary for the principal to show my classroom. The principal always found fault about trivial things with me.


There were other examples of sabotage that included the principal using a camera to take photos of her daily written objectives. The principal used these photos to complain that Rose had objectives up too long. However, Rose felt that she needed to have an objective up until the students mastered them. Even though Rose tried to teach effectively, she continued to feel abused. Rose expressed why she felt that she was targeted.

I think I was bullied because I spoke my mind at times. It got to the point where I was just waiting for the attack and the principal was waiting for me to fail. One time I received an anonymous letter stating that I was unprofessional, defensive, and had psychological problems. I suspect that the principal wrote it.


Rose shared that it was clear that the principal did not like her when other co-workers noticed her mistreatment.

Other teachers said they could tell that she hated me. She typically used coffee creamer in the staff refrigerator. The coffee creamer was something I purchased on one occasion. One day she asked who purchased the creamer. When someone said my name, she made a negative face and put it back.  I wondered why me? Do I turn people off?


Rose coped with her experiences by praying. Rose also coped by going to the teacher’s union to complain. The union representative met with the principal, but the principal denied the allegations of abuse. The abusive behaviors could not be proven. Rose tried to transfer schools, but since she had many years of experience and a high salary, no other schools would hire her. Rose felt like she was dying inside and always on edge. As a result, she used sick leave due to stress to stay home from work. Rose subsequently retired but found that the cost of living was too high in the United States. Since Rose is of Mexican heritage, she ended up moving to Mexico to reside.

The professional climate included nepotism. Rose shared that the principal promoted a teacher to be the “lead teacher” simply because they were friends. However, Rose (the experienced teacher) was treated as if she was ineffective and needed help. In addition, Rose felt that the principal was told to bully her. According to Rose, the teacher’s union representative shared that teachers with high salaries are bullied so they will retire. Since Rose witnessed this harassment in the past and saw teachers get terminally ill from the abuse, she decided to retire early.

Horizontalization Rose.

            Horizontalization for Rose’s statements revealed that she first saw other teachers bullied and was doubtful until she became a target herself. Rose’s bullying included being singled out, or treated more harshly than the other teachers were treated. Rose felt that the principal was omitting pertinent information from her in an attempt for Rose to fail. Rose felt that she was sabotaged and embarrassed in front of other professionals to cause humiliation. Even though Rose worked hard to teach her students, she felt that the principal did not notice any of her positive skills. Rose felt that she was hated or marked and the goal was for her to fail professionally. Rose was subjected to inferior evaluation scores. At one point, Rose was accused of having psychological problems.

Rose did not know why the bullying was occurring. Rose assumed that her age (e.g. over 40) was a reason for the bullying. Rose also wondered if the bullying was for aesthetic reasons or because Rose was outspoken. Rose did not complain or ask what the issues were out of fear. However, Rose seemed to internalize her experiences by wondering if she had turned people off.

Rose coped by relying on God. She sought assistance from the teacher’s union but found them ineffective. The union concluded that they could not prove that Rose was harassed by the principal. Rose left the situation by going out on sick leave and retiring.

Because Rose retired early, her retirement funds were not enough to support her in the United States. Rose moved to Mexico where the cost of living was lower. Rose reported that she feels better after leaving the school system, and may pursue a second career in education at a charter school.

The goal of this research was to gain a deeper understanding of workplace bullying through the experiences of the six participants in this study. As the researcher came closer to understanding this phenomenon, several themes or reoccurring elements emerged from the participant’s accounts (Van Manen, 1990). The themes included: (a) experiences with workplace bullying, (b) coping, and (c) environmental factors contributing to workplace bullying. Table 3 provides a visual perspective of these themes and the salient themes that emerged from each participant.

Table 3

Thematic Analysis

  Coral Rose Yellow Purple Lime-Green Lavender
RQ #1 What are the lived experiences of elementary level public school educators who have been bullied or experienced bullying at work?
Target was over forty-years-old, experienced educator







Target was female







School had new Leadership




Target had new job location/role




Observed bullying first before becoming target




Unfair evaluation practices





Medical leave due to preexisting health issues







Not knowing why the bullying was taking place






Stress and Anxiety






RQ #2 How have public educators coped with workplace bullying?
Teachers Union not helpful







Talking to others











Sought outside support







Coping by leaving












Table 3.  Thematic Analysis (continued)

  Coral Rose Yellow Purple Lime-Green Lavender
RQ #3 How has the public school climate contributed to workplace bullying?
Professional climate of nepotism and favoritism







Table 3 revealed a representation of the major themes as well as the themes that emerged from the raw data presented. The major themes in this research study revealed the phenomenon of workplace bullying for elementary school level educators. Even though fifteen salient themes emerged from this study, these themes are under three major themes.


Bullied educators are typically smart, hardworking, honest, creative, and successful professionals who are near the retirement age. However, the bullying is not really about them. The bullying is about the climate that they work in. Based on the findings, all of the participants were in professional climates that found value in the turnover of teachers. The school districts that employed the participants used in the sample seemed to want to hire younger and lower salaried professionals. The participants used in the sample had years of experience and a history of good evaluations. Because of their past success, they could not be fired based on ineffective practices. Moreover, the participants in the sample were near retirement age, but did not want to retire yet. These participants were bullied in an attempt to make them leave.

The bullying ranged in behaviors from giving unfair evaluations to pitting students and other teachers against the educator. However, what was common to all of the bullying practices was the intent to wear down the victim psychologically, enough to get them to leave. Even though the participants found ways to cope, half of them eventually left due to the bullying. This research revealed bleak meanings for those considering long careers in the field of education. According to this research, the current climate in the field of education uses bullying as a way to remove seasoned educators from their jobs.

The findings of this research study can add to the body of research on workplace bullying. However, this study seemed to explore a small facet of a very large phenomenon. Phenomenological research studies focus on the lived experience of a phenomenon in the voice of the participant (Cho & Trent, 2006). Therefore, to understand the experience of workplace bullying, this researcher suggests more qualitative studies.

Future studies should explore the implications of race and diversity with regard to workplace bullying in education. As stated earlier, the researcher had a difficult time gaining a racially diverse sample in the primary group of participants. The majority of participants in this research were Caucasian, with one identifying as Hispanic. In the American society, there are some advantages to being white or perceived as white (McIntosh, 1988). Multicultural expert Peggy McIntosh (1988) shared that her experience with white privilege was like wearing an invisible backpack that afforded her fairness and equality in a racially unequal society. Oppression is typically not based on race when one has this backpack (McIntosh, 1988). Therefore, racial disparities were not assumed by the participants in this study. When the world is viewed through the lens of having advantages, individuals tend to stand up and fight for themselves when treated unfairly (Vasquez, 2001).

On the other hand, African Americans and other members of “visibly racial ethnic minority groups” may feel that they are already subordinate or on the bottom of a caste system (Pope-Davis & Coleman, 1997). Because of this, they may internalize racism and other forms of unfair treatment and use other coping mechanisms such as prayer instead of standing up for themselves. In addition, the internalization of racism and other forms of mistreatment may lead to cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure (Cooper, Thayer, & Waldstein, 2014).

Future studies should also explore why administrators (e.g. principals) bully teachers. Blase and Blase (2003) reported that principals have unique challenges and pressures including long hours with low compensation. In addition to inadequate budgets, school reform, and accountability practices, many principals face anxiety and frustration (Blase & Blase, 2003). Perhaps, some of these administrators are experiencing mistreatment, which is spilling over into their management. Some of the research participants felt that the principals were new and forced to bully. Others felt that the principals were forcing the teachers to retire because they were over 40 and made a high salary. Future studies should gain insight into the stories and experiences of principals from a bullying perspective.















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