Workplace Bullying In The EFL Industry

By Kaithe Greene

The title of this article raises two obvious questions. Firstly, what is workplace bullying? Secondly, is it any different in the EFL industry to any other workplace? In this article I will attempt to address these questions before moving on to discussing the causes and strategies for dealing with it.

In my quest to understand this difficult topic I took to the internet – both those websites on which individuals share their experiences and support each other, and those where empirical research papers are published. Interestingly, the research supports the more popular, touchy-feely view/approach. This is what I found.

What is bullying?

Einarsen and Skogstad (1996) define bullying as “a situation where one or several individuals persistently over a period of time perceive themselves to be on the receiving end of negative actions from one or several persons, in a situation where the target of bullying has difficulty in defending him or herself against these actions. We will not refer to a one-off incident as bullying.”

This definition stresses the negative and ongoing nature of bullying as opposed to an occasional display of aggression or unfairness. It is the repetitive nature of such behaviour, coupled with the targets’ inability to defend themselves that causes the typical demoralizing and destructive effect on an individual who experiences being a target of bullying. What would make an individual defenceless? Many people find it difficult to argue with, or contradict their line manager or boss, or even just an older or more experienced colleague.

Hoel and Cooper (2001) listed negative, bullying behaviours as including:

  • Withholding information which affects performance.
  • Being given tasks with unreasonable or impossible targets or deadlines.
  • Having opinions and views ignored.
  • Being exposed to an unmanageable workload.
  • Being ordered to do work below your competence.
  • Having key areas of responsibility removed or replaced with more trivial or unpleasant tasks.
  • Being humiliated or ridiculed in connection with your work.
  • Spreading gossip.
  • Unwanted sexual attention.
  • Insulting messages
  • Insults or offensive remarks made about your person.
  • Being ignored, excluded or “sent to Coventry”

Who bullies whom?

Hoel and Cooper’s research (2001) also informs us that “Managers or persons in superior formal positions were reported as perpetrators in 74.7% of incidences. The equivalent figures were 36.7% for peers or colleagues, 6.7% for subordinates and 7.8% for clients.”

David Palferman, for the UK HSE comments on “…..terms such as ‘strong management’, ‘tough management’, assertiveness ……. It is suggested that the use of bullying as a management tool is a clear indication of poor management practice.”

According to Raynor “Workplace bullying has been estimated to affect up to 50% of the United Kingdom’s workforce at some time in their working lives, with annual prevalences of up to 38%”

Frightening statistics these – do they apply to the world of EFL? Given the transient nature of employment as an EFL teacher it is hard to say. With the preponderance of short term and academic year contracts it is very easy to simply leave if you’re not happy with your working environment or boss and no one will think any the worse of you. Indeed, many prospective employers look positively on a CV which shows a breadth of experience in different countries with a range of age groups and levels.

How often have you heard teachers express an opinion of which schools are good places to work and which aren’t? How often are these preferences seen on websites? What does this say about the EFL profession, and management as a whole?

Given the statistics (mine are a random selection from those freely available), it seems unlikely that the EFL industry is free of workplace bullying. Given the apparent incidence of this sorry state of affairs it would also seem that solutions to the problem are not readily available.

According to several other sources it seems that a bully will often target an individual who may be vulnerable in some way or another. Vulnerability comes in many different shapes and forms. One form of vulnerability is feeling isolated and unsupported. This is not unusual when in a new country, new school or new job – after all it takes a little while to build up a network of supportive friends and colleagues. Another form of vulnerability is a lack of self-confidence – again, not uncommon for anyone new to the profession, and there are a lot of young people, away from their home country for the first time teaching English as a Foreign Language. Who hasn’t felt their self-confidence quiver when faced with an incomprehensible and unpredictable climate, language and culture?

The (possible) causes of bullying

The next obvious question is – what causes bullying? According to some authorities bullying is learnt behaviour. According to Kara Schmidt, in her article on “Bullies want control. Children may be abused or bullied at home by their parents or older siblings. They may come to school and continue the ‘pecking order.’ Bullies who get away with it often grow into adults who bully in the workplace or social groups where they feel threatened or competitive.”

Others suggest that personality is a major factor. BjoÈrkqvist et al., 1994 found that “The three main reasons were competition concerning status and job positions, envy, and the aggressor being uncertain about his/her self”. In the same study Brodsky (1976), who studied some 1,000 cases of work harassment in the USA, is cited as having concluded “…that for harassment to occur the harassment elements must exist within a culture that permits or even rewards such kinds of behaviour. Bullying will only take place if the offender feels he has the blessing, support, or at least the implicit permission by his superiors to behave in this manner.” This does not look good for any organization with a hierarchical structure of management.

If you are really unlucky, the bully, or serial bully, in your workplace might be suffering from antisocial personality disorder aka being a sociopath. A sociopath is very manipulative, charming, dishonest and lacking a conscience.

Being bullied?

What should you do if you are being bullied? Make lots of friends in your school, and talk to them about your situation. You will feel better if you have some support. Keep a record of events – it might help support any formal complaint you may need to make. It will also help you to reflect on your situation and stay sane. Avoid private meetings with the bully – if you can’t avoid this situation and you have a voice recording function on your phone use it. Don’t be afraid to let this person see that you are making notes. Speak to someone in a more senior position, but be sure that you can calmly present a coherent case. Get counselling if possible.

Accused of bullying?

What should you do if feel you have been unjustly accused of bullying? A period of quiet reflection is a good first line of defence. Ask yourself honestly if there could be any justification for the complaint. One definition of bullying is being heavy handed too often. If you are a manager are you using an outdated model of management, or a competitive and overbearing conversational style? Modern thinking tends to favour a more consultative form of management over the more autocratic style. If you are a colleague, are you expressing yourself too assertively or competitively in your place of work? Is your sense of humour way off the mark? Are you being insensitive towards a younger or less experienced individual? Talk to someone about it and try to get a different perspective on the situation.

Last but not least

Finally, are you aware of someone in your school or teaching centre bullying or bring bullied? There is significant evidence to suggest that witnessing bullying is stressful and debilitating, and that bullying can cause a toxic workplace. If you know this is happening around you and you do nothing, are you guilty of enabling the situation? If you are in this situation talk to someone about it, make positive suggestions for remedying the situation. Be a force for good in your workplace.


  • Einarsen, S. & Skogstad, A. (1996) Bullying at work: Epidemiological findings in private and public organisations European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 5 , 185-201.
  • Rayner C. The incidence of workplace bullying J Comm Appl Soc Psychol 1997;7:199-208.
  • Helge Hoel & Cary Cooper (2000) Destructive conflict and bullying at work
  • David Palferman Bullying at work: a review of the literature (2006)
  • Kay Scmidt What Are the Causes of Bullying? |
  • StaÊle Einarsen The nature and causes of bullying at work University of Bergen, Norway. 1994
Written by Kaithe Greene for July 2012
Having been in the EFL industry for nearly twenty years Kaithe is currently working for Language Link Vietnam where she is Head of Teacher Training and Development. When not working she can be found grannying in Devon or Australia.

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