Bullying at Work: An ethical and leadership dilemma for all Project Managers


By Paul Pelletier, LL.B, PMP

Vancouver, BC, Canada



“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Desmond Tutu

This quote applies to bullies as well as it applies to elephants. Bullying can be as harmful in the workplace as it is in schools and other areas of society, causing the well understood personal emotional impacts plus a long list of challenges for project manager and their organizations where it is taking place. Sadly, the rates of workplace bullying, despite efforts to eliminate it, are increasingly dramatically. The good news is that increased public awareness, recent research, and expanding illegalization of workplace bullying have paved the way for efforts to prevent it. Employers are becoming more acutely aware of the human, legal, ethical, and financial costs associated with workplace bullying. In order to directly and proactively address this issue project managers and their organizations need to take action. Fortunately, there are many sources of information and tools available to assist project managers and senior management.

Workplace Bullying: A Definition

Bullying can be as harmful in the workplace as it is in schools and other areas of society. The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment, verbal abuse, or conduct which is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or sabotage that interferes with work, or some combination of the three”. Projects are subsets of workplaces and since project management is, for the most part, an activity that involves working very closely with others, the impact of a bully in a project is potentially lethal to project success.

To complicate matters, workplace bullies are often hard to identify clearly. They can be highly skilled yet socially manipulative, targeting “weaker” employees while adept at charming those they deem will serve their career path well. Thus, a senior manager or their supervisor may say, “That person seems great to me.”

Workplace Bullying is Increasing

According to a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, over the last few decades, the number of people who’ve admitted to being the target of workplace bullying has increased drastically. The article notes that in 2011, half of employees in one survey said they were treated rudely at least once a week, an increase of 25% from 1998. Further, the Workplace Bullying Institute notes that many people who have experienced bullying have developed health issues including anxiety and depression. Some have even left their jobs in an attempt to escape the situation, often feeling they have no one to turn to for support in the organization or in fear of retaliation. These statistics and the harm bullies can cause has direct impact on projects and project managers – if there is a bully operating in a project, the impact on the project team can be toxic, which inevitably has negative impacts for the team members and the project.


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About the Author

Paul Pelletier

Vancouver, BC, Canada




Paul Pelletier, LL.B., PMP, is a workplace respect consultant, corporate lawyer, project manager and executive. He works with organizations to prevent, manage and eliminate workplace bullying. His book “Workplace Bullying – It’s just Bad for Business” highlights how bullying is lethal to project management and business success. He also serves as a member of the PMI Ethics Member Advisory Group. He has published articles, presented webinars, workshops and been a presenter at many PMI events, including Global Congresses, Leadership Institute Meetings and Chapter events. Paul Pelletier can be reached at http://www.paulpelletierconsulting.com/ or [email protected]