Bullies in the workplace: Sabotaging police culture

Bullying is now recognized as “not just for kids” as the problem of adult bullying in the workplace is getting attention — the law enforcement workplace is not exempt


Camaraderie is the backbone of the law enforcement profession — it is necessary for safety, teamwork, and support. In fact, policing as a profession promises the hope of a lifetime of friendship and fellowship among those who serve and protect. 

Cops are often criticized, sometimes targeted, and discerning friend from foe can be thorny — we expect to encounter evil on the streets and responding to calls, and even off-duty the guard is never fully lowered. This is why we must stand firm as the Thin Blue Line to protect each other from harm. 

But do we? Or do we, as many have long observed, have the troubling tendency to devour our own? What are the physiological and psychological effects on those targeted by one of their own or bullied on the job?

What Does the Research Say?
According to a CareerBuilder study released in September 2014, 28 percent of workers have felt bullied at work — nearly one in five (19 percent) of these workers left their jobs because of it. 

Of those who reported being bullied at some point in their careers, nearly one in four (24 percent) reported the bullying occurring in their present jobs. Surprisingly, bullied workers in management roles were the most likely to report this. While high school graduates without further education had a higher tendency to feel pressured by a bully, nearly one in four bullied workers (23 percent) with bachelor’s degrees or higher reported it happening in their present positions. 

Of the bullied workers, forty-five percent pointed to their boss as the main offender, with another twenty-five percent identifying their tormentor as someone higher up in the organization. Forty-six percent claimed bullying by co-worker(s). More than half (53 percent) reporting bullying said the aggressor was older than they and twenty-five percent were bullied by someone younger. Most often only one person was the bully, but nearly one in five workers (19 percent) said the incidents occurred in either group settings, with multiple aggressors, or with more than one person participating over time. 

In a comparison of workers in the public and private sectors, government employees “were nearly twice as likely to report being bullied (47 percent) than those in the corporate world (28 percent).” 

Unlike a private sector employee who can more easily leave a job for greener, or at least friendlier, pastures if their employment situation is intolerable, public employees may be bound in place by the understandable goal of reaching a pension too lucrative to give up for the less certain post-employment future of the private sector, that they have seniority and benefits they’d rather not surrender, or they hold a job that simply doesn’t exist outside government service. 

Additionally, bullies in the public sector may enjoy far greater job protection, particularly if there are strong civil service rules and/or union contracts granting them security the corporate employees — whose employment is more likely to be “at-will” — do not have. In fact, in some cases of bullying, the victim and aggressor might even be seeking the help and shelter of the very same union in their dispute.

Thinking about bullying in terms of cops doing it to other cops might seem ridiculous — these are the people hired to protect society, who step in between the “bullies” and the innocent out in the world, right? 

The Workplace Bully, Defined
In her April 6, 2014 Forbes article, “Is Your Boss a Bully?” Carol Kinsey Goman defined workplace bullying as…

“the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of an employee in the form of verbal abuse or behaviors that are threatening, intimidating, or humiliating. Bullies at work practice psychological violence. They yell, insult, throw tantrums, steal credit, spread rumors, withhold crucial information, and/or socially isolate their targets by excluding them. The body language of bullies includes staring, glaring, or totally ignoring the target when he/she speaks. Bullies often engage in aggressive finger pointing, invade personal space and use touch as a measure of control (a bone-crushing handshake) or a means to patronize (a pat on the head).”

Having studied, written, and provided training on the topic of police morale over the last few years, we’ve been struck at the feedback in person, on comment boards, and via email, from police officers of all ranks and positions describing demoralizing behaviors that can objectively be called “bullying.” 

We knew low morale was a problem in law enforcement, quickly came to learn how much of it originated from within, and are coming to see that bullying is a problem in the law enforcement workplace. 

Bullying in policing can take many forms. A few of the most common are: 

•    Persistent teasing and pranks that clearly go beyond that of affectionately including someone as “just one of the guys”; withholding (“siloing”) information to undermine another’s performance
•    Badmouthing or rumor-mongering; coalitioning against the victim; intentionally being slow to back up — or even refusing to come to the aid of — a targeted officer (rare, but not unheard of)
•    Intimidation, outright threats, or physical abuse of the victim employee. 

Each of these may manifest in different ways, and can be peer-to-peer bullying or across rank in either direction. Top-down bullying was often cited. An insidious practice often seemingly legitimized under color of supervisory or management privilege, this form of bullying is seen in the form of: 

•    Inconsistent or disparate treatment of employees under a single supervisor showing favoritism toward certain subordinates, while scapegoating others, with no clear reason why
•    Minimizing or ignoring serious transgressions by the favored, while amplifying or never forgiving those of the targeted
•    Gossiping about or undermining a subordinate to their peers, or publically chastising
•    Holding targeted officers to higher, even impossible, standards of performance
•    Thwarting professional growth and advancement for personal reasons

Who Gets Targeted? 
Like their child/adolescent counterparts, adult bullies are opportunistic and always like to have a target for their aggression. Driven by personal or professional insecurities, weak ego strength, and a desire to assert authority or bolster their own status, adult bullies prey on those they perceive as threats.

Studies demonstrate the victims of adult bullies tend to have certain shared characteristics, including: excelling at their job, often exceeding their bullies in competence; are popular, well-liked, and often at the center of attention; possessing high morals and integrity, as well as a strong work ethic; and, perhaps most telling, are not likely to fight back against the behavior. 

Workplace bullies compensate for their own real or feared weaknesses by trying to eliminate or marginalize those they sense are better, might make them look “bad”, or receive more attention.  

Bullying in any environment is toxic, but in a police environment it may be especially toxic, and is a source of much of the low morale described by officers of all ranks. 

About the author

Althea Olson, LCSW, and Mike Wasilewski, MSW, have been married since 1994. Mike works full time as a police officer for a large suburban Chicago agency while Althea is a social worker in private practice at Fox Bend Counseling in Oswego (Illinois). They write on a wide range of topics to include officer wellness, relationships, mental health, morale, and ethics. Their writing led to them developing More Than A Cop, and they have traveled the country as police trainers teaching “survival skills off the street.”

Contact Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski

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