Upward Bullying
Risks and Countermeasures

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Typical types of workplace harassment are known as physical, sexual, emotional and verbal harassment. In many cases, it tends to be thought that victims are in a lower position or minority group, however, anyone can be one of them. In other words, managers are included as well.

In this article, we focus on “upward bullying.” What happens if it occurs? What are the countermeasures? As HR professionals, there will be some keys to prevent such issues.


What Is Upward Bullying?


Power harassment is one of the workplace bullying. Someone in a higher position bullies a lower position employee. However, the situation is not always the same.

In this article, we will focus on the latter case of workplace bullying.


Workplace bullying by a subordinate against his or her superior is called “upward bullying.”

In general, power harassment includes verbal, physical, psychological harassment using dominant relationships, and in many cases, subordinates tend to be victims.

However, there are some opposite cases. The following explain other cases.

Causes of Upward Bullying

Lack of Awareness

Harassment is difficult to be recognized. One of the reasons can be lack of awareness in a workplace. Many employees may think that harassment is conducted by superiors, and not expect there to be upward bullying nearby. Although some organizations may conduct employee training for managers to prevent harassment towards subordinates, there will be very few opportunities to improve employees’ awareness for upward bullying as training.

It will be indispensable for all employees to inform unwelcome behaviors without reasonable purpose can be harassment even in a lower position in an organization.

Gap in Skills and Experiences

In some cases, a subordinate has more experience or higher skills than a supervisor. These circumstances could cause upward bullying since the subordinate might look down on his or her supervisor.

Lack of Management Skills

Subordinates are not always satisfied with their supervisor’s management regardless of his or her efforts. Even though there may be workplace counseling, the problem tends to be left unnoticed and unresolved since the victim would try to solve the problem by himself/herself because of the position. In some cases, the situation may get worse when the problem is out of sight.

In this digital society, social networking services can be a trigger to make a negative reputation on organizations. If either the perpetrator or victim posted some negative comments about the workplace or employees, nobody can stop the rapid spread, which may result in decline in sales, difficulties to secure human resources and affect the business development.

What Does Upward Bullying Entail?

Lower Productivity

Work environment plays an important role for employees to keep motivated. The higher motivation results in higher employee productivity, and vice versa. Upward bullying can compromise lower productivity due to the hostile workplace environment and victim’s psychological stress.
What is worse, it can lead to a negative cycle of deteriorating business performance, which in turn can lead to an increasingly deteriorating work environment.

Mental Illness

Normalized workplace bullying can cause psychological stress toward the victim, and the risk of mental illness will increase. Depression and adjustment disorder may possibly occur, leading to leave of absence or retirement. In the worst case, the victim might get involved in incidents or accidents.

Victim Litigation

Victims have the right to file a lawsuit based on employer liability. When an organization fails to take preventive measures against upward bullying or ignores consultations, it will have a more negative impact on the business.
Precedents have recognized damages for harassment, and depending on the situation, there will be possibilities for the organization to pay a large amount of compensation for the victim.

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Case Studies and Countermeasures


What will you do when you witness your manager or other employees being harassed? We will elaborate on countermeasures introducing some case studies.


Verbal or Physical Violence

Physical violence includes punching, kicking or other direct physical attack. On the other hand, verbal violence does not always include direct one. Unwelcomed rumors can be also regarded as verbal violence or harassment. It does not matter which position the perpetrator belongs to.
When it comes to slanders posted on social networking systems, it could be defamation if the content contains personally identifiable elements.

Overreaction to Appropriate Direction and Guidance

When reasonable scope of the job and appropriate instructions are given by a supervisor, subordinates need to pay attention to their own behaviors.
For instance, compulsive words like lawsuit will be regarded as harassment.

Job abandonment or absenteeism can be upward bullying regardless of the supervisor’s appropriate attention and guidance.

Workplace Isolation

Upward bullying also includes workplace isolation. In some cases, subordinates collectively ignore their superiors or isolate him or her in their group. The point is that it is difficult for an individual to resist it, even if he or she is in a superior position as a manager.

Requests for Reassignment or Dismissal

When an employee asks an organization to reassign or dismiss his or her supervisor, make sure if there are justifiable reasons. Confirming the facts might be difficult if there are no witnesses and lead to other issues including personal relationships at work.


If upward bullying occurs at work, it is important to involve the victim's supervisors and take a firm stance. Do not let the victim stand alone to prevent him or her from mental illness.

Collecting evidence will be a big help. HR professionals may ask the victim to make a record of the attention and guidance given to subordinates, and objectively confirm the facts based on evidence of suspected harassment and the testimony of the employee.

It is also helpful to have a third-party consultation. Public service is also available to have counseling.

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How to Prevent Upward Bullying


What measures should be taken to prevent upward bullying at work? Details will be delved into in the following chapter.


To improve employee awareness toward harassment including upward bullying, onboarding plays an important role. Specific examples of problematic behaviors will result in preventing harassment or early detection of suspicious cases. In terms of the training type, outsourcing is one of the major ways but some companies shed some light on customized in-house training courses using an elearning system.
When the latter method is implemented, management training for managers will be also effective.

Establish Provisions

An internal system must be in place to prevent harassment. In addition to clearly stating the disciplinary actions to be taken against harassment offenders, the employment regulations should also stipulate the company's anti-harassment policy and inform employees.

Keep Records

In confirming the fact of upward bullying in the workplace, it is indispensable to clarify that appropriate guidance was given to subordinates. As written above, have the relevant manager keep a record of the guidance, including the date, time, and reasons for the guidance, the details of the guidance, and the subordinate's comments or actions.

Establish In-House Consulting Roles

For early detection and resolution of workplace harassment including upward bullying, establishing in-house counseling is one of the effective methods to support employees in many ways.
Once it is established, not only general employees but managers will take advantage of the service, which will lead to employee well-being.

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There are some cases where managers or supervisors are harassed by their subordinates at work. In general, upward bullying tends to be less recognized than other types of harassment. Each organization needs some effort to support employees in any positions and prevent the issues enhancing their awareness. Although there are some methods for a better workplace environment, harassment training will be one of the effective ways to understand the specific problematic behaviors and risks as well as to enhance employee awareness.

For in-house elearning courses, learningBOX will help you effectively.

learningBOX is a cloud-based elearning platform and you can easily build training courses online.
Created content will be delivered to employees and you can track their learning progress.

In addition to the flexible content creation, personalized learning will boost each employee's understanding and knowledge by customizable settings. 

There will be something you can do to improve your work environment.

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Impact on the Workplace

Harassment refers to annoying behavior such as harassment or bullying of a person. It does not matter whether the harasser has malicious intent or not, if the harassed person feels mentally uncomfortable, it constitutes harassment.

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