Do bullies really prosper?

A new survey suggests child bullies go on to earn more, but is that really surprising given that they often face few consequences and are positively encouraged in some workplaces?

Man bullying a woman sitting at a desk


A study reported on over the weekend suggests bullies prosper in the workplace. The study, from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, suggests that children who displayed aggressive behaviour at school, such as bullying or temper outbursts, are likely to earn more money in middle age. It is based on data from primary school teachers who assessed children’s social and emotional skills when they were 10 years old in 1980, and matched it to their lives at the age of 46 in 2016.

Professor Emilia Del Bono, one of the study’s authors, said: “We found that those children who teachers felt had problems with attention, peer relationships and emotional instability did end up earning less in the future, as we expected, but we were surprised to find a strong link between aggressive behaviour at school and higher earnings in later life.”

The researchers found that an increase in teachers’ observations of conduct problems – such as temper outbursts or bullying or teasing other children – was associated with an increase in earnings in 2016 of nearly 4% for a given rise in conduct problems for boys and girls.

Over the weekend, talk show hosts and the like have expressed surprise, saying it goes against the kind of advice parents of bullied children give out, that bullies will not do well in later life. That depends on what we think doing well means, of course. Moreover, is it all that surprising that bullies tend to have higher paid jobs given the extent of bullying in the workplace? Another survey out this week suggests one in 10 employees have witnessed or experienced sexual harassment at work. You could argue that sexual harassment is one form of bullying.

I’ve certainly been in a fair few workplaces and have seen bullying managers in action. Generally, the person bullied leaves, often taking months to recover from the experience. And the bully faces little if no action. And yet the impact of bullying can be devastating, not just for the individual concerned, but for the culture of the organisation generally. Often the calculation seems to be that it is cheaper to let the person being bullied leave and keep the manager in place, but that is the way that bullying thrives.

It’s not enough to have an anti-bullying policy or a reporting system if people don’t feel they can use it. The sexual harassment survey showed half of people who have experienced or witnessed harassment do not report it. Reporting processes need to encourage victims and witnesses to speak up and anti-bullying policies have to be seen to be enforced.

Also there needs to be proper training for managers which emphasises that bullying will not be tolerated. Bullying may be a sign that a manager is under pressure themselves and does not have the skills to handle certain situations. Managers are often promoted because they are good at their jobs and lack the people skills needed more than ever now to motivate their teams and understand how to get the best out of each individual. The culture of an organisation is set from the top down as well as the bottom up. Leaders need to show that they have zero tolerance for bullying and employees need to see that there are consequences if they bully a colleague.

Bullying is a scourge on workplaces and everywhere it is found. It may sometimes deliver in the short term through fear, but in the long term it is deeply damaging.

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