Research on workplace bullying shows increased awareness

Information helps people understand that bullying is more than just “kid stuff.”

March 17, 2014 - Author: Carolyn Penniman, Michigan State University Extension

Michigan State University Extension violence prevention programs focus on changing negative beliefs and attitudes that support violence. These programs aim to build social competencies and relationships across differences to find healthy alternatives to negative behavior. In exploring issues of violence prevention, a recent topic of research is adult bullying.

Research Director, Gary Namie, PhD of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), takes some credit for the high level of public awareness about adult bullying that was reported in the U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey released in February 2014. According to the survey, 27 percent of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work, another 21 percent have witnessed it and 72 percent are aware that workplace bullying happens. Men make up about two-thirds of bullies, and their targets are women 57 percent of the time. Although women make up only 31 percent of bullies, their targets are other women more than two-thirds of the time. Bullying by a boss is the most common kind of workplace bullying, making up more than half of all instances.

Namie and Ruth Namie, PhD co-founded the WBI in 1998, and have continued to educate the public through research, consulting and publications. They have co-authored The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011) and The Bully at Work second edition (Sourcebooks, 2009), which are derived from empirical research and also from coaching and counseling over 5,000 individuals. Ruth is a clinical psychologist and Namie is a social psychologist, and they have experienced workplace bullying themselves. Namie and Ruth’s articles are published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, International Journal of Communication, Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, Ivey Business Journal, Journal of Employee Assistance; and contributed chapters in the books Destructive Organizational Communication, and Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Developments in Theory, Research and Practice.

The subject of adult bullying is also studied at The Project for Wellness and Work-Life (PWWL), which is a consortium of scholars based at Arizona State University. They examine organizational topics related to work-life wellbeing, including workplace bullying. Sarah Tracy, PhD is associate professor and PWWL director. According to Tracy, “an important first step of changing workplace bullying, is helping people to understand that it's more than just kid stuff.” She points out that many Americans are now familiar with sexual and racial harassment, but didn’t identify that behavior before the term “sexual harassment” was in the American lexicon. Until recently, the term “bully” has been used to describe a schoolyard tyrant, so identifying yourself as a victim of a playground act can make a person feel weak and childish. If allowed to escalate into an established pattern, bullying among adults can lead to high company costs including increased employee illness, use of sick days, and medical costs, ultimately affecting productivity. Tracy’s research appeared in the journal Management Communication Quarterly.

Researchers agree that workplace bullying is defined as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of a person by one or more individuals through these types of actions:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including non-verbal) which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating
  • Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done

Bullying is a form of violence and aggression, and the actions can be both obvious and subtle.

It is sometimes hard to know if bullying is happening at the workplace. Bullying, by definition, is repeated and escalates over time. It is difficult to prevent because it usually starts in small ways, and many times the person who is targeted believes that they caused it or deserve it.

Many studies acknowledge that there is a "fine line" between strong management and bullying. Comments that are objective and are intended to provide constructive feedback are not usually considered bullying, but rather are intended to assist the employee with their work.

If you are not sure an action or statement could be considered bullying, you can use the "reasonable person" test. Would most people consider the action unacceptable?

Tags: bullying, community, conflict resolution, leadership, managing relationships, msu extension, violence prevention

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