…bullying at work

It might be the winter, some research I have been working on, or something else, but this month, I chose to write about a theme that is rather “dark” or unpleasant.

One of the groups in which I collaborate has been focused on increasing our understanding of workplace harassment, also known as “bullying” or “mobbing.”  It is unfortunate, but for many individuals, being pushed around, shoved and otherwise physically intimidated by peers (or others) is not a distant memory from middle school; it is a present reality that occasionally even makes it to the media headlines.  There are also subtler types of bullying, such as impossible deadlines or tasks, resource restrictions that make assignments unattainable for employees, and other kinds of actions that we might consider a “constructive discharge” when they are originated by the employer, or “relational aggression” when they come from individuals at similar –or even lower—hierarchical levels.

Regardless of its origin or whether the harassment is corporeal or purely emotional, employees who experience bullying simply cannot be as productive as those whose work experience is free from aggression.  In fact, there is evidence suggesting that intent to stay, engagement and commitment scores decrease significantly in individuals who are victims of these undesirable behaviors.

As you may imagine, there seem to be a number of differences among countries, industries, hierarchical levels, and other demographic descriptors.  A few studies have shown that in some countries, some degree of “assertiveness” –if not outright aggressiveness—is expected of supervisors in order to fulfill their expectations.  Other studies document how behaviors that are OK in some countries (say, hugging or commenting on a coworker’s attractiveness) may be considered out of line in others; a similar argument can be made about industries and even about regions within countries.

My colleagues and I have been surveying management professionals in about eighteen countries, and we have been analyzing the data to write and share our findings.  The multicultural nature of this group has helped me realize that there are strong differences in how countries approach this problem.  Several countries such as Australia, Canada and Norway, have legislation that attempt to reduce bullying, while the United States may be said to focus only on harassment that can be constructed as discriminatory of a protected class.  In other words, if the bullying behaviors can be linked to differences in sex, race, nation of origin, color, religion, pregnancy, disability status, or being over 40 years of age, there are legal provisions against it; but when there is no such link, our federal legislation offers no protection (though some states might).

Our studies have found interesting relationships between different cultural characteristics and a propensity to find bullying acceptable.  I know this might sound obvious, but it is one thing to have “a hunch” that something is happening, and a different thing to find tangible evidence to support it.  I have also found that there are several companies that offer consulting services to help organizations deal with these problems through education, assessments and other interventions.  Let me suggest that this might not only be an interesting topic for a course project (if you are currently studying your master’s degree), but also something worth implementing in your company.

What do you think?  Have you ever seen or had any of these experiences?  Are there any additional issues that we should take into account to understand this phenomenon? Or –even better—, to stop it or prevent it from occurring?  Please send me your comments via email to drolivaslujan@gmail.com or by posting a comment on my facebook profile.  I look forward to hearing from you!

¡Hasta la próxima!

To learn more on workplace bullying, check the following:

-    Einarsen, S.E., H. Hoel, D. Zapf, & C.L. Cooper (2003). Bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace. International perspectives in research and practice. London: Taylor & Francis.
-    Fox, S., & Spector, P., (2005). Counterproductive Work Behaviors. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
-    Liu, C., Nauta, M. M., Spector, P. E., & Li, C. (2008). Direct and indirect conflicts at work in China and the US: A cross-cultural comparison. Work & Stress, 22(4), 295-313.
-    Loh, M.I., Restubog, S.D.L., & Zagenczyk, T.J. (2010). Consequences of workplace bullying on employee identification and satisfaction among Australians and Singaporeans: exploring the moderating role of power-distance. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 41, 236-252.