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October 19, 2011 | Volume 5 | Number 9
October 19, 2011
Workplace satisfaction often comes from a good match between our expectations, goals, style and talents with the realities of our work environment (Edwards, Cable, Williamson, Lambert, & Shipp, 2006). We enter the workplace with belongingness needs (Herschcovis & Barling, 2010) and expectations regarding trust (Montes & Irving, 2008), fairness and justice (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001) in our interchanges with our employer and others in the work environment. However, each year many of these expectations are violated in the workplace through incidences of bullying, incivility, mobbing or harassment, or relational or social aggression.
Workplace bullying, incivility and harassment are generally characterized by the use of interpersonal tactics to harm another’s status, reputation, confidence and/or ability to function productively. These actions are more than occasional rudeness, unintentional oversight or healthy competition.
The actions may be direct or indirect. Examples of direct tactics may be overloading with heavy or conflicting work assignments, unfair evaluations, intrusive micromanaging, or verbal, nonverbal or physical acts directed toward the victim, such as sarcastic remarks, nonverbal gestures (e.g., grimaces, eye-rolling), misinformation, harsh criticisms/withholding praise, ignoring and physical distancing, withholding resources and other behaviors to thwart, embarrass or devalue the victim.
Indirect tactics often involve manipulating others’ beliefs and behaviors towards the victim. The clandestine nature of indirect maneuvers often makes them more difficult to observe and understand (Forrest, Eatogh, & Shevlin, 2005). For example, negative comments about the victim may occur in private meetings or conversations where impressions about the employee’s performance, integrity and prospects can have unfair impact on decisions regarding the victim’s work status and relationships. In addition, while some may dismiss gossip as idle entertainment, with a “just kidding” air, it may be used to exert power for self and/or do harm to others. Sadly, gossip can become a self-reinforcing process which can change the very norms of interpersonal behaviors in the workplace towards more acceptance of interpersonal aggression (Kurland & Pelled, 2000).
According to a national survey conducted in the U.S. by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 12.6 percent of respondents were currently being bullied or had been during the previous 12 months; another 24 percent reported they had been bullied in the past; and another 12 percent reported witnessing, but not experiencing, workplace bullying (Namie, 2009). Increases in incivility have also been noted among professionals, such as in academia (Twale & DeLuca, 2008), nursing (Ulrich, Lavandero, Hart, et al., 2006) and law (Ortega & Maleson, 2008).
Our quandaries with how to recognize, understand and respond proactively to these types of interpersonal aggression are similar to those we have faced in the past regarding sexual/gender harassment. Both types:
Yet, there are two important differences between these types of harassment.
A recent meta-analysis by Herschcovis and Barling (2010) found that those who experienced interpersonal aggression had significantly lower job satisfaction, supervisor satisfaction, affective commitment, and psychological well-being, but higher intent to turnover and job stress, than those who experienced sexual/gender harassment. Only work withdrawal was significantly higher for the victims of sexual harassment.
The differences in impact may be related to who is more likely to be a victim, as well as the attributions made by self and others about victims of interpersonal aggression. Unlike sexual/gender harassment, victims of interpersonal aggression may be targeted due to their records of task and interpersonal success. In fact, Namie and Namie (n.d.) argue that targets often are “the veteran and most skilled person in the workgroup” (para. 2), independent, ethical, honest, socially skilled and well-liked. These features may lead them to be perceived as insubordinate or a threat; in some cases, they may be viewed as disloyal when they voice ethical or legal concerns. However, targets are also less confrontative when victimized, which may embolden others against them. In addition, women are more likely to be targets (77 percent) and the target of other women (84 percent vs. 69 percent for men); minority or other protected group status did not predict victimization (Namie, 2008).
Attacks that question the competency and integrity of the employee may have particularly negative impacts on targets who have developed an internal sense of personal competence and acceptance. Herschcovis and Barling (2010) found that being a victim of interpersonal aggression leads to far more negative, internal attributions about self than when a victim of sexual/gender harassment. With time, the victim develops a sense of powerlessness over, and inferiority within, the situation (Einarsen & Mikkelsen, 2003), feeling more pessimistic about their work, their colleagues and their world. Risks also exist for post-traumatic stress and other physical and emotional impairments (Rodriguez-Munoz, Moreno-Jimenez, Sanz Vergel, & Garossa Hernandez, 2010). In a parallel process, others’ attributions about the competence or effectiveness of the besieged employee are affected (Bowman & Stern, 1995), which can increase the momentum toward the victim’s final voluntary or involuntary separation (Sablynski, Lee, Mitchell, Buron, & Holtom, 2002). In addition, witnessing bullying creates similar risks to emotional and physical health (Lovell & Lee, 2011).
Clear definitions and legal protections are not generally in place in the United States for victims of workplace bullying (Yamada, 2004). When victims of workplace bullying try to pursue their rights in court, they must sue on the basis of a violation of some other law, such as anti-discrimination or violation of some other constitutional protection (Martin, Lopez, & LaVan, 2009). Since 2003, various states have introduced resolutions for laws and policies against workplace bullying. Currently variations of such a bill are pending in some 11 states, but are not yet passed (D. Yamada, personal communication, October 20, 2011).
Organizations can work to address such kinds of interpersonal aggression.
As with sexual/gender harassment, reports must be followed up and honored. The person making the report must be supported and their confidentiality maintained. Fair procedures for investigating the claims must follow, especially those which recuse employees (e.g., managers) who may have conflicts of interest regarding their relationships with those involved in the incidences. A step-wise model of mandated responses might be:
In the end, it takes time and commitment to develop awareness of the differences between cohesive work teams and “cliques” that play dangerous power games of social and professional exclusion, between the tough, but fair, boss and the bully boss who works against assertive and competent employees to protect self-interests, between casual joking and harassment, and between gossip and indirect aggression. The first indicators are the negative experiences of the victims, who must be provided support and safety to disclose these early on, before the costs escalate for the victim and for others. Ultimately, the organization must have the will to confront this real issue effectively to reach its full potential as a safe and healthy work environment for all.
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