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Formula for Shutting Down Bullying at Work Hard to Find

By his own admission Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a workplace bully. Australia’s Herald-Sun newspaper headlined his profane verbal abuse of colleagues in an opinion piece on September 22. The prime minister refuses to apologize for what he terms his “robust” responses, manifesting an attitude that makes workplace bullying hard to dislodge. If they detect this type of workplace harassment, consultants called in to oil the workings of an organization might not be able to count on solid support — or anything like a formula – for ending it.

Rudd’s noisy outbursts attract headlines, but bullying can be excruciating without the noise. An eye roll, a glare, fingers drumming on a desk, a dismissive gesture, a snort — these are common tactics of bullies. Victims find them hard to address because the undermining offenses seem petty to others and complaining sounds like whining.

And the language of this type of abuse isn’t straightforward. Researcher Laura Crawshaw complains that it is described in conflicting terms, such as workplace bullying, mobbing, psychological abuse and/or harassment. The proliferation of definitions “impedes our ability to conceptualize the phenomenon of workplace aggression in clear and consistent terms, … [and] complicates effective collaboration among researchers and practitioners,” she writes in the September 2009 issue of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. She wants to see a standard nomenclature for workplace psychological harassment, and proposes one in the paper.

The Bergen Bullying Research Group (BBRG) at the University of Bergen in Norway trusts its language for the phenomenon, but admits to inconsistencies that impede data gathering. The group applies the term  “to situations where a person repeatedly and over a period of time is exposed to negative acts, such as constant abuse, offensive remarks or teasing, ridicule or social exclusion; and where the target perceives that he or she is incapable to neutralize or stop the negative acts.”

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) based in Washington state, an activist organization intent on exposing bullying as a workplace scourge, defines it as “repeated sabotage that prevents work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, humiliation or exploitation of a known psychological or physical vulnerability.”

BBRG notes on its website, there has been an increasing focus on workplace bullying within organizational research, and was acknowledged in 2006 as “an important and distinct research area in a series of American Psychological Association Monitor articles.

Figures on its prevalence vary widely, but all suggest a significant scale. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the research firm Zogby International and published by WBI, 37 percent of American workers acknowledge being bullied on the job. WBI describes the survey as “the first representative study of all adult Americans on the topic of workplace bullying.”

The Bergen group notes that every tenth employee In Britain reports exposure to bullying at work. In Norway, according to BBRG, it varies between one and 14 percent, “depending on how the phenomenon is measured.” Statistics are suspect, according to BBRG, because “we do not know if the same phenomenon has been measured across different studies.”

BBRG set out to standardize data-gathering in 1999, an initiative that produced the Negative Acts Questionnaire (NAQ) ©. The group describes the tool as a research inventory developed for measuring perceived exposure to bullying and victimization at work. It notes that all items in the NAQ are written in behavioral terms, with no reference to the term bullying. “This has the advantage of letting participants respond to the each item without having to label themselves as bullied or not.” The inventory then introduces a definition of bullying at work, requiring the respondent to indicate whether they consider themselves victims of bullying according to this definition.

NAQ has been revised (NAQ-R). A study published in 2009 in the journal Work and Stress tested the NAQ-R and proposed it as the new “standardized and valid instrument for the measurement of workplace bullying.” BBRG notes that it may be used “to differentiate between groups of employees with different levels of exposure to bullying, ranging from infrequent exposure to incivility at work to severe victimization from bullying and harassment.”

The inventory is used in more than 100 ongoing research projects around the world, according to BBRG. The findings will feed the group’s International Database on the Prevalence and risk factors of Bullying at work (IDPB).

Other inventories include the Leymann Inventory of Psychological Terror, which measures the experience of 45 forms of bullying.

The Centre for Research on Workplace Behaviours at the University of Glamorgan’s Business School, which describes itself as the only research center of its kind, believes it has found a better way to gather data. It issued a call in July 2009 in the country’s Western Mail newspaper for respondents to document their day-to-day experiences of workplace bullying in diary form. “Diary studies have been shown to be an effective data collection technique in the social sciences, particularly in the field of psychology,” explained Professor Duncan Lewis at the unit. “By asking people to keep a diary record of their thoughts and feelings over a specific period, we can begin to look at the behaviors, persistence, prevalence and severity of people’s experiences of being bullied at work. We are able to explore how people understand and make sense of those experiences.

He questions the traditional questionnaire method of obtaining data. Our understanding of the phenomena is limited if the study questionnaire does not allow the respondent to record actual experiences, he said. “A diary study can help to overcome the limitation.”

Bullying Research – Mainly Descriptive

A 2002 report by the United States Secret Service said bullying played a significant role in the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and many school shootings, adding urgency to bullying research and the development of new policies to eliminate it. Though they apply mainly to schoolchildren, the findings help illuminate the impact of this form of harassment in the work environment.

In a recent issue of American Behavioral Scientist, Bridgewater State College professor Elizabeth Englander suggests that prevention programs could treat bullying behavior not merely as a conflict between children, but as a hate crime, and the consensus seems to be that bullying is exceptionally destructive in children. It has been linked to the development of psychotic symptoms by early adolescence, to post-traumatic stress and to suicide.

Researchers in Ireland, cautioned that the cross-sectional design of the study of bullying in the workplace did not allow them to evaluate causality, but posited a potential link to suicide in adults. It “may be considered as one of the leading job stressors and would be a major cause of suicide and other health-related issues," said principal investigator Isabelle Niedhammer, PhD, epidemiologist and researcher at the UCD School of Public Health & Population Science at the University College Dublin in Ireland. The focus of the study was its impact on sleep. In the September 1 issue of the journal SLEEP, they reported that current or past exposure to workplace bullying is associated with increased sleep disturbances. Associations also were found between observed bullying and sleep disruption, indicating that bullying has detrimental effects even when it is experienced indirectly.

A study of 2,539 Norwegian workers was noteworthy for what it didn’t find. Published in the June edition of Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Morten Birkeland Nielsen et al examined "Interpersonal Problems Among Perpetrators and Targets of Workplace Bullying." They reported that both targets and perpetrators portrayed elevated levels of interpersonal problems, then questioned the role of a general target personality in explaining exposure to workplace bullying. “Although interpersonal problems were reported among 50 percent of the targets, interpersonal problems were also prevalent in a large proportion of the non-exposed employees.

The Way Forward?

At least 16 states nationwide are considering legislation, wrapped in healthy workplace bills, to prevent workplace bullying. Though spurred by activist groups like WBI, it is generally believed to be going nowhere.

Society does not appear ready to regard bullying as more than a personality quirk, and bosses like Australian Prime Minister Rudd regard it as their right. Indeed, some establishments encourage bullying as a way to toughen employees, spike their competitiveness, and weed out employees deemed not tough enough. And it is sometimes perceived as a manifestation of leadership. It entertains some people: Television cooking shows by British chef Gordon Ramsay receive high ratings because his profane and noisy abuse of kitchen workers amuses a large number of viewers.

The WBI cause is handicapped by the gaps in hard evidence to show bullying hurts organizations as well as employees. If there is data on whether on whether a bullying-ridden work environment is necessarily dysfunctional, for instance, it is well hidden. Is anyone sure whether bullies are the high achievers in the organization, as sometimes thought, or the low achievers? And is a workplace where this kind of abuse is commonplace more productive or less productive than those where workers are treated with respect?

The 2008-2009 study of the phenomenon by WBI can’t be regarded as an impartial observation because it is an activist organization, but it draws a picture of general attitudes. In a long questionnaire, it asked respondents what happened to bullies and their targets at their organization. WBI Director Gary Namie reported that impunity – when the bully suffered no consequences for bullying – was a common outcome, and that the target was often retaliated against for complaining.

Sources: Herald-Sun; Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research; Bergen Bullying Research Group web; Workplace Bullying Institute web; American Behavioral Scientist; American Academy of Sleep Medicine; Journal of Applied Social Psychology

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-09-30.