Relationship Between Human Factors and Success

Think workplace bullying is restricted to acts of aggression? The behavior is more subtle—and the line between “taskmaster” and “bully” is blurrier—than you might have imagined.

Workplace bullying—which can include fairly subtle behaviors such as constant criticism, personal putdowns, unreasonable expectations, persistent understaffing, and denial of opportunities, as well as more overt acts like yelling and physical aggression—can have consequences to the victim that are even more devastating than sexual harassment. So says a review of 110 studies that compared the two kinds of negative behavior.

Bullied employees are more likely to quit their jobs and reported being less satisfied in their relationship with their bosses (even if the bosses were not the source of the bullying). The same results apply to the phenomenon of “mobbing,” which is bullying by more than one person.

The role of the manager in either encouraging or squelching culture of bullying should not be underestimated. Psychological studies of the past 50 years have consistently demonstrated that a person in authority can wield strong influence over subordinates where aggression is concerned, and that even individuals who would not have acted negatively on their own will do so if such behavior is modeled or condoned by an authority figure.

One of the issues that make workplace bullying so challenging for managers is that many of the behaviors that strongly affect employees are not necessarily legally actionable. For example, an office group’s failure to invite a particular employee to join in an after-work outing, or snubbing of the employee in water cooler chat may not violate law or even explicit company policy, but can nonetheless be perceived as bullying, and over time can create a hostile work environment that is ripe for productivity losses, litigation, and increased turnover.