Workplace Bullying: The Problem — and Its Costs — Are Worse Than We Thought

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For all the recent concern over teen bullying, large numbers of adults also deal with peer-to-peer intimidation, especially at work: Approximately one in four U.S. workers say they’ve been bullied on the job, according to the Workplace Bulling Institute.

Now comes word that the targets of workplace torment aren’t the only casualties of the phenomenon: A new study by Canadian researchers, published in the most recent issue of the journal Human Relations, suggests that co-workers who witness bullying are also traumatized by the phenomenon—and are as likely as victims themselves to look for a new job.
To understand the full effects of workplace bullying, researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business went to a hotbed of the practice: the hospital floor. (While more than 60% of on-the-job bullies are men, according to the WBI, previous research has shown that nurses are especially prone to the practice.) Surveying several hundred nurses from several dozen units of a large Canadian health provider, the researchers determined which units and nurses were experiencing bullying as a significant problem. Meanwhile, they asked all the survey participants, regardless of their bullying experience, to assess their intentions to leave their jobs. (Intentions to quit have been shown to match up strongly with employees actually leaving jobs.)

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Not surprisingly, nurses who experienced bullying, directly or indirectly, were more likely to say they wanted to quit than those who didn’t. What was surprising, though, is that nurses who experienced no bullying or very little but who watched others being bullied were basically just as likely to say they wanted to quit as those where actually bullied. As the researchers wrote, “Merely working in a work unit with a considerable amount of bullying is linked to higher employee turnover intentions.”

The study’s authors—Marjan Houshmand, Jane O’Reilly, Sandra Robinson and Angela Wolff)—suggest that many of the non-bullied nurses who expressed an intention to quit were inclined to leave out of protest, the result of a kind of moral indignation. They refer, in fact, to the so-called “deontic model of justice,” which holds that people are motivated toward fairness and doing the right thing out of a sense of moral obligation as an end unto itself, i.e., simply because it’s fair and/or the right thing to do.

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That rings partially true, but it’s easy to imagine a few other good reasons for a stated intention to quit: First, a workplace where bullying is pervasive is almost certainly a poorly managed workplace, which is by any measure a good enough reason to quit (especially in a profession like nursing, where demand for skilled workers is high; and in a country like Canada, where unemployment is not as high as in the U.S.). Second, its quite likely that people who are watching colleagues get bullied are feeling at least a little guilty about not being able—or, perhaps, not even trying—to stop it. That’s another strong reason to think about looking for a new job. And third, at least some people must be thinking, What if I’m next? Better to get the heck out of Dodge than wait for the bully to turn on you.

But whatever the impetus for moving on, this study highlights the sometimes-ignored fact that bullying in the workplace isn’t just a moral problem, it’s a managerial and economic one too. Even in this economy, HR types throughout corporate America—and not least in the healthcare sector—spend a lot of time fretting about employee retention, looking for ways to incentivize their best workers to stick around. One way to do that, it seems, is to figure out how to incentivize the bullies among them not to.

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