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Bullying in the Workplace

March 21 2021 - Bullying is a major source of stress for some employees. Its effects compromise career development and health, and can affect both personal life and professional achievement.

Bullying can be:

  • Work-related - such as removing responsibility, being given trivial work, being monitored excessively or attacked on professional status
  • Personal-related - such as being humiliated, excluded, isolated, ignored or verbally or physically abused

People are twice as likely to be the subjects of personal-related bullying at work if born abroad according to a new Swedish study. And employees coming from a somewhere that is culturally dissimilar to Sweden's are at even higher risk - quadruple, especially if they are Asian. However, foreign-born employees were no more likely to suffer work-related bullying than native Swedes. The study from Linköping University involving 1625 Swedish-born and 229 foreign-boen employees has been published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management.

According to Michael Rosander, associate professor in psychology at Linköping University and co-author of the study with doctoral student Stefan Blomberg, it became clear from the study that foreign-born workers:

"Tare subjected to what we call predatory bullying. It doesn't matter what they do. Their very presence, the way they look, can be a reason for the negative treatment."

A study published in 2019 found that being a frequent target of bullying in the workplace not only causes health problems but also leads to victims behaving badly themselves. The study*, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, was a collaboration between the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Uninettuno Telematic International University in Italy.

Some of the consequences of bullying described in the study included a lack of problem solving and high avoidance coping strategies such as:

  • Drinking alcohol when having a problem
  • Experiencing very frequent negative emotions, such as anger, fear and sadness
  • high work 'moral disengagement' a reference to how people rationalise actions and absolve themselves of responsibility for consequences

Co-author Dr Roberta Fida, senior lecturer in work psychology at UEA's Norwich Business School said:

"Overall, our results show the need to consider not only exposure to and types of bullying but also their associated consequences. In particular, the findings highlight that victimisation is associated not only with health problems but also with a greater likelihood of not behaving in line with the expected social and organisational norms."

"The greater the intensity of bullying and the more the exposure to different types of bullying, the higher the likelihood of engaging in counterproductive workplace behaviour. Furthermore, the results show that health-related symptoms are not always associated with experiences of bullying. Indeed, while those experiencing limited work-related bullying did not report health problems, those who were not bullied but misbehaved did."

The researchers emphasised the need for emotion to be taken into account in HR and management intervention policies.

Roberta Fida continued:

"Despite the evidence recognising the relevance of emotions when dealing with workplace aggression, this is rarely incorporated into guidelines. In addition, it is essential to also promote behavioural regulation strategies to reduce moral disengagement, as well as negative compensating behaviour, such as drinking more alcohol and taking more risks. Its role in allowing 'otherwise good' people to freely engage in conduct they would generally consider wrong is further confirmed in this study."

1019 Italian employees were asked about:

  • Experiences of workplace bullying, counterproductive behaviour and health symptoms
  • Their coping strategies, negative emotions experienced at work and moral disengagement

The researchers identified five groups:

  1. Victims who were the target of work-related bullying and frequently exposed to personal-related bullying, experiencing high health problems and misbehaviour (4.4% of sample)
  2. A group experiencing work-related bullying but less frequent personal-related bullying, showing lower health problems and misbehaviour (9.6%). These participants generally used problem-solving strategies but tended to be overwhelmed by negative emotions they experienced and were not able to control them. They also tended to disengage morally.
  3. A group with limited exposure to work-related bullying and no exposure to personal-related bullying (22.3%). They did not experienc health-related problems but sometimes engaged in counterproductive work behaviour.
  4. A group including those who were not bullied, but had high health-related symptoms and some misbehaviour (23.9%).
  5. A group apparently not exposed to any bullying, showing no health symptoms or behavioral problems (39.9%).

According to the researchers:

Examination of the groups in relation to individual dimensions highlighted the pivotal role of negative emotions and emotional regulation, independently from exposure to workplace bullying. In more severe cases, moral disengagement and compensatory behaviour play an equally important role, suggesting the weakening of individuals' ability to regulate their behaviour.


* 'Phenomenological Configurations of Workplace Bullying: a cluster Approach', Marinella Paciello, Roberta Fida, Carlo Tramontano, Valerio Ghezzi, Claudio Barbaranelli, published in Personality and Individual Differences.


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