Study discovers victims are often blamed for workplace bullying

Office space is not necessarily safe space.

Victims of workplace abuse are often mislabeled as bullies themselves, and may even be stigmatized by supervisors as lousy employees despite stellar job performance, according to new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Bullies, meanwhile, are frequently given a pass because bosses play favorites, says study co-author Shannon Taylor, an associate professor of management in the University of Central Florida’s College of Business.

“The results are eye-opening,” Taylor says. “They are useful because, given all of these accounts in the media of bad behavior happening, people are often left wondering how can we blame victims, and why do we let these perpetrators off the hook, why do they go unpunished?”

Taylor attributes the flawed judgements to cognitive biases such as the “halo effect,” in which positive attributes mask negative traits, as well as the “horns effect,” in which a single negative attribute casts a person in a totally bad light.

Previous research suggests that 75 percent of the workforce is affected by bullying, Forbes reports.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines the practice as the “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work-interference, i.e. sabotage, which prevents work from getting done.”

For their new UCF study, Taylor and his fellow researchers conducted their work over the course of four studies.

They first surveyed 372 supervisor–employee pairs, while the second study tracked 2,184 interactions among 149 employees across five restaurant locations. The third and final studies were experiments in which subjects evaluated employees based on descriptions of their work performance, as well as how they were treated and treated others.

Among the disturbing revelations: researchers found that even when evaluators were clearly informed that a victim did not mistreat others, victims were still seen as bullies. In the fourth study, they found that not only are victims seen as bullies despite evidence to the contrary, but also that they receive lower job performance evaluations as a result of being bullied.

Plus, the researchers found support in all four studies that bullies were less likely to be seen as deviant when their supervisor considered them to be good producers.

“What I think is really interesting about this is, when you hear stories of high-profile people engaging in bad behavior at work, a lot of these people have gone unpunished for long periods of time,” Taylor says. “And we have examples of victims of this bad behavior being called out and attacked on social media and by the media. Our studies show this is actually pretty common. We’re all susceptible to these biases.”

Taylor says one example of this is the alleged victim blaming that occurred during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during and after Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

He also recommends that supervisors receive bias training.

“The first step is really awareness of these biases,” Taylor says. “We hope this study will at least bring awareness to people’s potential for bias.”

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