An Investigation of Aggression and Bullying in the Workplace

Subject: Employee Management
Pages: 8
Words: 3234
Reading time:
13 min
Study level: PhD


In organizational behavior, there is an often-overlooked area of friction and disadvantage to workers. In contrast with the fact of regulatory protection for minorities, the physically handicapped and women, occupational health regulation does not explicitly foster oversight for bullying and physical harassment in the workplace.

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The phenomenon of bullying in the workplace is by no means new since it likely goes back to the rise of the Industrial Revolution when male-only factories were the norm and strength counted a good deal towards productivity. But the changing complexion of occupations in America – with white-collar services supplanting agriculture and manufacturing in importance – merely seems to have transferred the context for sustained and hurtful bullying.

Estimates about the prevalence of adult bullying in the workplace vary widely. Matthiesen and Einarsen (2007) report the low end of three to four percent (by headcount) quantified from large-sample studies in Scandinavia, where empirical work first emerged on bullying in this context, as opposed to the common schoolyard variety. This may be an underestimate, based on measurements of ten percent arrived at in Finland and the UK (Hoel and Cooper, 2000; Vartia, 1996).

Domestically, the situation seems much more serious: over one-third (37%) of American workers claim to have been bullied at one time or another in the past (Workplace Bullying Institute, 2007). Zeroing in on “currently experiencing” to align more closely with the Scandinavian time frames of at least six months’ sustained bullying experience, the nationwide prevalence of 13% seems more comparable.

Research Questions and Purpose

Statement of Problem and Purpose

This study aims to add meaningfully to the body of knowledge with a two-fold research purpose:

  1. Determine the prevalence of workplace bullying in a given metropolitan area, YOUR CITY.
  2. Establish the correlation with aggression and otherwise investigate the attributes of workplace bullies.

Research Questions

The corresponding research question is therefore principally articulated as: is there a distinctive set of antecedents, a unique social and psychological profile that distinguishes active bullies? Concerning antecedents, this study will focus on the possible role of dysfunctional upbringing, present home life and prominent traits of workplace bullies. In the medium and long term, the goal is for organizations to embark on interventions to reduce the great prevalence of intimidation the literature informs us about by strengthening screening procedures for new hires and raising vigilance for those already in the workforce.

Subsidiary research questions include:

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  1. irrespective of industry, what are the organizational antecedents to sustained patterns of bullying and harassment in the workplace?
  2. how do department heads and human resource managers respond to displays of bullying and harassment?
  3. is hierarchical, peer or upward bullying more prevalent and does it reflect inadequacy or an innate impulse to aggression?

Definition of Variables

The dependent variable is defined as either (or both) verbal and physical intimidation that is repetitive and sustained over at least six months and even years. Essential elements are hostility, coercion and, at the extreme, threatened or actual physical contact.

The research design should be capable of testing several null hypotheses about such independent variables as abuse in early childhood, childrearing that condoned physically aggressive behavior and a single-parent household. Two other null hypotheses will test for correlation with present domestic violence and productivity at work on the part of both bullies and their victims.

Literature Review

The Link with Aggression

Griffin and Gross (2004) maintain that bullying is merely one subset of the entire complex of aggressive behaviors, whether these manifest in the workplace or earlier, in school. Merely saying, as Einarsen (2000) does, that bullying constitutes “negative treatment” (albeit sustained and to a victim who cannot easily defend himself) does not quite do justice to the aftereffects of such treatment. Rather, the essential elements are that the perpetrator displays hostile verbal behavior, coercion, physical contact, and other actions that call into question the competence of a colleague at work and degrade the self-esteem of the latter (Keashly and Jagatic, 2003; Forsyth, 2006).

Certainly, the literature is replete with the implied or empirically-discovered links between aggression and bullying. Those with aggressive predispositions are more likely to engage in the social affronts and physical intimidation that constitutes bullying among adults. Emotional abuse, arising from low frustration thresholds and a propensity for lashing out, is a frequent manifestation of workplace bullying (Geffner, Braverman, Galasso, and Marsh, 2005).

Profile and Antecedents of Bullies

Little exists by way of literature that rigorously profiles the personality characteristics and early childhood experiences of workplace bullies, least of all in the American setting. Instead, researchers have been more likely to offer anecdotal evidence or what must necessarily be viewed as impressionistic descriptions by the victims (Adams, 1992; Bing, 1992; Kile, 1990).

In a European setting, Coyne, Chong, Seigne, and Randall (2003) derived just one insight from employing the 16 PF on a concededly modest base of 288 workers: matching self-reports by bullies and observations by their peers elicited mental instability as the sole (statistically significant) discriminating factor. On switching to the ICES Personality Inventory and the IBS Clinical Inventory, however, Seigne, Coyne, Randall and Parker (2007) later found that those prone to bullying are truly aggressive, besides being hostile, hyper-assertive, selfish, egocentric, highly competitive, and given to acting independently. To these, Zapf and Einarsen (2003) add low self-esteem and immature social competency. That the first set of traits also typify those who inevitably rise to positions of leadership reliably explains why the Workplace Bullying Institute (2007) survey found that over two-thirds of bullies in the workplace are the victims’ superiors.

The research on antecedents has been apt to stay within the confines of the workplace. Zapf and Einarsen (2003) point to a third set of factors, “micropolitical behavior”. However, this seems more like an exogenous stimulus in a stressful work environment and therefore opens another direction for inquiry into the effect of leadership styles, particularly as these neglect the need for team structure and well-defined responsibilities.

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Research Design

The Mixed-Methods Approach

The contemplated study cannot, strictly speaking, be exploratory since quite a bit of groundwork has already been done in this field (e.g. Salin, 2003). Nonetheless, the aim is to provide new insights concerning local businesses, nonprofits and possibly even government organizations. Subsequently, the findings should lead to further inquiry and planful changes in workplaces around the community.

Given the stage of inquiry in this field and looking to replicate findings on prevalence while being open to unique features of local organizations, the research design will employ the mixed methods research model. The rationale for mixed methods designs consists partly of the stage at which the research is taking place, especially about prior work in the field. Secondly, there is the matter of whether the qualitative research component informs subsequent quantitative-type research or runs on parallel tracks with the latter.

Trochim and Donnelly (2008) make the case for mixed methods designs being applicable about midway between naturalistic inquiry and experimental testing. A search of the literature shows that extant inquiry into the personality traits and family backgrounds of bullies, whether naturalistic, phenomenological or purely qualitative, is decidedly sparse. This alone affirms the need for a mixed-methods approach that will be heavily weighted in favor of qualitative techniques.

There being no possibility of engaging in meta-analysis or pure mathematical modeling of sparse personality profiling studies, both of which are exclusively quantitative investigative techniques, Creswell (2009) effectively argues for the general applicability of mixed approaches. The mere fact that the preparatory checklist he outlines (p. 205) is rarely completely satisfied in formal research designs opens up the possibility that an investigation benefits from dual or multiple methods. Thus, mixed-methods are very likely in programs that involve a planned sequence of research investigations, as in this case. Mixed-methods research hold out the promise of greater insight than does single-mode investigation.

The aforementioned research questions will guide choice of study participants, interview questions, and general approach to this subject area. In so doing, one adheres to the warning of Shank about doing phenomenology alone and thus overlooking the effect that data gathered affects the objectivity of the researcher (2006, p. 131). The proper measures are addressed in section IV-E (“Constraints of Qualitative Approaches and the Strategic Considerations: Ensuring Reliability and Validity”) below.

On the other hand, there is value in the advice of Schram about including narrative inquiry, in which participants examine personal events and experiences to make sense of them (2003, p. 104). This approach is an excellent match for the central research question.

Sampling Method

For the given research question, the researcher needs to:

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  • Gain access to voluntary participation independent of clinical or industrial “gatekeepers”;
  • Minimize ethical issues;
  • Profile bullies in industrial settings identified in the literature as rather more prone to instances of bullying;
  • Tap a sizeable base of respondents and diversity of organizational environments to optimize generalizability; and,
  • Enhance the chances of locating three types of protagonists: perpetrators, provocative victims, and targets (Matthiesen and Einarsen, 2007).

Even the briefest scan of the literature demonstrates that bullying has been found in a variety of blue- and white-collar work settings. More specifically, there is empirical support for bullying in primary health care and academic environments. Given that these two work settings have been extensively covered in the literature, this study will cover the broader range of industrial settings by arranging for postal surveys and in-depth interviews with affiliates or “locals” of both the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Change to Win Federation in (THE CITY WHERE YOU RESIDE).

To increase the chances of return rates that will satisfy normality assumptions in data analysis later on, the initial survey will extract at least two thousand members by systematic random selection from the combined union rolls within the city. That way, even a return rate of 3% will yield a usable base for the study.

Data-Collection and Study Instruments

The first step in this research program is to administer a workplace bullying prevalence checklist to a large base of adult workers and follow this with in-depth interviews among those identified as bullies or provocative victims.

Operationalizing the criterion variable means that, in addition to the aforementioned verbal and physical manifestations of bullying, both subjective and frequency-/time-based parameters must be incorporated. The former entails asking participants their perceptions about exposure to negative behavior at work while the latter imposes a threshold of two such experiences weekly over a sustained period of six months (Mikkelsen and Einarsen, 2001; Giorgi, 2009).

The principal postal survey instrument shall be the Workplace Aggression Research Questionnaire (WARQ) developed jointly at the State University of New York in New Paltz and Wayne State University that inventories no less than thirty-three instances of hostile, aggressive and bullying behavior (Keashly and Neuman, 2008). Consistent with the frequency criterion, WARQ warns respondents to check off only those negative behaviors that they either engage in “regularly” or to which they are subjected intermittently. For this study, the questionnaire introduction should be expanded to say “…have you regularly experienced these or inflicted these on others?”

A vital adjunct to the above questionnaire (and part of the postal survey package) is a self-report checklist for all those who experienced being either perpetrators, or provocative victims. Besides querying both groups about their characteristics, the self-report checklist will inventory their separate child-rearing and family environments so that discriminant analysis may test for any significant differences concerning experiences of abuse, parenting style, being reared in two- or single-parent homes, and exposure to domestic violence if presently married or cohabiting. Since there is no available precedent for this, the self-report checklist will have to be formulated, pre-tested and piloted for internal consistency scores before fieldwork proper.

A sample will be drawn from participants who admit that they engage in at least one-third of the instances of hostile, aggressive and bullying behavior measured by the Workplace Aggression Research Questionnaire (WARQ) or acknowledge having “been the perpetrator myself” in the accompanying Workplace Bullying Institute checklist.

Following analysis of the postal survey results, such participants identified as perpetrators or provocative victims shall be re-contacted for participation in the in-depth interviews. Here, the line of questioning will focus on their characteristics and behavior concerning bullying. Such psychometrics-by-qualitative-interview is entirely applicable, as shown by Branch, Ramsay, and Barker (2007). These aimed to discover the characteristics and behavior of bullies, albeit in the case of upward bullying. For face validity, the depth interviews will open with general questions about satisfaction with career, work environment, leadership styles, and personal strengths and weaknesses before probing about experiences with bullying others in the past 6 months to a year. The interview will indirectly elicit incidence and frequency of bullying behavior by asking what attitudes and actions of colleagues or subordinates provoke one to deal harshly and repeatedly with them. Probes can take the form of asking whether one’s actions are reasonable, what personal traits of theirs enable respondents to explicitly “tell off” others and not habitually withdraw from a confrontation, whether these are essential to success in climbing the corporate ladder, how the employee would describe his upbringing and current home life, etc. Owing to the descriptive nature of the study and carefully-neutral construction of the open-ended questions, one need not fear that respondents will simply play back what they hear from the researcher. Rather, this is qualitative inquiry in all it’s depth, richness and detail (Shank, 2005; Schram, 2005).

All depth interviews shall be recorded solely on digital audio tape. Video is completely out of the question to protect the identity of bullying perpetrators. At this stage, data analysis shall consist of transcribing the tapes into word-processing files and subjecting the verbatim transcripts to content analysis. This calls for dual-judge manual coding augmented by computer-aided coding programs like General Inquirer or TextPack (, 2009).

Constraints of Qualitative Approaches and the Strategic Considerations: Ensuring Reliability and Validity

One concedes that external validity is not the strong suite of qualitative interviews. Even reliability requires the use of a semi-structured questionnaire and for the researcher to carry out all interviews herself to minimize personality as a source of variance (Golafshani, 2003). The nature of the research question subject of this study does not permit the presumption of spontaneous, naturally occurring statements. Since the predispositions and environmental factors of bullying are known only to perpetrators themselves, prompted questioning is the sole discovery route. Framing the right questions, being non-judgmental, and correctly interpreting how bullies describe themselves and their environment rests on the clinical expertise of the researcher.

At this stage, the onus is on the researcher to diagnose, in a qualitative context, the expected traits of assertiveness, aggression, hostility, egocentricity, and being highly competitive that Seigne, Coyne, Randall and Parker extracted with the use of the ICES Personality Inventory and the IBS Clinical Inventory (2007). We deal with the pre-existing and naturally-occurring phenomena of enduring predispositions that the mere presence or involvement of the researcher does not necessarily incite or provoke to greater heights (Patton, 2002). Still, the researcher needs to maintain a neutral, accepting stance lest participants become inhibited about admitting to the “anti-social” inclinations of aggression and bullying.

Ethical Considerations and Integrity

The route of access is the least likely to arouse questions of integrity. The sampling frame for the first-stage postal survey depends completely on heads of union federation offices in the city granting permission for access to their members’ mailing addresses. For delays, permission denials and inadequate sampling frames at this level, the fallbacks shall be approaches to a sample of unionized firms in the city or a purchased list of white- and blue-collar workers.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen how many union members play supervisory roles. This is a concern, given that those carrying the formal designation are normally excluded from union membership and National Labor Relations Act protections. As well, prior data already provides strong evidence that superiors account for a substantial proportion of bullying perpetrators. Doubtless, the second fallback above can help solve this problem of access since no union official has power over company supervisors. As well, many are designated “coordinator”, “lead men”, “charge nurses”, “load supervisors” and “journeymen” in education, health care, construction, manufacturing, broadcast, energy, shipping, and accounting who remain legally rank-and-file but bear “hire and fire” responsibilities.

Regardless of route of access, one anticipates that permissions can be facilitated with a study rationale promising reduction of stressful events in the workplace and working towards interventions to help habitual bullies and their victims. Fortunately, those who must permit the primary and first fallback access routes have no power to coerce, force participation or sanction members who report bullying experiences.

On the other hand, consent is a matter of three essential elements ensuring that participation is based on informed consent, is voluntary, and protects respondents from retaliation or other adverse consequences. All three objectives will be met by including a cover letter in the questionnaire and checklist mail packet. This letter will elaborate on the above study rationale, assure the recipients that participation is entirely voluntary and that only the researcher will have access for all time to the information provided. Moreover, the letter will pledge that all personal and contact information will be destroyed after a certain time.

These assurances will need to be reiterated during the telephone recruitment of identified bullies or provocative victims for the second stage of depth interviews. When participants finally meet the researcher in the appointed venue, it will prove necessary to verbalize further reassurances about why the subsequent interview will cover the topics it does. Trust must be built up else the selected participant has no incentive to divulge intensely private matters about his upbringing, domestic situation, personal traits, lived experience of bullying, and the antecedents of how he learned/adapted to work with others in such a manner. Such trust will be based on the researcher’s: neutral work affiliation and setting for the interview; optimal rapport based on professional appearance and verbal assurances; openness to what is revealed no matter how unsavory; reiterating the confidentiality of personal details; the vital promise that the researcher will not engage in follow-up interviews with the respondent’s colleagues; and even the slightly naïve stance of an industrial psychologist eager to know what goes on in the work place (Patton, 2002; Schram, 2005; Shank, 2005).

Female investigators are common enough in occupational health and employee relations settings so that gender need not pose a hindrance in establishing rapport with either male or female subjects. At worst, one may expect a certain degree of masculine bluster that they can show everyone “who’s boss”. But then personality traits are the real subject at this stage, not gender-biased teamwork and leadership.

One also anticipates that depth interview subjects will be less reticent about bullying behavior (than about their traits) since they may well be operating on the notion that they are only being direct, explicit and justifiably rude in their leadership and collegial styles.

Recap and Moving Forward

The qualitative component of the proposed mixed-method approach is central to the given purposes of understanding the social phenomenon of bullying, the perpetrators themselves, describing their self-concept and organizational environment. As such, this second stage can generate hypotheses for more definitive, subsequent research that might be tested with established personality inventories like the 16 PF.

Moving forward, the validity and ethical stance of this study is strengthened by the routes of access chosen and by various confidence-building measures the researcher knows to undertake.


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