Every day, across the world, employees are exposed to someone else being bullied in the workplace. Recent studies show that vicarious bullying has a significant negative impact on workplace culture. Being exposed to bullying second-hand puts employees in a very uncomfortable and difficult position. Over time, the impact is systemically damaging.
Vicarious abuse is defined as the observation or awareness of a supervisor or co-worker abusing a co-worker. Examples of vicarious supervisory abuse include an employee hearing rumors of abusive behavior from coworkers, reading about such behaviors in an email, or actually witnessing the abuse of a coworker.
According to a recent study, “Although the effects of abusive supervision may not be physically harmful as other types of dysfunctional behavior (workplace violence or aggression), the actions are likely to leave longer lasting wounds. One reason for these long-lasting “scars” is that workplace violence and aggression are often stopped quickly, whereas abusive supervisory behaviors (such as being rude or giving the silent treatment) can continue for considerable times,” the researchers state.
The researchers found negative impacts of first-hand bullying and second-hand vicarious bullying to be:
- greater job frustration
- tendency to abuse other coworkers
- lack of perceived organizational support
What organizations can do:
- be proactive and communicate that no form of bullying will be tolerated
- take bullying seriously and investigate complaints immediately
- make sure there is not retaliation for those bringing the issue forward
- ensure there is a policy outlining how the organization will respond to bullying and enforce it
What employees can do:
- document every instance with dates, times, places and circumstances
- take issues forward to your boss (if he/she is not the abuser) or to HR
- support those being bullied directly
Bullies can be managers, co-workers, or clients. According to a recent study:
- 71 per cent of bullies have a higher rank than their targets
- 17 per cent of bullies are co-workers, peers or colleagues of their targets
- 12 per cent of bullies are ranked lower than their targets
Typically, people bully to:
- sideline someone they feel is a threat (the target)
- further their own agenda at the expense of others
- deny responsibility for their own behavior
- mask their lack of confidence and low self-esteem
The only way to effectively diminish second-hand bullying is a proactive stance by upper management. Leaders get what they tolerate. If this behavior is ignored and not addressed, then it is tolerated.