An Empirical Study of Unethical Leadership and Workplace Bullying in Industry Segments

By Onorato, Michael | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview
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An Empirical Study of Unethical Leadership and Workplace Bullying in Industry Segments

Onorato, Michael, SAM Advanced Management Journal

While schoolyard bullying has received so much attention that 15 states have initiated or passed laws addressing it, workplace bullying has received relatively little attention and no regulation or legislation. Building on research that does address leadership and bullying, this study examined potential correlations between unethical leadership and bullying. Data was gathered from 220 people surveyed in various industry segments plus the academic community. Results supported the hypothesis to some degree. All industry segments had strong correlations between ethical leadership and bullying even though the strength of their perceived ethical values varied relative to each other. Analysis revealed a strong correlation between ethical leadership and reduced bullying within the higher-education, tenured segment.


Einarsen et al. (2003) define bullying as situations where an employee is persistently exposed to negative and aggressive behaviors primarily of a psychological nature, with the effect of humiliating, intimidating, frightening, or punishing the target. A more general definition offered by Einarsen (2000) is repeated attempts to torment, wear down, or frustrate another person; it is treatment that provokes, pressures, intimidates, or otherwise causes discomfort. Another definition, cited by the Institute of Workplace Bullying, describes bullying as the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

* Verbal abuse

* Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) that are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating

* Work interference--sabotage--that prevents work from getting done

In their study of bullying in the U.S. workplace, LaVan and Martin (2008) presented specific examples of workplace bullying by individuals and groups:

* An employee is constantly criticized, ridiculed, and excluded from work-related activities, but is afraid to report the bullying due to fear of retaliation.

* An employee is picked on for his or her manner of dress and unwillingness to go to lunch with a coworker.

* The desire of organizations to increase workforce diversity directly results in bullying of the new entrants by individuals who perceive their status is reduced as a result

* A union is placed in an untenable situation when it has to represent both the victim and the bully.

* The organizational structure results in some groups being inferior to other groups, and the latter take advantage of this.

* After a merger, the employees of the acquired company have an inferior status to the employees of the acquiring company.

Since bullying can be initiated by an intolerable boss whose actions can be compared to a "school yard bully," attention needs to be focused on the leadership properties of the manager or leader in the workplace environment. Being a "tough boss" is clearly not the same as a bullying boss, who has a different agenda. The tough boss's agenda is to achieve superior performance by setting high expectations (Glendinning, 2001). The bully boss's goal is to use repeatedly aggressive behavior that causes physical or psychological torment and arises from the unethical, unreasonable, and inappropriate practices in the workplace. According to Roscigno et al. (2009) "Bullying by immediate supervisors and managers is, in our view, fundamental to the general study of the workplace dynamics and stratification, given both formalized, top-down power differentials and the many direct material and social-psychological costs emanating from hierarchical abuses of workplace power." In addition, according to Namie and Namie (2005), bullying is commonplace and relatively unregulated from a legal perspective. In a meta study of supervisor-subordinate bullying, Glendinning (2001) cites a report that found a staggering 90% of the workforce suffers boss abuse at some time in their careers.

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An Empirical Study of Unethical Leadership and Workplace Bullying in Industry Segments


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