How Effective Is an Apology in Resolving Workplace Bullying Disputes?

By Fox, Suzy; Stallworth, Lamont E. | Dispute Resolution Journal, May-July 2006 | Go to article overview

How Effective Is an Apology in Resolving Workplace Bullying Disputes?


Fox, Suzy, Stallworth, Lamont E., Dispute Resolution Journal


An Empirical Research Note

It is almost impossible to read a newspaper or watch the news today without seeing or hearing that someone prominent in politics, academia or entertainment has apologized for one kind of bad behavior or another1 in the hope of bringing a controversy involving that person to an end. (The authors refer to this as a "utilitarian apology.") Indeed, the phenomenon of offering a utilitarian apology is so common that one recent television news show asserted that it is "a sign of the times."2 Yet it hardly seems that Americans are an apologetic type of people.

It is well known that far-eastern cultures like those of Japan and China are supportive of the custom and practice of offering an apology,3 but whether the United States has a culture supportive of apologies could be questioned since Americans are thought to be more egocentric and individualistic.4

Currently there is a very small number of published empirical research on the effectiveness of apologies in resolving workplace and some other types of disputes.5 The authors determined to fill that gap by examining that topic in the context of bullying disputes in the workplace. Their study was prompted by an article on the subject of apology by David Hoffman6 and by an EEO diversity conference co-sponsored by Loyola University-Chicago and the Center for Employment Dispute Resolution at which the theoretical effect of apologies was discussed. Also motivating this endeavor was author Lamont Stallworth's experience as an EEO mediator handling a matter in which the "breakthrough" came when the employer's human resources vice president offered an apology for the manner in which an older worker was terminated.7

The research on which this paper is based focused on the respondents' experience with workplace bullying, how targets of bullying viewed the hypothetical effectiveness of various ways employers might handle complaints of bullying, and, in particular, whether an apology would or would not be effective in resolving bullying disputes. The authors hoped their research would address the following questions with respect to apologies: Would African-American workers be more likely than white workers to accept apologies? Would female workers be more likely than male workers to accept apologies?8 And would workers (including managers) who felt that an apology would make a difference in the resolution of a workplace bullying dispute also be more likely to support the use of internal conflict resolution processes such as neutral fact-finding, mediation and arbitration? The answer to these questions should interest employers who wish to reduce the substantial cost of employment dispute resolution and workers who wish to avoid the substantial economic and non-economic costs and psychological stress of litigation.9

I. Study Method

A. Obtaining the Respondents

The authors used lists provided by the National Association of African-American Human Resources Professionals, Hispanic MBA Association, Loyola University Chicago Alumni Association (MBA graduates), and the National Black MBA Association (Illinois) in order to obtain respondents for this study. The researchers mailed and e-mailed invitations to the addressees on these lists and asked them to voluntarily participate. Those who wished to responded by mail, e-mail, and by directly responding to an online version on the internet. The authors received usable responses from 262 full-time employees.

The first 13 questions of the questionnaire asked for information about the respondents' age, gender, ethnicity, employment status and most recent position, self-characterization of color, place of birth, primary language, education, income, number of employment grievances or EEOC charges filed in the past five years, and the percentage of work experience in the unionized setting.

B. General Characteristics of Respondents

The authors found that the respondents worked for a broad range of employers and represented workers and managers at all levels. …

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