Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Explaining Organizational Responses to Workplace Aggression

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Explaining Organizational Responses to Workplace Aggression

Article excerpt

While many individuals practice good manners and humane behavior, human aggression seems to thrive in organizations. Although workplace rudeness seems quite innocuous in comparison with the extremes of physical violence, the aggressive behaviors in some work environments detract from a dignified and productive workplace, spur inefficiency, cause personal distress, and may, at worst, lead to workplace homicide or the perpetuation of social, economic, and moral harms. To the extent that workplace aggression harms individuals (whether citizens or employees) or hampers performance (of individuals and organizations), it impinges on the overall effectiveness of public administration. Government accountability is inextricably meshed with the actions of government employees charged with collectively acting in the public interest. To understand why public organizations permit aggression in the workplace, we first examine the significance of interpersonal workplace aggression and its individual and organizational effects. Next, we introduce accountability scholarship to understand the structures that constrain or permit misbehavior in public organizations. Finally, we extend the concept of accountability mechanisms in organizations to the specific arena of workplace aggression and organizational permissiveness.

Workplace Aggression

Workplace aggression encapsulates efforts by individuals to harm others with whom they work, or have worked, or to harm the organization in which they are presently, or were previously, employed (Baron & Neuman, 1996; Neuman & Baron, 1998). Interpersonal workplace aggression focuses on behavior by a person or group directed at one or more individuals that results in physical, social, and/or economic harm. Scholarly attention to aggression and human relationships is not new. However, focused attention on interpersonal aggression is more recent. Initial research pinpoints schoolyard relationships and a substantial body of literature explores many nuanced aspects of aggression between and among children in the school setting (Rigby, 2003; Wolke & Samara, 2004). Research includes a general consideration of the social, economic, and institutional context in which children collectively target others (Ma, 2002; McConville & Cornell, 2003; Swearer & Doll, 2001), as well as the specific environment, culture, and norms of the classroom or the school that allows aggressive behaviors to prosper (Ojala & Nesdale, 2004). Models abound that are intended for intervention (Smith, Ananiadou, & Cowie, 2003) and for prevention (DeRosier, 2004; Orpinas, Home, & Staniszewski, 2003). Unfortunately, policy or administrative responses to school-based childhood aggression have been fragmented and inconsistent in the United States, depending on the reactions of states, school districts, principals, and individual teachers (Jones, 2006; Limber & Small, 2003).

Aggression does not disappear after high school graduation. A vast array of scholarship considers interpersonal aggression in adult intimate relationships (Olson, 2002; Sabourin & Stamp, 1995). Critical scholarship now is emerging to explore aggression in other structured organizational settings, but disciplinary differences and limited attention to the nuances of public management constrain the utility of such scholarship.

Interpersonal Workplace Aggression: U.S. and European Approaches

Much of the initial research on workplace aggression, particularly interpersonal workplace aggression, draws from two parallel approaches developed in the United States and Scandinavia. In the United States, scholars from sociology and psychology formed concepts that we now associate with the broader construct of workplace aggression. In a study of workers' compensation claims in California and Nevada, Brodsky (1976) identified "harassment" as a phenomenon common to many claims. Describing the phenomenon as a process in the work environment, Brodsky observed harassment as a continuum of behaviors during which the perception of the recipient was central. …

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