Academic journal article Journal of Management and Organization

Managers in the Firing Line: Contributing Factors to Workplace Bullying by Staff - an Interview Study

Academic journal article Journal of Management and Organization

Managers in the Firing Line: Contributing Factors to Workplace Bullying by Staff - an Interview Study

Article excerpt


Workplace bullying is a phenomenon that is attracting increasing interest from researchers throughout the Western world. To date, most of the research into workplace bullying has focused on managers and colleagues as the perpetrators of bullying in the workplace. By contrast, little is known about 'upwards bullying', where managers are the targets. We argue that in order to more fully understand workplace bullying as a whole, the phenomenon of upwards bullying requires research attention. In the present study, upwards bullying was explored in interviews conducted with 24 managers from public and private organizations, with the data coded and arranged thematically. Results indicate that potential contributing factors towards upwards bullying include the current work environment, change within organizations and power issues. We recommend that organizations identify the occurrence and processes of upwards bullying as important steps in developing comprehensive workplace bullying policies.

Keywords: power; upwards bullying; workplace abuse; workplace bullying

Despite an increase in research into workplace bullying in recent decades, the major focus has been on 'downwards bullying' with some recent attention on 'horizontal bullying' (Lewis & Sheehan 2003). Thus, relatively little is known about managers who are bullied by their staff, a process described as 'upwards bullying' within this paper, and why this form of bullying occurs. While it is legitimate that the predominant focus of research has been on managers as the perpetrators of workplace bullying (British studies have consistently found those in superior positions to be perpetrators of workplace bullying - Zapf, Einarsen, Hoel & Vartia 2003), we contend that, in order to fully understand the broad phenomenon of workplace bullying, upwards bullying requires our attention. Such a focus has potential to impact on our theoretical understanding of workplace bullying, and to highlight important recommendations for managers, staff and organizations.

Despite limited usage of the term 'upwards bullying' (Lewis & Sheehan 2003; McCarthy, Henderson, Sheehan & Barker 2002; Rayner & Cooper 2003), there does appear to be general agreement in the literature that managers can indeed be the targets of workplace bullying from their staff (e.g. Zapf et al. 2003). For example, Hoel, Cooper and Faragher (2001) found in their study of the impact of organizational status and workplace bullying that 6.7% of respondents had been bullied by staff. Furthermore, prevalence studies into workplace bullying have identified the occurrence of upwards bullying as between 2% and 27%, with a mean of 11% (see Zapf et al. 2003). However, cases of upwards bullying are reported in the literature rarely (Rayner & Cooper 2003) and are often presented anecdotally or as single cases (see Braverman 1999, for example).

The purpose of this paper is to explore the contributing factors of upwards bullying by presenting the findings from an exploratory interview study conducted with 24 managers. These managers had either experienced or witnessed upwards bullying or discussed their general understanding of the current workplace environment for managers. A theoretical conceptualization of the contributing factors of upwards bullying using existing theoretical frameworks, in particular power and dependency (Bass 1990; Emerson 1962; Mechanic 1962), will now be presented to refine existing assumptions and approaches to workplace bullying.


The term workplace bullying has been described as a global concept that incorporates harassment, intimidation, and aggressive or violent behaviors (Hadikin & O'Driscoll 2000). As a result, workplace bullying is related to a plethora of concepts focused on behaviors that treat colleagues, managers, supervisors, clients or suppliers in an inappropriate manner. Thus, the definition of workplace bullying needs careful consideration in order to separate it conceptually from various other counterproductive workplace behaviors. …

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