Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Abusive Behavior in the Workplace: A Preliminary Investigation

Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Abusive Behavior in the Workplace: A Preliminary Investigation

Article excerpt

Dealing with hostile interpersonal relationships at work has been the topic of many popular books and workshops. Yet, with the exception of sexual harassment, there is surprisingly little mention in the organizational research literature on the nature, extent, and costs of abusive work interactions. These more frequent, more tolerated, and, thus, more damaging interpersonal interactions involve hostile verbal and nonverbal nonphysical behaviors directed by one or more persons towards another. The primary aim is to undermine the other to ensure compliance. In this study, we examined the extent to which students experienced nonsexual nonphysical abusive behavior on their jobs, the impact of this experience on job satisfaction, the characteristics of the actor and target, and responses to these behaviors, particularly turnover. The results indicate that although most of the students had very positive interactions at work, exposure to abusive behavior was familiar, was relatively frequent, and had a negative impact on the targets. The actors tended to be bosses and older than the targets. The quality of the interpersonal relationships at work was related to job satisfaction and intention to leave. The implications of these results are discussed with respect to individual, situational, and organizational factors that may be related to the presence and impact of abusive interpersonal interactions. Avenues for research on the nature, extent, and impact of these behaviors at both the individual and organizational levels are identified.

Working with a co-worker, boss, or subordinate who engages in behaviors that are derogatory and hostile can be stressful. Interacting with such people on an ongoing basis can result in decreased pleasure with work, questioning one's skill on the job, reacting harshly to the person engaging hi the behavior, and leaving the organization. The costs to the organization can be high hi terms of worker fear, reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, and turnover as workers focus their energy on dealing with these difficult and often unpredictable interactions (Gwartney-Gibbs & Lach, 1993; Janz & Tjosvold, 1985; Ryan & Oestreich, 1991).

A quick perusal of bookstores reveals a plethora of popular self-help books on dealing with difficult people and behaviors at work (e.g., Bramson, 1981; Cava, 1990). In addition, training workshops focused on dealing with difficult behaviors have become quite popular. All of this suggests that people are experiencing difficulties in their interpersonal relations at work and are looking for practical ways to deal with these problems. Yet, although there has been much attention on sexualized interpersonal interaction as evidenced in the literature on sexual harassment (Gutek, 1985; MacKinnon, 1979; Terpstra & Baker, 1986), there is surprisingly little mention in the organizational research literature on the nature, extent, and costs of these other nonsexual hostile interactions. In this preliminary investigation, we begin to empirically document the presence and impact of these "other" hostile behaviors on people's experiences of work.

ABUSIVE BEHAVIORS

Although it could be argued that difficulties are "natural" in any relationship, the question is whether the behaviors experienced are merely annoyances or whether they step over the line into the realm of being hostile and abusive (Ryan & Oestreich, 1991). Although there are examples of physical violence in the workplace (e.g., being pushed, being slapped, throwing objects at a person, threats of physical harm), the nonphysical yet abusive behaviors are more frequent, more "socially acceptable," often subtle, harder to document, and have a cumulative impact (Diaz & McMillin, 1991; Gwartney-Gibbs & Lach, 1993; Ryan & Oestreich, 1991; Tolman, 1989).

For this study, abusive behaviors in the workplace refer to hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors (excluding physical contact) directed by one or more persons towards another that are aimed at undermining the other to ensure compliance. …

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