UK and U.S. workers more likely to experience workplace bullying

The Coalition government has criticised “over-regulated” UK employment law, which it argues makes it difficult for employers to manage employees without risk of being sued for unfair treatment. Yet despite the perception that UK employees are overly-protected by employment regulations, a new global study of white collar bullying has revealed that workers are in fact more likely to experience bullying at the hands of their bosses if they work in the UK or the U.S. The country a company is based in has a direct effect on how much workplace bullying is accepted and the UK and the U.S. were among the countries with a “high performance orientation” valuing accomplishments, a sense of urgency and explicit communication. These countries, say the authors, may tolerate bullying if it is seen as a means to achieve better results.

In contrast, the findings, which are published in the current issue of the Journal of Business Research found that countries such as Argentina, Mexico and Colombia value humane treatment of the individual as opposed to economic performance and do not condone workplace bullying.

The research shows that white collar workers in the Confucian Asia region (Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan) are those who have the highest acceptance rate of workplace bullying. For Confucian Asia, which has a higher performance orientation than other areas of the world areas such as Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, bullying may be seen as an acceptable price to pay for performance.

“Our study shows that while type of industry, salary and gender all influence acceptability of workplace bullying, the country’s culture of work is the biggest factor,” says Audencia Nantes School of Management Professor Nikos Bozionelos who co-authored the report. This is vital for multi-national corporations setting global HR policies and for employees considering out of country assignments. Both management and employees must come to grips with the realization that acceptance of employee abuse depends on location.”

The research implies that bullying might bring greater productivity in certain cases but at a cost. In extreme cases, shouting, unfair division of labour or employee segregation can cause physical trauma. As a result, workers can feel trapped, developing anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts.

The global study notes that in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan supervisors’ large degree of power means employees are more likely to accept bullying. Meanwhile, workers in countries such as the UK may fall victim to bullying at the same rate as Asians but suffer more because of their belief in an ideal of fairness. They can therefore feel that workplace bullies are abusing both the employee’s level of acceptable behaviour and that of society as a whole.

Prof. Bozionelos and his co-authors surveyed 1,484 alumni and current MBA students from 14 countries worldwide. Respondents were white collar with similar educational levels. Keeping these variable characteristics constant across respondents allowed the researchers to conclude that national differences in the acceptance of workplace bullying are distinct.

By Sara Bean