Study on incivility toward graduate students reports effects similar to workplace bullying

During the past decade, we have learned a lot about incivility, bullying, and other negative behaviors in the workplace. However, we don’t know much about similar forms of mistreatment in academic settings.

That void is what led Susan Stewart (Western Illinois U. — Quad Cities), Nathan Bowling (Wright State U.), and Melissa Gruys (Wright State U.) to develop a study that asked graduate student members of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) about their experiences with anti-social behaviors by faculty members and fellow students.

Negative consequences

Among their key initial findings is that students who reported “more mistreatment have higher levels of depression, intention to leave, and adverse physical symptoms than students reporting less mistreatment from either source.”

This should sound familiar to those who have studied bullying at work. The effects of incivility experienced by these graduate students are very similar to those reported by employees who have been targets of workplace bullying.


I believe this is a very important line of inquiry. When these behaviors are perpetrated (and not infrequently validated) in graduate and professional school settings, those on the receiving end often suffer health consequences and a loss of self-confidence. Some students — targets, bystanders, and perpetrators alike — will adopt the behaviors in their own academic and professional lives. In such cases, co-workers, clients, patients, and customers also will pay a price down the road.

Awareness training could help to prevent these behaviors. For severe situations such as targeted bullying and sexual harassment, concrete sanctions may be appropriate. In sum, academe should zealously guard freedom of expression, but not to the point of being complicit in abusive behaviors.


I’m devoting several posts this week to responses and ideas sparked by papers presented at a panel on April 15 as part of SIOP’s annual conference in Chicago. The panel, which centered on research approaches to understanding incivility, was organized by doctoral student Benjamin Walsh and Professor Vicki Magley of the University of Connecticut’s industrial/organizational psychology program.

I was privileged to serve as the discussant on the panel, offering comments on each of the papers. It is exciting to see graduate students and professors examining these aspects of work and workplaces via their research studies and dissertations.

4 responses

  1. Great article!
    I was an Adjunct Instructor at a Technical College here in Georgia. I have just recently experienced a very painful and even shocking encounter with Workplace Bullying. I finally stood up for myself when I realized what was happening. But by then…it was too late. I lost my job. I’m now reading 3 books about this incredibly sick behavior in the Workplace. To be honest…I’m shocked. I did not realize that there were such sociopathic people out there. And….that they were “enabled” and even respected in their Workplace. I am now having to rethink my whole orientatiton toward work and how to become “BullyProof”. Actually…I’m starting to look forward to it. I’ve learned so much. I look forward to more articles.

    • So glad to see there is interest in the issue of incivility toward graduate students. There does seem to be a deficit of information about this topic. Since the academic setting is the hub of research, it is conceivable that conducting investigations regarding how graduate students experience incivility and bullying in that setting, could create conflict of interests. However, if bullying and incivility exist in the workplace, it is unrealistic to think it doesn’t occur in the academic arena. Realistically, what incentive is there for universities to promote a form of research that could potential shed disturbing light on the hallowed halls of academic excellence? What students want to complete graduate study applications while entertaining the possibility that their education might include learning what it is like to be bullied? Will this necessary research ever make the grade or will procrastination prevail?

  2. My colleagues and I on doctorate course in psychology in UK have been bullied rotten by professors of psychology – where are the relevant accrediting bodies to stop this? Chartered psychologists (bystanders) typically turn their blind eye to these behaviors in the name of furthering their careers. The ethics and breach of ethics created by these very psychologists are taking for us students a very new meaning and seems to be a norm. Gas-lighting a type of mental torment i.e. seems to be their favorite way of addressing students who object to such mental torment that is not measurable or available to naked eye of other people in power which are charmed by these individuals. Sometimes they leave a measurable trail of evidence after them that is being brushed off by accrediting bodies because nobody wants to waste some membership fees and who would believe us that these sort of things do happen in helping professions after all psychologists are meant to be carers and not tyrants. . We receive education in high anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues in the literal sense possible. This would make a great documentary movie for anyone out there interested – maybe Tarantino in US could be interested in great script for Hostel VI . Interestingly enough not enough studies are done about this and why? Obvious!

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