Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces?
You’re probably familiar with the unfortunate term “cancer cluster,” which refers to a neighborhood or some other defined geographic area whose inhabitants develop cancer at a much higher rate than the general population. It’s usually associated with the possible concentration of carcinogens in the defined area, such as industrial chemicals or pollutants.
The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?
Currently, researchers face inevitable limitations on studying specific employers with regard to workplace bullying prevalence and severity. Not surprisingly, employers are reluctant to open themselves up to research studies that may go public, especially findings that might directly compare them to other organizations.
It means that most prevalence studies at our disposal cannot identify whether individual employers are hosts to a disproportionate amount of workplace bullying and similar behaviors. This also inhibits us from drawing conclusions about whether workers in specific occupations are more or less likely to experience workplace bullying.
The “bullying cluster”
So here’s the hypothesis:
Bullying behaviors are not evenly distributed among all employers. Rather, bullying behaviors are disproportionately concentrated in a smaller number of toxic workplaces.
Hence, the bullying cluster.
More questions emerge: For example, what is that disproportionate share? For example, might the old chestnut, the “20/80 rule,” apply here? Could, say, 20 percent of our workplaces host 80 percent of the bullying?
Also, might this be at least a partial explanation of why, in multiple surveys, a fairly large share of respondents report that they’ve never even witnessed workplace bullying? (If you spend most of your work life in functional workplaces, it’s less likely you’ll be exposed to bullying.)
Furthermore, how does this hypothesis relate to other forms of workplace mistreatment? (On this point, I think back to the research of Joel Neuman and Robert Baron, who found positive correlations between all forms of workplace aggression, including bullying.)
Hopefully an enterprising professor or Ph.D. student in organizational psychology is working on these questions, or maybe there’s a terrific study out there that I missed. (If the latter, please send it to me and I’ll amend this post.)
As someone who has been studying workplace bullying for over a decade — albeit not as an empirical researcher — the bullying cluster concept seems self-evident to me. We’re well aware that workplace bullying is not an isolated dynamic. Leadership and workplace culture have a lot to do with it. Organizational consultants are regularly called in to deal with toxic workplaces, and not surprisingly they often find a lot of bullying behaviors within them. And it appears that certain occupational groups — health care, law, and education, to name a few — are associated with high levels of workplace bullying.
If the bullying cluster hypothesis is valid, then both further research and action-oriented responses are impacted. For example:
1. It sharpens our examination of the relationship between workplace culture and bullying behaviors, especially concerning the role of organizational leadership.
2. In assessing and designing interventions for toxic workplaces, bullying would be more seamlessly (if that term applies in such situations) incorporated into any set of responses.
3. When workplace bullying legislation becomes a reality, it’s more likely that eventual claims would emerge from toxic workplaces. Workplaces with fair and ethical employee practices would largely avoid bullying-related lawsuits.