Workplace bullying: Ideas for researchers and scholars

Some areas of academic research have been so picked over that there’s scant room left for investigating anything that matters; not so with workplace bullying. True, we don’t need another general study documenting that bullying at work is a problem, but there’s a lot of stuff worthy of our attention if we dig deeper.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I often present theories and hypotheses about workplace bullying that cross into the social science realm. Typically these posts synthesize and stitch together threads from existing research and emerging areas of inquiry. Because my own training is in law and public policy, I make no claim of social science research expertise. But I think I’m a pretty good connector of ideas, and I’ve been immersed in this topic for over a decade.

I’ve combed the 880+ posts here to identify 20 pieces that could plant the seeds for a future article, dissertation, thesis, or seminar paper. I hope this list will be helpful to graduate students, faculty, affiliated and independent researchers, and thesis/dissertation advisors, in fields such as psychology (clinical, social, industrial/organizational, occupational health, etc.), organizational behavior, sociology, and the humanities. Here goes:

When employees leave your organization, how do they feel about it? (2013) — How about a study asking the most important exit interview question?

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012) — No one will confuse this form of bullying with mere incivility.

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012) — Referencing Susan Sipprelle’s excellent documentary, “Set for Life,” this post raises questions about how Boomers are faring in a post-meltdown economy. Call it navel gazing for some of us, but “Boomer studies” may become an interdisciplinary category of its own.

Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse? (2012) — Commenting on the thought-provoking work of Dr. Ronald Schouten, director of the Law & Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012) — Positing that bullying behaviors aren’t evenly distributed among workplaces; some are magnets for mistreatment.

Workplace wellness and workplace bullying (2012) — Shouldn’t we incorporate workplace bullying into workplace wellness programs? An interesting applied research topic.

“Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (2012) — When is it a mob, and when is it one person controlling what looks like one?

Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids (2012) — Suggesting that workplace bullying can roll downhill, especially with single moms as targets.

Was an Illinois teacher’s suicide related to workplace bullying (2012) — We’re hearing more accounts linking workplace bullying to suicidal ideation, but we could use some hard research and analysis.

Should you confront your workplace bully? (2011) — What happens to people who confront their aggressors?

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011) — The role of board members in bullying situations is a vastly under-researched question.

Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder and workplace bullying (2011) — This blog post resonated with a lot of people who have been wrestling with their own responses to being bullied. And there’s plenty of time left until folks are talking about the DSM VI!

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory (2011) — I’m not an English major either, but I’d love it if an authority on Orwell applied his work to workplace bullying and organizational life in general.

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011) — I got a lot of pushback from some very smart folks at a conference when I suggested that allowing some degree of incivility may actually help to prevent situations from escalating into abusive ones, but I’m sticking to my position for now.

Female-to-female workplace bullying: Homespun theory on an imperfect storm (2011) — A real stitch-together post, drawing from various studies and theories to frame the dynamics of female-to-female bullying. There’s a lot to be explored here.

How workplace bullying bears similarities to domestic abuse (2011) — We’d all benefit from a better understanding of the similarities and differences between various forms of interpersonal abuse.

Does the Holocaust help us to comprehend targeted, malicious workplace bullying? (2011) — Given the subject matter, I wrote this very carefully, drawing from Arendt’s banality of evil thesis. Could make for a provocative social psychology seminar paper.

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011) — Plenty of room for more sector and vocation-specific studies and analyses.

Understanding the bullied brain (2010) — All that fascinating neuroscience stuff.

Helping targets of workplace bullying: The need for an integrated counseling approach (2010) — Targets often need a combination of mental health, career, and legal counseling. Some real possibilities for applied research here.

8 responses

  1. Here’s another one. Does workplace bullying lead to domestic abuse? One bullied individual with considerable insight said that being bullied at work made him want to go home and beat his wife; and he wasn’t that kind of man. It scared him.

  2. David, with regard to exit interviews and other means of surveying departing employees, there is quite an extensive body of research literature on that subject. However, I’m not familiar enough with all of it to be able to say how much of it, if any, deals with workplace bullying as a possible reason for leaving. One problem that is mentioned in this research, though, is the difficulty of getting reliable information from exit interviews or surveys – employees may just want to get it over with, and say as little as possible, or be as non-controversial as possible.

    • A perspective on the exit interview: sometimes, a departing employee (departing due to the abuse) is given chance to meet — informally — alone –‘with one of the bullying/mobbing perpetrators. Without anyone else present, and no list of standard questions, this is a meeting to avoid as a target. This should never be allowed to happen, particularly when target requests others present and even produces a standard question list for the manager who planned to ‘wing it’. Anything “informal” — meaning probaby not in writing, and ‘anything you say will be twisted, used against you, and you’ll be deemed crazy, no matter what’ — A mtg like this will not be a good move for target during exit from workplace mobbing. Not sure how common this is but I’ll bet, common.

    • Fiona and Lauren, your comments highlight to me the futility of using standard-brand exit interviews as honest measures of feedback. I’d love to see a study whereby a group of employers agree to have exit interviews conducted by a neutral third party, devising some mechanism to safeguard confidentiality (that may be a practical impossibility), and sharing the results in a study.

      I bet it would be eye-opening.

  3. How about this; it’s happening but I bet we don’t hear, because mobbing is devastating and not many targets would still be capable to speak up — or be believed, or even still be alive — once it gets to this level:
    “Mobbed out of Workplace, Suffering PTSD, Target now Cyberstalked/Impersonated Online by Bully”
    — A corporate-psychopath bully, of covert-manipulative type, still addicted to the power and noteriety of workplace mobbing, despite target is gone. Bully now seeks to keep the good times rolling by continuing abuse via online tactics, yet plays victim herself, compromising help for target, who remains accused as liar. Bully now secretly stalks and impersonates a now jobless, disabled, former employee. The personnel file, and freeflowing medical info provided by HR, affords Bully much fodder for veiled threats, sabotage of benefits, and info on Target’s supporters, hence, where to spread defamation next, and to whom. Much of what’s contained in personnel info are top items we are warned to never divulge to a cybercriminal. This compromises target identity and security, and even creates risk of ID theft offshore as data is deliberately plugged into harmful or untrustworthy sites while stalking for info and creating impersonation profiles of Target. Instead of focus on healing, returning to function, even preparing for upcoming cancer-diagnostic surgery, target’s full focus remains on seeking safety, managing constant fear, and bracing for the other shoe to drop. Only the bully controls when, where, and scope of what occurs; for Target, there is no escape. The story is so extreme it sounds paranoid delusional, at least until the timeline and facts are heard. But I have done the research. I see how, and why, these seemingly separate silo issues will emerge as a collective problem, very soon.

  4. I’d be interested in research about the impact of vicarious trauma on the target’s supporters. I know that in my own case, I may have inadvertently traumatized individuals that I sincerely regret having exposed to my own trauma.

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