July 21st, 2014

Workplace Bullying: Causal Factors in the U.S.


Two questions explored with varying levels of accuracy the public explanation for why bullying happens.

In the better of the two Survey items, we asked respondents to choose one primary factor or reason for the bullying.

Question: Which one factor is most responsible for abusive mistreatment at work?

There were four factors from which respondents could choose: two items centered on the target; two items about perpetrator characteristics; two items about the organization; and one item about our pro-aggression society.

Target and perpetrator factors are based on individuals’ personalities and skills. A respondent who assigns the majority of responsibility to targets is blaming targets for their fate. Focusing on perpetrators blames bullies. Employer work conditions and the failure to stop bullying, allowing bullying to happen with impunity, hold organizations responsible. Employer responsibility is external to both target and perpetrator. At the broadest level, societal mores surrounding aggression and violence can be credited as the reason so much bullying happens in America.

The primary causal explanation chosen by respondents was the perpetrator (41%), specifically, the bad personality of the bully (30%). Respondents saw the employer with its bullying-prone work environment and failure to hold bullies accountable as the second best explanation (28%).

One-fifth of respondents hold targets responsible for their fate, while half of that number (10%) perceive society is to blame. This Survey question was the respondents’ opportunity to blame victims, but only 20% chose to do so. The vast majority believed that factors outside the targets’ control were responsible.

There were differences across the racial groups in which factors best explained the bullying (See Race and the Bullying Experience for a fuller analysis). African Americans were the only group to assign a high percentage to society. Of all the racial groups Hispanics blamed targets the most. Perpetrators were blamed most by whites. Employers were blamed the most by Asian Americans and African Americans. The two groups with the highest “external” explanatory factor percentages were African Americans (62%) and Asian Americans (50%). Whites and Hispanics preferred “internal” personality factors to explain bullying (68% & 65%, respectively).

In terms of preventing or controlling bullying, the prospects of changing the personality of either the target or bully are dim. Change is more likely when organizational factors are redesigned.

The second Survey question asking respondents to allocate responsibility for bullying was less clearly written and focused than the previous question. We used the term “most worsened the workplace climate,” which is a compound question and certainly confusing. The response options sorted into target-related factors, coworkers’ reactions, and two types of management responses.

Question: Which factor most worsened the workplace climate for the bullied target, coworkers, and organization?

The majority of respondents (53%) blame targets (mostly for their inability to defend themselves). There is research that suggests coworkers perceive bullied colleagues who are not seen fighting back, and therefore assumed to be incapable of doing so, somehow deserving to be bullied. It’s a case of double condemnation – by the bully first, then by witnesses.

Survey respondents blamed coworkers in 18% of cases. Management, including HR, a management support department, was responsible in 29% of cases.

Download the Causal Factors mini-Report


Gary Namie, PhD, Research Director
Research Assistants: Daniel Christensen & David Phillips

© 2014, Workplace Bullying Institute, All Rights Reserved

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This entry was posted on Monday, July 21st, 2014 at 3:00 am and is filed under WBI Surveys & Studies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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