April 20th, 2012

WBI Study: Attempts to stop bullying at work by targeted workers are ineffective

Effectiveness of Bullied Targets’ Strategies to Stop Workplace Bullying
2012 Workplace Bullying Institute Survey

There are many so-called “experts” in workplace bullying offering advice for bullied targets. Strategies common to their lists are: (1) confront your bully, (2) tell the bully’s boss, and (3) report problems to HR. Some weirdos even suggest that targets have a “personal responsibility” to confront their bullies, that they “owe” it to themselves.

At WBI, we have never advised such actions. Those steps cause greater harm because of the certain retaliation. So, we submitted those suggestions to empirical study. In early 2012, we asked 1,598 individuals personally familiar with workplace bullying what strategies they adopted to get their bullying to stop and if those actions were effective. Here are the results of that survey.

WBI periodically conducts online surveys that rely upon self-selected samples of individuals bullied at work. WBI online surveys accurately depict the perceptions of workers targeted for bullying at work as contrasted with the views of all adult Americans captured in our scientific national surveys.

A total of 1,604 respondents completed this survey. Six individuals claimed to have had no direct or indirect experience with bullying. Their answers were discarded. The final sample size was 1,598 people who know bullying firsthand. The sample was overwhelmingly female (80%).

Prevalence, Gender & Rank

Respondents were asked: What is your experience with mistreatment at work? We define mistreatment as repeated incidents against an individual employee by a person or a group that take the form of verbal abuse, behaviors that are humiliating, threatening, intimidating, or sabotage of the targeted person’s work.

Using that definition, 58% said they were currently bullied, 39% have been bullied but not currently, and 3% had only witnessed it. To illustrate the special nature of this sample, in the 2010 WBI National Survey 9% of adult Americans were currently bullied, 26% had been bullied, and 15% were witnesses only.

Most perpetrators, according to this survey, were women (63% compared to 62% men in the national sample). Women bullies torment women in 89% of cases; men bullies chose women in 63% of cases. Women were 79% of all targets.

Most of the bullies were bosses (75% compared to 72% in the national sample); 18% were coworkers, peers with the same rank (the identical rate in the national sample), and 7% of bullies bullied from a subordinate rank (compared to 10%).

Strategies to Stop Bullying & Their Effectiveness

Effectiveness ratings were limited to only the respondents who answered ‘yes’ to the adoption of a particular strategy.

1. Target seemed to not do anything (In other words, letting time pass hoping matters will improve by themselves) was adopted by 38% of targets. Most (62%) did try something.

Effectiveness of doing nothing: 3.25%

We consider “doing nothing” the baseline to which the effectiveness of all other strategies can be compared.

2. Target directly confronted the perpetrator — 69.5% did so
Effectiveness of confronting: 3.57%

3. Target asked perpetrator’s boss to intervene & stop it — 70.7% did so
Effectiveness of support from bully’s boss: 3.26%

4. Target told senior management/owner expecting support — 73.9% did so
Effectiveness of senior management/owners: 3.69%

5. If union present, asked union to intervene & stop it — 60.3% did so
Effectiveness of union: 8.84%

6. Target filed a formal complaint with HR alleging a policy violation — 42.8% did so
Effectiveness of HR: 4.7%

7. Target filed a complaint with an external state or federal agency — 18.7%
Effectiveness of EEOC, etc.: 11.9%

8. Target tried to find an attorney to file a lawsuit — 33.7%
Effectiveness of finding an attorney: 11.2%

9. Target did file a lawsuit — 8.9% (n=379)
Effectiveness of filing a lawsuit: 16.4%

The purpose of this study was to have individuals intimately familiar with bullying (those directly experiencing it or witnessing it) describe the effectiveness of various adopted tactics or strategies to stop the bullying.

The results are clear. Letting time pass (doing nothing) stopped bullying 3% of the time, an obviously ineffective tactic. However the other tactics — confronting, imploring the bully’s boss, filing an HR complaint, or telling senior management — were as ineffective as doing nothing. When discrimination is part of the bullying, it does pay to use current laws (the effectiveness rises to double digits).

For the few unionized respondents, the rate was double HR’s effectiveness. The most realistic conclusion from these findings is that whatever individuals try, the chances of success are miniscule with failure hovering around 97% for most strategies.

Stopping the Mistreatment

For 54% of all respondents, the bullying was ongoing. It had not stopped.

For those who reported that the bullying ended, the target suffered negative consequences to make it stop.

– Voluntarily quit — 28%
– Were forced out (constructive discharge) — 25%
– Were terminated — 25%
– Transferred jobs — 11%

In this 2012 study, 77.7% of bullied targets were no longer employed where they were bullied as the result of the bullying. An alternative way to report this is to say that once targeted for bullying an individual faced a 78% probability of losing the job he or she once loved.

In the 2010 WBI National Survey, 41% of women targets quit and another 25% were terminated. For men the quit rate was 36% and 13% were terminated. Unfortunately quitting includes voluntary action plus being constructively discharged, forced out. In this 2012 survey we were able to separate the reasons for quitting. Transfer rates in 2010 were 14% for women and 8% for men.

The punishment rate for bullies seems to be rising slowly through the years; having 11% of perpetrators (5% terminated, 6% punished) experience negative consequences is at an all-time high. The impunity, no consequences, rate for bullies is still 89%.

A Flubbed Policy Question

In a prior 2010 WBI Instant Poll, respondents said that only 3% of employers had a policy to specifically address workplace bullying. In this 2012 survey,

Respondents were asked: Harassment is illegal if based on discrimination (membership in a protected class, such as gender, disability, religion, age or veteran status). Did the employer have a policy to address workplace mistreatment separate from discrimination?

30.4% said “Yes”

It appears that respondents to this 2012 survey allowed the word “harassment” as it appeared in the question to influence their overestimation of the percentage of employers with a policy. Every employer has an anti- harassment policy to comply with laws. The question was intended to separate discrimination and harassment from mistreatment that met the definition of bullying. Obviously the respondents interpreted the question differently.

Download a copy of the complete report.


Support with SPSS analyses, graphics, online data collection & survey design from Daniel Christensen, David Phillips & Sean Lunsford

© 2012 Workplace Bullying Institute, All Rights Reserved, Citations must credit the source — WBI.


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This entry was posted on Friday, April 20th, 2012 at 9:33 am and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Tutorials About Bullying. 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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