September 27th, 2011

37% of adults are bullied at work, not 70% — setting the record straight

Fact checking is an antiquated function in the modern newsroom. Despite a ubiquitous tether to vast troves of information on the internet, media outlets seem to have trouble using it to confirm claims, however aberrant they sound. The national prevalence of workplace bullying is one such distorted statistic.

This summer USA Today columnist, Anita Bruzzese, reported a false claim that a new survey found “up to 70 percent of working adults say they’ve been bullied at some point in their working lives,” citing Civility Partners LLC as the source. The same 70% prevalence rate was repeated by a Fort Worth, Texas TV station on Sept. 26. Repeating a mistake does not make it right.

Here are the facts behind the exaggerated prevalence rate.

When one visits the Civility Partners website, the reader gets several stats about prevalence. The three mentions of a 70% or greater rate are:

– 75% in a 1997 journal article by Norwegian researcher Stale Einarsen (whose study used a single almost all-male industrial org in which 7% met the definition of being bullied, not 75%!) This statistic is a misquote.

– 71% of people reported experiencing workplace “incivility” (which no authority accepts as equivalent in severity as, or level of harm produced by, bullying) from a very narrow sample of employees working within a single federal court system (which does not approximate a nationally representative sample of workers)

– 74.1% of respondents from the Corporate Leavers Survey that the Civility Partners website author described as asking “what forms of unfairness were experienced at a former employer, 74.1% of respondents named bullying…” This must be the figure Civility Partners gave the USA Today reporter that has been spread around without correction.

Here is the requisite fact checking that neither the media nor Civility Partners conducted.

The highly credible Level Playing Field Institute founded in 2001 is a nonprofit that promotes innovative approaches to fairness in higher education and workplaces. With support from Korn Ferry International, in 2007, LPFI conducted its Corporate Leavers Study: The Cost of Employee Turnover Due Solely to Unfairness in the Workplace. LPFI commissioned Knowledge Networks to poll a representative 19,000 person sample of the U.S. population. If the work had ended at that stage, the survey would have been a “scientific” one the results from which could be extrapolated to the entire U.S.

Instead, LPFI was interested only in a narrow subset of the population — professionals and managers (salaried, non-entry level adults aged 18-64) who had voluntarily quit work or who had volunteered for layoff within five years of the survey. They were “Leavers.” This was a special, non-representative group. 1,700 people were left from the original screening to complete the survey.

Because LPFI is concerned with fairness, they considered the following acts evidence of unfair treatment: being publicly humiliated, being passed over for a promotion, being compared to a terrorist, being asked to attend more recruiting or community-related events, being bullied (no clarifying definition found in the research report), having your identity mistaken, and receiving unwelcome questions about skin, hair or ethnic attire.

The only respondents asked to complete the survey were those who said that they left their jobs ONLY DUE to unfairness. That very limited sample of people were asked three related questions — which forms of unfairness led to leaving, which forms led to strongly discouraging others from seeking work with that former employer, and which forms led to discouraging others from purchasing the previous employer’s products or services.

For the managers and professionals completing the main survey, 13.5% said they experienced bullying at their former employer. It was the third least frequent factor given for leaving. [Compare this statistic with the WBI 2007 prevalence statistic of 12.6% of all American adults who said they were currently being bullied with an additional 24% saying they had been bullied before.]

On page 7 of the LPFI Corporate Leavers Survey report, a graph shows that 74.1% of those who reported being bullied told others to not go to work at that former employer’s workplace. The report described these particular responses as “recruitment related reputation costs” to employers. Nearly three-fourths of those who were bullied became impediments to corporate recruiting by the former employer. Read the previous sentence carefully. It is not the same as saying that 74% of the 1,700 survey respondents said they were bullied at work. Nor should one compound the error by suggesting that a nationally representative survey indicates that 74% of the workforce reports being bullied.

Finally, of those who reported being bullied and ONLY left their former employer because of perceived unfairness, 48.7% urged others to boycott that employer’s products or services.

I hope this clarifies the results of the Corporate Leavers Survey as misinterpreted by Civility Partners and embellished by the media for sensationalism.

Workplace Bullying is a major social problem of epidemic proportions. The only two national surveys that represent its prevalence among all American adults (employed and not employed (that would include those who “left” jobs) beyond just managers and salaried workers) were the ones produced by the Workplace Bullying Institute and conducted by Zogby International in both 2007 and 2010.

Read the actual Corporate Leavers Report for yourself.


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 27th, 2011 at 3:38 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research. 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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