July 8th, 2013

Biz school study critiqued: Targets of workplace bullying told to be “nice”

A study recently published drew much attention with headlines such as: Ugly and Nasty People Are Bullied At Work.

Here we go again. More blaming the victim from business school researchers. This time, it was Brent Scott from Michigan State and Timothy Judge from Notre Dame. In their conclusion, they said that their findings could be used by managers to know who was mistreated in their work groups so they, the managers, could help. Wow. As if managers who hear about bullying among coworkers respond with anything but “work it out between yourselves.” These researchers are out of touch with the reality of workplace bullying.

For us at WBI, the larger problem is that the study was not about workplace bullying at all. The term was not mentioned once in the entire article. It was the press relations office at Michigan State that synopsized the study as one involving workers bullied at work. Funny how critics of bullying are willing to tag along when they consider our topic a “hot” one.

Here is my detailed review of the pair of studies done by Scott and Judge. The negative conduct referred to in the article was actually “Counterproductive Work Behavior” (CWB) defined as “behavior intended to hurt the organization or other members of the organization.”

In reality, the accurate headline should have been.

Statistical Equation Suggests Agreeableness
inversely Correlated with Counterproductive Work Behaviors
When Attractiveness is Limited to Older Workers

Just doesn’t sizzle, does it?

The devil is in the details. We rely on the researchers’ operational definition of CWBs to contrast this study with one exploring workplace bullying. Other labels offered by the authors for CWB were aggression, antisocial behavior, harassment, incivility, social undermining and workplace deviance. No references to workplace bullying. Remember, business school researchers loath acknowledging the stark reality that in the U.S. most mistreatment is perpetrated by managers.

Seven items on a questionnaire (Bennett and Robinson scale of interpersonal deviant behavior) were the operational definition of CWBs. Three sample terms from the scale appeared in the article — hurtful things said, acting rudely, being made fun of.

Contrast this with the WBI definition of workplace bullying: repeated, health-harming verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation, sabotage or exploitation of a known vulnerability.

The authors place their research into the arena of exploring reasons why EMPLOYEES engage in harmful actions.Those actions, in turn, result in adverse reactions listed in the article: negative emotions, job dissatisfaction, somatic complaints, emotional and physical withdrawal and turnover intentions.

Within the interpersonal forms of CWB, the focus of the study is on characteristics of CWB targets.The stated purpose of the study — what identified employee characteristics are likely to elicit negative emotions in coworkers who then engage in CWB?

The authors focused on personality of victims. The NEO test measures five factors: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. They chose neuroticism and disagreeableness (agreeableness with the scores reversed) because of their negativity.

They claimed that the positive trait of conscientiousness is valued by coworkers. In fact in bullying, not CWB, studies one’s superior competence, stronger work ethic and high cognitive abilities pose threats to aggressors and contribute to being selected as victims. The authors’ ignorance of those findings indicates that they are not distinguishing CWB from workplace bullying. Remember, CWB is about negative conduct among employees and nothing committed by the employer against the employee.

From WBI’s perspective, Openness is another NEO trait that characterizes most bullied targets. In our own studies, the fifth ranked characteristic of the target profile is that they are apolitical. They are not schemers. They do not pursue an internal political agenda. They want simply to be left alone to do their work without interference from bullies. They are “open” and guileless. The researchers in this study missed a key ingredient in targethood. By passing over openness, they show how different CWB is from workplace bullying.

The researchers chose “N” — neuroticism, the tendency to be angry, hostile or anxious — and the “A” — agreeable people are warm, altruistic and have a prosocial orientation towards the needs of the groups to which they belong (its negative polar opposite on the scale is disagreeableness). To be high in neuroticism and disagreeableness is the portrait of a negative person who tends to be hostile.

The authors threw in physical attractiveness, or lack thereof, as another variable. Unattractiveness, about which a consensus is easily reached, is associated with lots of negative outcomes. Attractive people get the goodies in our society. They speculated that unattractive people would be more likely to be recipients of CWBs.

WBI’s experience with the attractiveness of bullied targets is exactly the opposite of the business school prediction. Often women targeted for bullying are more attractive than their bullies. They are resented for their appearance. The reason for targeting is the threat perceived by the bully.

The researchers conducted two studies. Study 1 involved only 126 college students who worked part-time. Participants completed surveys online. They rated how often two of their coworkers who have the same supervisor as them committed CWBs against them (said hurtful things, acted rudely toward me, made fun of me, etc.). They also rated how negative — angry, mad, disgusted — interactions with those coworkers were. Finally, students completed the Neuroticism (moody, tense, easily upset) and Agreeableness (like to cooperate, have a forgiving nature, am not cold or aloof) subscales of the NEO. They rated their own personalities.

Being the recipient of CWB (CWB receipt in the author’s terminology) was negatively correlated with agreeableness and feeling negative emotion toward the coworker. Neuroticism was not associated with either CWB or negative emotions.

In Study 2, participants were 149 hospital workers and their significant partners — spouse, close friend, close relative. Partners rated the Neuroticism and Agreeableness of participants. In other words, ratings as seen by those who know them well vs. self-ratings. Then, workers, organized by formal working groups, rated the CWBs directed against each coworker and neuroticism and agreeableness of each. Face-only pictures of each participant were taken and attractiveness was rated by four raters not connected to the study.

The results were mixed. Neuroticism of the targeted person (the “focal employee” in the study) again failed to be correlated with the other research variables. However, agreeableness (as rated by significant others) was negatively associated with (thus it was disagreeableness was positively associated) with the receipt of CWB from others (r=.-.38). Coworker negative emotion also was correlated with CWB receipt (r=.36). The correlation between attractiveness was not significantly correlated with CWB receipt (r=–.07). The authors speculate that age influenced this correlation. Older folks were rated as less attractive.

Age was a factor in Study 2. Younger workers were targeted more frequently for CWBs than older workers.

This finding is the reverse of patterns of who gets bullied at work.

The results from a structural modeling statistical treatment of the data in Study 2 disproved the authors’ hypothesis that committing CWBs is mediated by (dependent upon) having negative feelings toward the victim. In other words, the perception of disagreeableness alone led to committing CWBs, independent of any negative emotions felt.

Next, the researchers considered the interaction (additive effect) between attractiveness and each of the NEO scales used in the study. This led to better findings. The relationships between both neuroticism and disagreeableness and being the recipient of CWBs were strengthened for unattractive individuals and not for attractive coworkers. Thus, physical attractiveness moderated the relationship between the NEO personality factors and whether one received CWBs or not. Disagreeable and unattractive people were more likely to receive CWBs AND emotionally stable (low in neuroticism) and unattractive people were also more likely to receive CWBs. The second interaction did not make sense to the researchers.

In the context of workplace bullying research, emotionally stable people pose a threat to their more irrational and moody bullies. Perhaps being less attractive somehow justifies the bullying.

The authors noted shortcomings of their studies. They explained the lack of the predicted neuroticism-CWB receipt link in two ways. The aspect of neuroticism that should be measured is the “angry/hostility facet.” Second, maybe more indirect forms of CWB, like gossip, will be more strongly related than the direct forms assessed in their studies.

The authors end their discussion focused entirely on target-based approaches and the search for “black box” explanatory factors. What is it about targets that elicit negative behaviors directed at them? Here’s one sentence from the discussion section of the article that reflects the authors’ myopia.

this suggests that physically unattractive individuals may be recipients of CWB because their low self-esteem prompts them to associate with coworkers who abuse them

The authors mentioned only once that the work environment is a contributory factor in CWBs. Never did they consider the delivery of CWBs from higher-ranking individuals in the workplace. It was all peer-to-peer. They contributed to the victim blaming literature that focuses on the personality of those experiencing interpersonal violence in the workplace.

In fact, the only mention of managers in the study is in the concluding “Practical Implications” section. The authors suggest that managers can use this study to guide their social support and counseling to “adjust the expression of their agreeableness,” to capitalize on the “power of nice.”

Geez! These academics out of touch with the real workplace. See our WBI studies on target characteristics. The exact traits that get people targeted is the package of superior skill, cooperation and “nice.”

To their credit, not once did the term workplace bullying appear in the article. The entire study remained mired in the obscure concept, CWB. However, the press grabbed onto the study as one involving bullying. The screaming headlines were “Nasty and Ugly People Are Bullied At Work.”

Yikes. Talk about hyperbole. Clearly the press relations people at Michigan State, Scott’s home university, wanted to ride the newsworthiness of Workplace Bullying.

Here’s an excerpt from the MSU press release:

“Ugly” Finding: Unattractive Workers Suffer More

People who are considered unattractive are more likely to be belittled and bullied in the workplace, according to a first-of-its-kind study led by a Michigan State University business scholar.


B.A. Scott & T. A. Judge (2013) Beauty, personality and affect as antecedents of counterproductive work behavior receipt. Human Performance, 26, 93-113.


<-- Read the complete WBI Blog

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Monday, July 8th, 2013 at 12:00 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Commentary by G. Namie, Related Phenomena, Social/Mgmt/Epid Sciences, WBI Education. 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.

Having trouble? Click Here for Comments Guide

Facebook Comments


Disqus Comments

This site is best viewed with Firefox web browser. Click here to upgrade to Firefox for free. X