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Recession Unleashes Boss Bullying

A number of workplace experts say the economic slump has triggered a rise in belligerent behavior on the part of supervisors.

During the recession, some manager-employee relationships have gone beyond tense; they’ve become abusive.

A number of workplace experts say the economic slump has triggered a rise in belligerent behavior on the part of supervisors. Many employees report that employers are increasingly using threats and intimidation tactics to cope with the financial crisis, according to a study last year by University of Phoenix researchers.

“We’re told if we discussed layoffs or downsizing, we would be fired—immediately,” one worker said in the study, which involved 1,150 working adults in the U.S. and was conducted by researchers Ruby Rouse and Richard Schuttler. Another worker said: “Questions get you written up and/or fired.”

Schuttler says such bullying is bound to backfire. Intimidation places employees and supervisors in adversarial roles, he says, eroding organizational trust and leadership integrity.

The spike in spitefulness comes amid other data indicating the manager-worker relationship is not that important to employee retention and may be less critical than it once was to employee engagement.

But harassment continues to take a hidden toll on employees and firms, says David Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston who specializes in the study of workplace bullying. He says employees have tried to tune out abusive managers because they are stuck in a miserable job market. “People are just gritting their teeth and dealing with it internally,” he says. “They don’t have much choice.”

Workplace bullying is defined as hurtful treatment of workers that is malicious and typically repeated. It includes tirades by managers as well as quieter efforts to undermine particular employees, such as overloading them with the intent of making them fail.

A 2007 study by polling firm Zogby International and advocacy group the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 37 percent of workers have been bullied at one time or another, and that 72 percent of bullies were bosses.

Last year, the Workplace Bullying Institute polled approximately 450 people, 99 percent of whom said they had been bullied or had witnessed bullying. Nearly 28 percent said the bullying worsened after September 2008, when the financial crisis hit. In addition, research on abusive supervision during the downturn of the 1990s showed bullying activities intensify as times get tough, Yamada says.

The recession gives “serial bullies” an excuse to mistreat employees, Yamada says, while other managers may think that bearing down on people is the way to do more with less. “These kinds of pressures can bring out the worst in anyone,” he says.

Some companies have made decent treatment of employees a priority and homed in on talent as a key competitive weapon. But

others have shown that they consider employees to be all but disposable. Such thinking has been visible in this downturn in the form of bullying bosses, says Yamada.

“I think we’re seeing a management philosophy that treating people with dignity and respect is not as important as it used to be,” he says.

Workforce Management, April 2010, p. 22Subscribe Now!