Hodgins, M., MacCurtain, S., and Mannix-McNamara, P., “Power and inaction: Why organizations fail to address workplace bullying” (2020). International Journal of Workplace Health Management, 13(3), 265-290.
Background & Theory:
Organizations often think of power as being the ability to influence others and ensure compliance with organization-wide goals. Such a definition of power leads employees to support the organization and its goals, believing that the exercise of such power is only natural and leads to noble outcomes. However, it may be worth considering that power can be exercised in more covert ways, ultimately serving the organization over its employees. This study examines both covert and overt organizational power and how both can lead to ineffective policies and frameworks for dealing with workplace bullying.
Research was conducted by Margaret Hodgins et al. to answer the following questions:
- What is the relationship between power and workplace bullying?
- How does one’s definition of power contribute to organizational success or failure of preventing workplace bullying?
Over 100 past research studies and other resources were utilized to create this study. Additionally, 49 interviews were held discussing the topic of workplace bullying in a variety of organizations.
Most of the time, organizational policies designed to prohibit workplace bullying are based out of an overt understanding of power. Specifically, anti-workplace-bullying policies are typically based on noticeable and measurable events. For example, a manager consistently yelling at an employee over a period of time could be considered an overt abuse of power and a case of workplace bullying. Such a straightforward situation could potentially be resolved utilizing an overt workplace bullying policy.
However, while this rational understanding of a workplace bullying policy can help prevent some instances of workplace bullying, often it neglects the passive abuses of power that commonly make up cases of workplace bullying. This could include things like excluding specific people from meetings, denying training opportunities, avoiding any communication with an employee, or scheduling vacation consistently during busy season. Such subtle abuses of power are often not brought up to HR by employees out of fear of seeming petty, having the report hurt their career, and many other reasons.
An organization and its members can use covert abuses of power to ignore instances of workplace bullying even if prevention policies exist. Some examples of this are institutional inaction, threatening individuals with sanctions if they continue with reporting, reinforcing one-dimensional beliefs of the problem, devaluing the importance of the situation, utilizing structural barriers to prevent the issue from being pursued or resolved, and consistently delaying the process of reporting an instance of workplace bullying, leading to its eventual death.
Many of these actions by HR and management further victimize the workplace bullying target, never actually resolve the issue, and can lead to greater problems for the victim, reemphasizing the ineffectiveness of workplace bullying policies not adapted to cover instances of covert abuse of power. This study suggests that improving workplace bullying prevention policies and implementation first requires evaluating the values of the organization and the specific policies. The research also suggests that a combination of clear anti-bullying policy statements and a case-by-case approach to dealing with workplace bullying likely would be more effective than a streamlined systematic approach.
What We Can Learn:
Looking over this research, we can take away the following key insights:
- Organizations that fail to prevent workplace bullying even with policies in place may find that their policies primarily serve organizational interests rather than those of employees. Whether intentional or not, the systematic element of these policies often allows covert abuses of power to slip into the workplace, leading to cases of unreportable workplace bullying.
- Even overt abuses of power manifested through workplace bullying are often unreportable due to HR or management’s incorrect implementation of the policy. Examples of incorrect implementation or lack thereof can include inaction, threatening sanctions, reinforcing one’s understanding of the problem, understating the importance of the situation, preventing resolution through ineffective procedure, and/or delaying the report until it dies.
For Consultants: In addition to clear policy changes and implementation procedures, an organization can truly benefit from workplace bullying prevention trainings. Such trainings include teaching civility, positive communication, and conflict resolution.
For Everyone: If you see or experience instances of workplace bullying and find that your organization is not equipped to handle it properly, consider bringing in a consulting company like Pollack Peacebuilding Systems to conduct workplace trainings and help create a healthier work environment.