by Angie Bletsas

Workplace bullying is, in a fundamental way, about interpersonal behaviour. For that reason it is easy to see workplace bullying in individualistic terms, as a problem of difficult people. But research on workplace bullying, and workplace ethics more broadly, calls attention to the way workplaces set the context for employee behaviour – both good and bad.

Analytic interest in the issue of workplace bullying is evident in the plethora of terms and typologies that attempt to characterise it. Alongside workplace bullying are analytic concepts such as workplace deviance and workplace incivility as well as the more positive characterisations from which such behaviour is seen to deviate: (good) organisational citizenship, and (healthy) psychosocial safety climates.

Alongside this analytic literature is literature of a primarily practical, legal and sometimes therapeutic nature. This work is typically targeted towards individuals who are or have been bullied in the workplace. The sheer volume of this material on the internet suggests a substantial need for support. Indeed, research suggests that in Australia 9.4 per cent of workers experienced bullying in 2014/15.

For people who have had direct experience of bullying in the workplace, it is understandable that the focus of the complaint may be the person exhibiting the behaviour. Being humiliated, stigmatised, or in any way victimised by a supervisor, colleague or colleagues in a work environment can be hurtful, frightening and potentially traumatic. Work is not just a source from which people derive a sense of personal accomplishment, but also their main income. The personal consequences of bullying for those targeted, including the complex resistance strategies utilised, are well documented in the literature.

While the experience of bullying is very much about individual behaviours, it is important to not lose sight of the workplace in instances of workplace bullying. Research highlights that the drivers of workplace behaviours are not just the attitudes and behaviours of staff, but include the institutional structures, norms and practices that define the workplace. The workplace context will influence, though not necessarily dictate, how staff behave including through factors related to job demands, job control and job resources.

Ultimately, workplace bullying is not just a product of bullies, but also a product of workplace contexts. This insight is at the centre of a growing body of research on workplace bullying, however named. It highlights why, for organisations that are serious about addressing ethical norms in their workplace, it is not adequate to ‘weed out the bad seeds’, but equally important to explore the drivers of poor organisational citizenship and positive organisational citizenship. The drivers of ethical practice are not just individual attitudes and behaviours.

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