Sauder research identifies who is more likely to be a victim of workplace bullying

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With schoolyard bullying continuing to make headlines, researchers are taking a close look at this disturbing phenomenon among the young. But bullying isn’t just for kids. According to the Canada Safety Council, if undeterred, children who bully often continue to do so as adults, graduating from victimizing playmates in the schoolyard to fellow employees at work.

As a step towards intervention, much research has focused on defining the perpetrator as an insecure individual who bullies as a means to hold on to his or her perceived status—but what about the victim? Are certain people more likely to become targets of harmful actions from other employees, whether coworkers or superiors?

“There appear to be two kinds of people who are victimized by others at work,” says Sauder professor Karl Aquino, who teaches in the school’s organizational behaviour and human resources professor division. “Those who exhibit high levels of submissiveness, low self-esteem or are perceived as neurotic, and those who provoke others because they are aggressive and violate social norms about how people should treat one another – i.e., they are rude or obnoxious.”

Aquino has conducted studies on workplace victimization, with a focus on identifying the factors—situational or individual—that make one more likely to be a victim. He recently co-authored a chapter published in the book Social Psychology and Organizations with Sauder graduate student Jane O’Reilly, which summarizes findings from his studies conducted from 1999 to 2009.

Workplace status is also a key factor in determining who is more likely to be a target on the job. Others perceive the positive behaviour of high-status employees versus low-status employees differently. For example, while those who exhibit helpful behaviour towards co-workers are generally less likely to be victimized, this is less likely to be the case when the helpful employee belongs to a lower status workplace minority group.

“The reason is that people don’t give low-status co-workers the same kind of credit for showing positive behaviours as they do to high-status co-workers,” he explains. “So being a good co-worker doesn’t seem to yield the same benefits for low- as compared to high-status employees.”

The results of Aquino’s studies provide key information that can be useful in intervening in workplace—and schoolyard—bullying. He suggests that help for submissive victims should emphasize learning how to be more assertive and to defend themselves against others. Aggressive victims, who are also likely to exhibit characteristics of being a bully themselves, can benefit from learning how to control their provocative behaviours.