UNT research shows the office bully’s impact on bystanders

A University of North Texas faculty member is studying the “silent epidemic” of workplace bullying from a unique perspective.

“I’m looking at the bystander versus the bully or the victim – If I witness it, how does it affect me? Does it affect my relationships with co-workers or myself?” said Michele Medina, an adjunct professor. Medina completed the research this May as part of her doctoral degree and dissertation in the UNT College of Business Department of Management. “Even if you haven’t been bullied, you’ve likely seen it.”

Office bullying is on the rise, according to research. In a separate, 2014 study, the most recent year for data, 28.7 million people – about one in five Americans – witnessed bullying. However, researchers know little about how it impacts witnesses.

Medina studied how exposure to in-office bullying influences interpersonal attitudes, including expectations on how colleagues should treat one another, as well as intrapersonal outcomes, including how an individual reacts internally to the bullying. She also examined how the witness’ empathy impacted those two factors.

“When people react to events emotionally, it has a direct influence on their attitude or how they behave – and that can spill over into work,” said Medina.

For her research, participants, who served as bystanders, watched a faux employee training video showing either an actor berating a co-worker or a neutral exchange. How the bystanders react says a lot, said Medina. Among her findings:

  • Witnesses who observe peer-on-peer bullying may believe they may become a target for bad treatment at work.
  • Those who observed bullying were often inclined to disassociate from the bully.
  • Bystanders who have higher levels of empathy are more likely to identify with co-workers who were bullied.
  • Witnesses of the same gender as victims are less likely to identify with perpetrators.

This, said Medina, can influence the office environment.

“There’s a price to pay,” said Medina. “Kids who are bullies tend to grow up to be adults who are bullies. It doesn’t necessarily go away. Understanding how bullying affects everyone at work, and which employees are most likely to be affected, allows companies and organization to address all aspects of workplace bullying properly.”

Medina finished her doctoral degree this May and has accepted a position for the fall as an assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

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