A recent study by researchers at New University of British Columbia (UBC) shows that co-workers who witness bullying experience and may develop a stronger urge to quit than the actual direct targets of bullying.
According to the study: “Our results show that merely working in a work unit with a considerable amount of bullying is linked to higher employee turnover intentions.”
Sandra Robinson, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at UBC and co-author of the study, said society tends to assume that targets of bullying “bear the full brunt. However, our findings show that people across an organization experience a moral indignation when others are bullied that can make them want to leave in protest.”
The study is published in the current edition of the journal Human Relations.
The researchers found that employees witnessing co-workers being bullied, or merely talking to them about their experiences, tend to take the targets’ perspective. As a result, they experience cognitive or emotional empathy, which includes imagining how another feels or actually sharing in another’s feelings. These empathetic responses contribute to the understanding that a significant moral violation has occurred and recognition that the victim does not deserve mistreatment. As a result of this moral uneasiness, bullying at large within a work unit will increase employee intentions to quit their work group
Data used for the study were collected through two surveys of a sample of 357 nurses in 41 units of a large Canadian health authority. The surveys used a series of questions to assess the level of bullying in each nursing unit and then asked participants to rate their positive or negative reactions toward statements like, “If I had a chance, I would change to some other organization.”
Findings show that all respondents who experience bullying, either directly or indirectly, reported a greater desire to quit their jobs than those who did not. However, the results also indicate that people who experienced it as bystanders in their units or with less frequency reported wanting to quit in even greater numbers.
Prof. Robinson said that prior research shows that intentions to quit are directly correlated with employees leaving their jobs. However, she warns that even if employees stay in their roles, an organization’s productivity can suffer severely if staff members have an unrealized desire to leave.
“Managers need to be aware that the behaviour is pervasive and it can have a mushrooming effect that goes well beyond the victims,” says Robinson. “Ultimately bullies can hurt the bottom line and need to be dealt with quickly and publicly so that justice is restored to the workplace.”