Sometimes, a boss singles out a particular employee for ridicule because it is believed that a little extra public criticism could increase the employee’s competence and productivity. A new study finds that not only is this not true, but a bullying boss has negative impacts on the work habits of employees not even receiving the supervisory abuse.
The study "An Investigation of Abusive Supervision, Vicarious Abuse Supervision, and Their Joint Impacts" was published in the Journal of Social Psychology. It examines how the negative treatment of an employee singled out by a supervisor can affect the morale of other workers.
The researchers define abusive supervision as a dysfunctional type of leadership that includes a sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors toward workers. Vicarious abusive supervision is how the abuse targeted at one employee affects other workers.
"Although the effects of abusive supervision may not be as physically harmful as other types of dysfunctional behavior, such as workplace violence or aggression, the actions are likely to leave longer-lasting wounds, in part, because abusive supervision can continue for a long time," said researcher Paul Harvey, an associate professor of organizational behavior.
The researchers queried a sample of 233 people working a variety of jobs throughout the Southeast United States. The group was 46 percent male, 86 percent white, an average age of 42.6 years, had worked in their job for seven years, had worked at their company for 10 years and had worked an average of 46 hours a week.
The participants were asked to answer questions about supervisory abuse, vicarious supervisory abuse, job frustration, perceived organizational support and coworker abuse.
The researchers found that respondents were more likely to dislike their jobs when they noticed other employees being treated badly by management.
"When vicarious abusive supervision is present, employees realize that the organization is allowing this negative treatment to exist, even if they are not experiencing it directly," the researchers said.
"Our research suggests that vicarious abusive supervision is as likely as abusive supervision to negatively affect desired outcomes, with the worst outcomes resulting when both vicarious abusive supervision and abusive supervision are present," the researchers said. "Top management needs further education regarding the potential impacts of vicarious abuse supervision on employees to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of such abuse."