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Bullying Bosses Impact Workplace Safety

Sandy Smith

A new study from Portland State University finds that workplace safety can worsen under bosses who bully workers.

We’ve all heard that bullying in the workplace can destroy employee morale, can cause absenteeism rates to rise, can result in bad employee retention rates and even can lead to episodes of workplace violence. But did you know bullying can impact employee engagement in workplace safety efforts?

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, “Abusive supervision, thwarted belongingness, and workplace safety: A group engagement perspective,” Liu-Qin Yang, an associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology in PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and her co-authors surveyed 589 airline pilots and 468 manufacturing technicians and found that employees’ engagement in safety decreases when they’re treated in ways that detract from their bonds to a work group. Yang's co-authors included Xiaoming Zheng from Tsinghua University, China; Xin Liu from Renming University of China; and Chang-qin Lu from Peking University, China; and John Schaubroeck from Michigan State University.

According to the researchers, the behavior exhibited by supervisors and managers (“the boss”) can strengthen or weaken employees’ sense of belonging to the work group by supporting or undermining their status within the group. Poor treatment from a boss can make employees feel that they’re not valued by a group and, in the case of perception becoming reality, actually can result in a bullied employee being perceived by the group as having less value and being ostracized by the group. As a result, that employee can become more self-centered, and lead him or her to occasionally forget to comply with safety rules or overlook opportunities to promote a safer work environment.

The more unsure employees felt about their social standing in their work group, the more likely bullying would impact workplace safety, according to researchers. “When people are less sure about their strengths and weaknesses and their status within a group, they become more sensitive,” said Yang. “They’re more likely to respond negatively to their boss’ bullying behaviors.”

Yang said workplace safety is a critical issue — and more so in an environment where an employee’s failure work in a safe manner or contributes to them making poor decisions when it comes to their safety or the safety of the group — can create circumstances where other workers likely could be injured.

“Organizations need to understand how important it is to curb leaders’ bad behavior and to create positive team dynamics, so that there will be fewer negative safety consequences for employees or customers,” Yang added. “It’s really critical to manage such leader behavior, support victimized employees and prevent such issues.”

Recommendations from the study for employers include: 

  • Implement training programs that can improve leaders’ skills in interacting with their employees so they can provide feedback and discipline in ways that are neither offensive nor threatening.
  • Promote a more civil and engaged work environment that strengthens social bonds between employees and creates a buffer against the negative consequences of their boss’ bad behaviors.
  • Implement transparent performance evaluation processes so employees have less uncertainty about their social status in the workplace.
July 31, 2019 @ 01:28 PM EDT Manufacturing, Airlines, Energy - Oil and Gas, Metals and Mining, Construction Health & Safety

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