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Aggression At Work

December 18 2007 - Recent research by Wayne Hochwarter, a professor of management at Florida State University, and associate Samantha Engelhardt investigated differences in employees' responses to abusive supervisors. Their study included more than 180 employees from a range of professions and built on 2006 research that assessed the effects of abusive bosses on employees' health and job performance.

Wayne Hochwarter explained:

"Our goal was to isolate those who reported daily abuse from those who did not."

The researchers found significant differences between the two groups. Of those who reported abuse:

  • 30 per cent slowed down or purposely made errors (compared with 6 per cent of those not reporting abuse)
  • 27 per cent purposely hid from the boss (compared with 4 per cent)
  • 33 per cent confessed to not putting in maximum effort (compared with 9 per cent)
  • 29 per cent took sick time off even when not ill (compared with 4 per cent)
  • 25 per cent took more or longer breaks (compared with 7 per cent)

They also found that participants not reporting abuse were three times more likely to be proactive in solving problems they experienced in the workplace, including perceived abuse.

Wayne Hochwarter commented:

"The data do not allow us to definitively state if abuse leads to these reactions, or if managers are just responding to their subordinates' less-than-stellar behaviour. However, it is clear that employee-employer relations are at one of the lowest points in history."

Researchers highlight the importance of "basic civility" and effective communication when addressing many workplace problems.

Wayne Hochwarter said:

"Without communication, there can be no trust. And without trust, you're going to have your share of employee-manager struggles."

Referring to his earlier research findings Wayne Hochwarter added:

"Employees stuck in an abusive relationship experienced more exhaustion, job tension, nervousness, depressed mood and mistrust. They also were less likely to take on additional tasks, such as working longer or on weekends, and were generally less satisfied with their job. Also, employees were more likely to leave if involved in an abusive relationship than if dissatisfied with pay."

General Public Identified As Primary Source Of Abuse

Almost half of U.S. employees have been subjected to aggression in the workplace, with customers, clients and patients being the main source of attacks, according to a comprehensive national survey of workers reported in the Handbook of Workplace Violence published by Sage in 2006.

"The stereotypical belief that large numbers of employees are 'going postal' is a bit of a myth," says Aaron Schat, assistant professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. "47 million Americans experience psychological or physical aggression while on the job. Interestingly, workers pinpoint the general public as the most significant source of this aggression, as opposed to other co-workers or supervisors."

The survey found that about 47 million employees have experienced acts of psychological aggression at work, including:

  • being screamed at,
  • insulted, or
  • threatened with physical violence.

Physical violence at work, such as being slapped, kicked or attacked with a weapon, were less common. Only 6% of employees - nearly 7 million people - reporting exposure. The vast majority of workers (96%) who experienced physical violence also reported some form of psychological buse. A mere 0.26% - representing about 300,000 workers - experienced physical violence alone

  • Almost 25% of respondents reported they were victims of aggression from members of the public (customers, clients or patients)
  • 15% said they were victims of aggression from other employees
  • 13% reported aggression from supervisors or bosses.

Schat explained, "Exposure to aggressive behaviour at work is associated with a wide range of negative consequences for individuals and organizations, including negative work attitudes, reduced well-being, and, in cases of physical violence, bodily injury or death. The fact that such a large percentage of the American population has experienced workplace aggression demonstrates the need to address it."


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