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OpinionPeople and LeadershipShort Read

Why Definitions Matter When Discussing Bullying

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

In my previous article I explored the phenomenon of Upward Bullying.  Part 2 of the series will draw attention to the importance of definitions, how this has influenced and shaped policies and processes towards workplace bullying, and how these might be flawed.

While most people will recognise the term workplace bullying and, for some, been a target of it, there is no agreed legal definition of bullying.  There is also an added complexity as workplace bullying is not legally recognised in the United Kingdom, and case law will tend to only refer to bullying when it falls under the Equality Act 20101 as harassment or discrimination.  However, the number of Employment Tribunals that cite bullying as a cause is increasing.2  Academics posit there are five criteria to determine whether workplace bullying has occurred, however, noting policy and union definitions tend to be more generalised.3

The five criteria include: 

(N) negative acts; 

(T) occurred over time e.g., 6-12 months; 

(R) repeated acts; 

(P) real or perceived power imbalance; and finally

(I) the impact of bullying.

Categories of bullying

Research has found these negative acts can incorporate a range of inappropriate behaviours, from incivility through to physical violence.4  Einarsen has argued there were two distinct types of negative acts: work-related bullying, where an individual finds it difficult to undertake their role; and person-related bullying, where the attacks are of personal nature.  Building on Einarsen’s work, Zapf further categorised bullying into five types.5

Five Categories of Bullying (Matthiesen & Einarsen, 2010)
Five Categories of Bullying

Over the decades, academics have developed definitions and questionnaires to determine whether workplace bullying has occurred.  Most academic research into this area uses either a form of Leymann’s Inventory of Psychological Terror questionnaire or Einarsen’s Negative Act questionnaire.6 7  These questionnaires are used across public and private sectors to determine whether workplace bullying has occurred as part of annual people surveys.

Definitions matter

Studies have found individuals can struggle to identify with the academic definition of workplace bullying given its “physical and childish connotations” or do not want to be seen as a victim or a failure.8 A crucial factor is the dissonance between an individual’s understanding of workplace bullying and a provided definition.  Salin found when a layperson was provided a definition of workplace bullying, only 8.8% identified with it.  However, in comparison, when provided with a list of negative acts and no definition, this figure rose to 24.1%.9  This is because if the definition provided did not match an individual’s understanding of what is meant by workplace bullying–they are more likely to tick ‘no’ in a questionnaire when asked.

Therefore, it is interesting to note that when completing the UK Civil Service People Survey, staff are initially provided with a definition of bullying based on guidance from the Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service:10

Unwanted behaviour from a person or a group that makes someone feel uncomfortable, including feeling frightened (intimidated) or less respected (degraded) or upset (humiliated). Bullying may take many forms (e.g., obvious, or subtle; a ‘one-off’ or sustained behaviour), and the perception of bullying can differ from person to person.”11

Notably, it is only when respondents tick ‘yes’ are they then provided with a list of ‘negative acts’.  Given that academics have found that the dissonance between a definition of workplace bullying and not wanting to be seen to be failing for a manager, this is even greater.  Resulting in managers being less likely to self-report, formally or informally, workplace bullying.  For managers, upward bullying can lead to increased “feelings of shame and helplessness that often targets experience”, leading to the manager’s voice being “rarely heard”.12

The absence of ‘intent’ 

A further problem with definitions is the question of intent.  Most academic or policy definitions of bullying do not include intent.  However, some academics have argued when looking at the time and frequency criteria, it is not too much of a leap to argue intent, given the negative acts have been repeated and occur over time.  When the negative acts are repeated like this, it resonates with Einarsen’s predatory perpetrator description, where the perpetrator commits the negative acts deliberately and with intent.  When challenged, the fact that the perpetrator is surprised or shocked by the impact of the negative acts is irrelevant.  This leads Sercombe and Donnelly13 to argue that the negative acts are an “intended action: it is an active and deliverable intervention,” and ignorance is not a defence.  Furthermore, it is interesting to note when laypersons are asked to define workplace bullying, perceived intent by the perpetrator features more strongly than impact.14

Conclusion 

Part 2 has explored how research has found that individuals do not necessarily associate with policy definitions of workplace bullying since they may not resonate with personal values or due to childish connotations.

Additionally, given departmental policies and processes are based on these self-reported figures, it is concerning that the Civil Service questionnaire only provides a policy definition without understanding this might have serious implications and lead to underreporting.  As such, managers are less likely to report being bullied due to this dissonance with the definition, potentially leading to Upward Bullying being underreported and remaining a hidden issue.15

Thereafter, we touched on the thorny issue of intent.  Academics and policymakers have long excluded intent from their definitions as it is hard to prove.  However, when bullying occurs more than once and over time, it is increasingly justifiable that there must be intent behind perpetrators’ actions.16  We can do more to protect our people from the scourge of workplace bullying, often at zero cost, and therefore we should. 

 

Look out for the next article in the series which will cover risk factors for bullying.

Cover photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

Jane Doe

Nom de plume, Jane Doe has been in Defence for over 20 years working in HR and Change Management roles.

Footnotes

  1. ACAS. (2022). Discrimination, bullying and harassment. ACAS. Retrieved 30 Jul from https://www.acas.org.uk/discrimination-bullying-and-harassment
  2. CMP. (2022). Bullying ET’s up 44%. Retrieved 31 Jul from https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=5b03de06-5fdc-4faf-b3c1-fc83c3144a52
  3. Saunders, P., Huynh, A., & Goodman-Delahunty, J. (2007). Defining workplace bullying behaviour professional lay definitions of workplace bullying. Int J Law Psychiatry, 30(4-5), 340-354. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijlp.2007.06.007
  4. Branch, S., Ramsay, S., & Barker, M. (2007). The Bullied Boss: A Conceptual Exploration of Upwards Bullying. In I. A. Glendon, B. M. Thompso, & B. Myors (Eds.), Advances in Organisational Psychology. Australian Academic Press.
  5. Matthiesen, S. B., & Einarsen, S. (2010). Bullying in the workplace: definition, prevalence, antecedents and consequences. International Journal of Organization Theory & Behavior, 13(2), 202-248. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijotb-13-02-2010-b004
  6. Einarsen, S. V., & Hoel, H. (2001, 16-19 May 2001). The Negative Acts Questionnaire: Development, Validation and Revision of a Measure of Bullying at Work 10th European Congress on Work and Organizational Psychology: Globalization – Opportunities and Threats, Prague, Czech Republic.
  7. Leymann, H. (1990). Handbok för användning av LIPT-formuläret för kartläggning av risker för psykiskt våld (Manual of the LIPT questionnaire for assessing the risk of psychological violence at work). Stockholm: Violen.
  8. Saunders, P., Huynh, A., & Goodman-Delahunty, J. (2007). Defining workplace bullying behaviour professional lay definitions of workplace bullying. Int J Law Psychiatry, 30(4-5), 340-354. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijlp.2007.06.007
  9. Salin, D. (2001). Prevalence and Forms of Bullying among Business Professionals: A Comparison of Two Different Strategies for Measuring Bullying. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology,10(4), 425-441.
  10. ACAS. (2022). Discrimination, bullying and harassment. ACAS. Retrieved 30 Jul from https://www.acas.org.uk/discrimination-bullying-and-harassment
  11. MOD. (2021). JSP 763: Behaviours and Informal Complaint Resolution  Part 1: Directive – Understanding Behaviours in Defence. gov.uk: MOD Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1120436/JSP_763_Part_1.pdf
  12. Branch, S., Ramsay, S., Shallcross, L., Hedges, A., & Barker, M. (2018). Bosses Get Bullied Too: Exploring Upwards Bullying to Learn More About Workplace Bullying. In P. D’Cruz, E. Noronha, E. Baillien, B. Catley, K. Harlos, A. Hogh, & E. G. Mikkelson (Eds.), Metrology (Vol. 2, pp. 1-32). Springer Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-6173-8_11-1
  13. Sercombe, H., & Donnelly, B. (2013). Bullying and agency: definition, intervention and ethics. Journal of Youth Studies, 16(4), 491-502. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2012.725834
  14. Saunders, P., Huynh, A., & Goodman-Delahunty, J. (2007). Defining workplace bullying behaviour professional lay definitions of workplace bullying. Int J Law Psychiatry, 30(4-5), 340-354. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijlp.2007.06.007
  15. Branch, S., Ramsay, S., Shallcross, L., Hedges, A., & Barker, M. (2018). Bosses Get Bullied Too: Exploring Upwards Bullying to Learn More About Workplace Bullying. In P. D’Cruz, E. Noronha, E. Baillien, B. Catley, K. Harlos, A. Hogh, & E. G. Mikkelson (Eds.), Metrology (Vol. 2, pp. 1-32). Springer Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-6173-8_11-1
  16. Sercombe, H., & Donnelly, B. (2013). Bullying and agency: definition, intervention and ethics. Journal of Youth Studies, 16(4), 491-502. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2012.725834

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