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More impact from bullying than sexual harassment, study shows


Those who are bullied in the workplace appear to suffer more than employees who are subjected to sexual harassment, says Queen’s professor of Business Julian Barling.

This unexpected finding comes from a new study conducted by Drs. Barling and Sandy Hershcovis, a PhD graduate from the Queen’s School of Business who is currently on faculty at the University of Manitoba.

The researchers reviewed the results of 110 studies conducted over the past 21 years. They looked at both workplace aggression, which includes bullying, incivility and interpersonal conflict and sexual harassment. In the latter category are gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention and “quid pro quo” harassment: the extortion of sexual cooperation in return for job-related considerations.

Surprisingly, employees subjected to workplace aggression were more likely than victims of sexual harassment to leave their jobs and to have a poorer sense of well-being. The study also showed less job satisfaction and fewer satisfying relationships with their superiors among workers who were bullied.

One possible explanation for these findings is that sexual harassment victims, who now have the backing of legislation aimed at preventing and punishing those responsible, may perceive they have a stronger “voice” to respond, suggests Dr. Barling, an expert in labour relations and organizational behaviour. “Employees are more able to seek recourse by filing a complaint with management or grieving to a union, allowing a perception of personal controllability.”

Non-violent forms of workplace aggression are generally not illegal, however, and employees feel they must fend for themselves if they experience such acts. This lack of societal denunciation of aggression diminishes the employee’s ability to change, reduce, or eliminate the negative act.

Another reason workplace aggression takes a special toll on victims is its concealed and insidious nature, Dr. Barling continues. “Sexual harassment generally involves direct behaviors, such as gender-related jokes, unwanted touching, or unwanted requests for dates.”

In contrast, workplace aggression, in addition to acts such as name calling and yelling, often involves hidden acts, such as withholding resources, failing to correct false information, or ostracizing a target. While the victim of such behaviors can perceive these acts, confirmation or validation by others may be more difficult.

Also, as sexual harassment becomes increasingly unacceptable, victims may be more likely to assign blame. Victims of workplace aggression – not normally viewed as an illegal act – may be more likely to suffer in silence, fearing they are imagining such behaviors or are responsible in some way for being targeted.

There is no intent to downplay the seriousness of sexual harassment compared to workplace aggression, the researchers say.

“What our study shows is that – due to its relative invisibility and comparative lack of a legitimate social voice – the impact of workplace aggression may be greater on employees, who must either exit the organization or endure intolerable behaviors,” says Dr. Barling.

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