In co-authoring a book on mistreatment in the workplace, Haskayne scholar and workplace aggression expert Sandy Hershcovis found even she had something left to learn on the complex subject and its wide-ranging and deeply felt impacts.
“I previously subscribed to the notion that victims may sometimes put themselves at higher risk of mistreatment by engaging in bad behaviour such as poor performance or negative attitudes,” Hershcovis says. “The chapter in our book on perpetrator predation woke me up to the idea that focusing on the victim’s role serves to make the weak even more vulnerable.”
Hershcovis, an associate professor in organizational behaviour and human resources in the Haskayne School of Business, co-authored the book Research and Theory on Workplace Aggression with Nathan Bowling of Wright State University in Ohio, published in February 2017 by Cambridge University Press.
The book includes chapters written by some of the foremost scholars in the field sharing cutting-edge ideas across a range of topics from the measurement of workplace aggression to a review of the predictors and consequences of mistreatment, and coping and intervention strategies. It examines the phenomenon from the perspective of perpetrators, targets, and witnesses to understand how different actors perceive workplace aggression.
What factors contribute to fertile ground for workplace aggression?
“Our hope is that taking a scholarly approach to the subject of workplace aggression will encourage more research into what enables and motivates it. We need a better understanding of the contextual factors like organizational culture and leadership that make mistreatment possible, and the motivators such as competition and reward structures that drive people to behave this way,” says Hershcovis.
She says the book is important at this time because the problem seems to be getting worse.
“We see high-profile leaders behaving badly and setting examples for how others ought to behave,” she says. “Given the costs to organizations of workplace mistreatment — from high turnover to decreased performance and employee burnout — we need to understand what motivates and enables workplace mistreatment so that we can devise techniques to stop it.”
Workplace aggression takes many forms
“Workplace aggression takes many forms — from incivility, to abusive supervision, ostracism, and bullying — and it has significant negative effects on the well-being and productivity of victims,” Hershcovis says. “This book invites leading scholars to address topics that to date have received limited attention in the area of workplace aggression.”
Hershcovis cites as one example the chapter on how witnesses react when they see workplace aggression. “It highlights how bystanders get involved, and when and why they might side with a perpetrator or a target,” she says. Another chapter focuses on how trauma at work caused by mistreatment can spill over to life at home and adversely affect family members.
Bullying bill tabled in Alberta
The subject of workplace aggression earned particular focus in Alberta this past November when MLA Craig Coolahan tabled Bill 208, the Occupational Health and Safety (Protection from Workplace Harassment) Amendment Act, 2016, seeking protections from workplace bullying.
“I think Bill 208 is a move in the right direction; it sends a strong signal to employers that they are liable if they permit workplace aggression,” Hershcovis says. “But because bullying and other forms of psychological harassment are often easily hidden or explained away, in reality many victimized employees are likely to still fall through the cracks.”