group of office workers stressed and distraught

Study: Abusive supervisors impact victims and coworkers

Author: BLR

Bosses’ abusive behavior toward subordinates not only has a detrimental effect on victims, but their behavior also has a similar negative impact on the victims’ coworkers and team members, who experience secondhand, or vicarious, abusive supervision.

That was among the findings from research conducted by Paul Harvey, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Hampshire and his research colleagues, Kenneth Harris and Raina Harris of Indiana University Southeast and Melissa Cast of New Mexico State University. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of Social Psychology.

In what the researchers described as the first-ever study to investigate vicarious supervisory abuse, they found that, like firsthand abusive supervision, vicarious supervisory abuse is associated with greater job frustration, a tendency for employees to abuse other coworkers, and a lack of perceived organizational support. The negative effects were intensified in cases where an individual was a victim of both kinds of supervisory abuse.

What is abusive supervision?

Abusive supervision is defined as “a dysfunctional type of leadership” that “includes a sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors toward subordinates,” Harvey says. For example, such abuse can include “ridicule, public criticism, and the silent treatment.”

Vicarious supervisory abuse is “the observation or awareness of a supervisor abusing a coworker,” he says, noting that examples include “an employee hearing rumors of abusive behavior from coworkers, reading about such behaviors in an e-mail, or actually witnessing the abuse of a coworker.”

How common is employee abuse?

“My personal belief is it’s impossible to come up with an accurate estimate of that,” Harvey says. Studies of abusive supervision have found that 3.5 to 16 percent of employees acknowledge abuse from a supervisor.

Harvey cautions that the numbers may be understated, since some people are reluctant to speak up for fear that there will be repercussions—even with an anonymous survey. “On the other hand, the procedures used [in some surveys] are vague in their methodology,” so those results might be overstated.

Plus, subjectivity might skew the results. “What is abusive to one person may not be abusive to another,” he says.

What are the consequences?

The researchers found that abusive behavior by supervisors tends to breed a work culture in which employees are “more on edge, hostile, and aggressive toward each other,” Harvey says. For example, the victim of direct abuse may act in a hostile manner toward coworkers.

As other employees witness abusive behavior—and nothing being done about it—such behavior “kind of percolates vicariously throughout the organization,” and employees see that the organization is permitting—or tacitly accepting—abusive behavior, Harvey says.

Victims of firsthand abuse, as well as those who are subjected to vicarious supervisory abuse, may experience psychological effects (e.g., anxiety, depression, and emotional exhaustion) and physiological effects (e.g., higher blood pressure and decreased immune system), he says, adding that such abuse also can impact an employee’s performance and advancement.

Over time, the costs to the company can be great: reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, increased health costs, and, potentially, a lawsuit, Harvey says.

What can employers do to address it?

Supervisory abuse is hard to identify and often is “well below the limit of what would raise flags and get them in trouble,” Harvey says. “Most of the damaging behaviors are completely invisible even to people in the same room.” Such behaviors could include a supervisor withholding information from employees, giving them the silent treatment, feeding them incorrect information, or purposely sabotaging them.

Having an anonymous hotline that employees can use to report supervisory abuse is helpful, but that alone will not solve the problem, Harvey says.

In practice, employees are often afraid to report such abuse “because they don’t know how anonymous it will be.” In an investigation, the alleged abuser will eventually have to be confronted, and it may be obvious to him or her who filed the complaint.

Implementing human resources policies prohibiting supervisory abuse—and training supervisors on them—can be helpful, too, in that supervisors who have a tendency to act in a hostile manner will think twice about doing so, Harvey explains.

However, he says the best approach is to make sure top-level managers are aware of the ramifications of supervisory abuse for employees and the organization itself. That way, “they have a vested interest in preventing it and dealing with it.”

Top-level managers also need to be able to identify possible signs of abusive behavior. For example, if productivity drops and absenteeism and turnover increase in a unit assigned to a new supervisor, Harvey says abusive behavior might be to blame.

In smaller companies, where top management has frequent interactions with employees, managers also should watch for “fairly obvious telltale signs” of abusive behavior, such as clinical depression and a change in an employee’s overall demeanor.