Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Will education reduce workplace bullying?

I had an interesting conversation recently about the value of education in the workplace. The gist was that educating employers about the costs associated with workplace bully would result in less bullying at work (I’m paraphrasing a bit). The underlying logic is that bullying is costly and that profit-maximizing employers, once aware of the costs, will act to avoid them.

I’m generally skeptical about this line of argument. The evidence I was pointed to about cost is from the Workplace Bullying Institute (under the Impact tab). This organization approaches bullying from a psychological perspective and focuses their impact studies on the personal impact of bullying.

This is a very valid perspective and yields useful insights into why and how bullying occurs and how it affects the target. That said, the psychological perspective ignores that bullying occurs in a political and economic context. Specifically, workplace bullying occurs within a capitalist economy, wherein employer behaviour is shaped by the profit imperative.

One of the more interesting articles written about bullying in employment is “Workplace bullying and the employment relationship”. Based on British data, this article suggests that employers may economically benefit from bullying. Specifically, bullying by supervisors (the most common bullies) may be an efficient way to increase productivity. In this way, bullying may be an endemic feature of capitalist employment relationships.

The idea that employer condone bullying is an uncomfortable one. Yet it certainly explains why profit maximizers (like employers) would put up with this bullying: it is in their economic interest.

This line of analysis is also a good tonic for advocates of workplace education, who often assume that deviant behaviour is the product of ignorance, rather than the interaction of systemic pressures and self-interest.

-- Bob Barnetson

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