Communication Currents


Does Advice for Managing Workplace Bullying Really Work?

March 23, 2017
Organizational Communication

If you’ve ever been chewed out by your boss, or suffered through endless criticism and condescension from a colleague, you’re one of many people who have been a victim of workplace bullying. While certain harassment situations call upon employees to follow specific human resources protocol as determined by federal law, many employees have experiences that require them to make do with casual advice, such as “Just stand up to them,” “Be more assertive,” “File a written record,” “Ignore it,” or “Quit.”

In a new study featured in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, authors Stacy Tye-Williams and Kathleen J. Krone identify and re-imagine the paradox of workplace bullying advice. They interviewed 48 individuals from a variety of occupations and found that targets of workplace bullying frequently offered the same advice they had received to other targets, despite believing that the advice either had made no difference or had made their own situations worse.

Evaluating “Useful” Advice

The authors categorized more than a dozen pieces of advice given to targets of bullying as “useful,” “not useful,” or “it depends,” and noted the frequency each type of advice was given. The most frequently received pieces of advice were as follows:

  • Quit/get out; 27 percent of respondents were given this advice
  • Ignore it/blow it off/do not let it affect you; 23 percent of respondents were given this advice
  • Fight/stand up; 17 percent of respondents were given this advice
  • Stay calm; 10 percent of respondents were given this advice
  • Report the bullying; 10 percent of respondents were given this advice

At the bottom of the list were items such as “punch the bully” and “quit making things up” 2 percent of respondents had received this advice. The advice came from both personal connections and experts, and the authors found that the advice was usually the same whether the target was bullied by a boss or a co-worker. They write, “That advice remains a-contextual and fails to take into account culture and the power differences between targets and their bullies illustrates the ways in which common forms of advice fail to address the larger context of bullying.” 

Downplaying Emotion

Tye-Williams and Krone explored targets’ “tendency to adopt an exclusively rational response to what may be a highly irrational experience,” and bystanders’ and advice-givers’ inclination to lead victims to believe they alone are responsible for stopping a bully. Participants offered emotion-filled accounts of their experiences, but were frustrated by the advice they had received that encouraged them to downplay their emotions and “fight back instead,” or to “stay calm.” One participant explained:

I guess when you’re not in it, it [remaining calm] sounds good, but when you’re in it keep in mind that not only are you doing your work every day but you’re doing it in a highly stressful situation that has brought on physiological symptoms.

The authors argue that for some targets, remaining calm “serves the developmental purpose of a single target, but does little to stop the bully.” For others, this advice only fuels frustration and the belief that the advice-giver lacks understanding and empathy.

The Paradox of Advice

In another round of data collection, the authors asked participants what advice they would give to other targets of bullying, given their own experiences. Some were reluctant to offer generalized advice because they understood that each bullying experience requires a specific form of support. Others also pointed out that bullying is often more than about a single individual – “widespread organizational changes would need to be made because individual strategies are largely ineffective.” One participant explained the complexities this way:

I don’t think anybody knows what to do with it because it’s completely legal. I mean you can’t do anything about it when there’s no recourse for action. They’re allowed to do it, so they’re gonna do it if the company culture fosters that kind of behavior.

While the authors acknowledge that the dilemmas and paradoxes associated with following advice related to workplace bullying are increasingly well-known, they note that the advice organizations receive from experts to address bullying creates even more challenges as it “illustrated the constraints placed on attempts to operate more imaginatively and expressively within formal organizational boundaries.”

Re-imagining Workplace Bullying Advice

So if targets of workplace bullying continue to offer the same common sense advice to other victims while generally disavowing its usefulness, how can organizations transform this paradox?

Tye-Wiliams and Krone first recommend validating the strong emotions associated with being bullied. “Attending carefully to strong emotions and directing sense-making about the bullying experience can contribute to the formation of a collective sense of identity,” and lets targets know that their emotional response is authentic and accepted, and not a liability.

They also recommend more creative methods for confronting bullies and responding to harassment in ways that are not outlined in an organization’s formal policy, which often is restrictive, and again, downplays emotions. An example might be meeting off-site with other targets of bullying to discuss opportunities to publicly catch a bully in the act. Such methods give targets the chance to “re-imagine the conventional and highly individualistic advice they are given for how to handle it on their own.”

Finally, the authors urge advice-givers to remember that some of the more commonly offered advice can be unrealistic – not everyone is able to easily quit their job or stand up to a bully. Ultimately, this kind of advice may only create more stress and feelings of helplessness. Instead, the best type of response may be to listen, validate, and offer reassurance that the target is not alone.

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Tye-Williams, S., and Krone, K. (2017). “Identifying and re-imagining the paradox of workplace bullying advice.” Journal of Applied Communication Research, doi: 10.1080/00909882.2017.1288291

About the author (s)

Kathleen J. Krone

University of Nebraska

Kathy Krone is a Professor of Organizational Communication.

Kathleen Krone photograph

Stacy Tye-Williams

Iowa State University

Stacy Tye-Williams is an Assistant Professor of English with a focus on organizational communication.

Stacy Tye-Williams photograph