Bullying at work: the impact of shame among university and college lecturers

ABSTRACT

This paper explores the concept of shame within the context of workplace bullying. Despite a decade or more of international research into bullying at work, there is little or no evidence for explicit exploration of shame amongst those who have experienced bullying. Based on content analysis from the narratives of 15 college and university lecturers who were self-selecting victims of bullying we find clear evidence for feelings of shame which appear to last long after the bullying episodes have ended...

The escalation of workplace bullying

The growth of workplace bullying both in terms of research, and as an organisational phenomena in the UK, has been spectacular since 1993. Although known by a number of different names including ‘mobbing’ (Leymann, 1996; Zapf et al ., 1996), harassment (Bjorqvist et al., 1994), bullying (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996; Lewis, 1999), workplace harassment (Brodsky, 1976) and emotional abuse (Keashly, 1998) amongst others, the central core of these differing concepts are ‘systematic mistreatment’ of an individual which, if unabated, results in severe problems for the victim (Einarsen et al ., 2003). The reported growth of bullying inside organisations appears widespread, regardless of geography. Studies undertaken in the UK (for example, Hoel & Cooper, 2000; UNISON, 1997), Scandinavia and Europe (for example, Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996; Vartia, 1996) and Australia (for example, McCarthy et al ., 1996; Richards & Freeman, 2002) have all shown increasing numbers of employees being exposed to bullying behaviours. Part of the reason for this increase in reports of bullying might be the product of amplified coverage by numerous media (Lewis, 2002) and to the growth in litigation and subsequent attention to policy and procedures by organisations and trade unions (Lewis & Rayner, 2003). These different narratives coupled with talk amongst victims, colleagues and ‘canteen lawyers’ provide fertile ground for multiple socially constructed realities of workplace bullying as a phenomenon rapidly on the increase...

Supporting the bullied victim

According to Leymann and Gustafsson (1996) and Matthiesen et al. (2003), bullied victims suffer from a lack of social support in work, which is central to coping with the experience of bullying and in mitigating health and stress symptoms. Hubert (2003) explains that from her experience of dealing with bullied victims, people get pushed from person to person or even institution to institution. Could this process of ‘push’ result in further feelings of shame? Hubert (2003) suggests that the initial desire to offer help to people who have been bullied operates merely as a referral service rather than any real practicable source of assistance. Even when referral to organisational departments who are supposed to assist bullied victims actually takes place, research suggests outcomes can often be unsatisfactory. Both Adams (1992) and Rayner (1998) report how it is often the junior ‘bullied’ individual who is relocated and not the ‘senior’ bully. This sense of injustice might well result in thoughts of shame as one is moved to new surroundings, new colleagues or even new work tasks. Here it is the victim who may suffer feelings of shame for not being able to deal with the original situation...

According to Hubert (2003), inappropriate advice on bullying can often result in escalation of the conflict. Witnesses or bystanders can be drawn into the conflict to such an extent that a ‘conflict of fear’ establishes itself (see Rayner, 1999, for example). Within this enculturation of fear, people become too scared to report bullying or believe that management know about it but will not take appropriate action to deal with it (Rayner, 1999). Liefooghe (2001) showed how employees at a UK bank were reluctant to speak out against bullying, despite assurances of nonreprisal for doing so. Instead, Liefooghe (2001) found more subtle intimidation and discreet forms of bullying occurring as a result...

Given the wider evidence of links between shame and depression, what evidence exists for similar associations in the bullying literature? Although there is limited discussion in the workplace bullying literature about shame, there are clear signals that this construct exists for bullied victims. Regardless of the source of the bullying behaviours, the shame impact, if prolonged and selectively targeted, is the same. Recipients are worn down, frustrated or intimidated, and severe cases can suffer with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Einarsen & Mikkelsen, 2003)...

Whilst some bullied victims found it difficult to concede they were victims, they also sought comfort in sharing their experiences with colleagues rather than with legitimised authorities. This contradicts the notion of shame as an isolatory experience. The fact that some victims of bullying seek colleague support during or after a bullying episode may indicate there is a collective need to administer retributive justice that they are unlikely to find within the corridors of personnel or their trades union. Their feelings of humiliation as to what was happening to them can only truly be understood by sharing their experiences with those who have also been bullied, or simply with those who know and understand the context. Neither personnel nor their union representatives seem to be able to undertake this role. This is partly because the bullied victims are experiencing shame at having to expose themselves to authority and also because they have feelings of humiliation for failing to deal with the issues themselves...

In trying to better understand workplace bullying it might serve researchers and those charged with dealing with the aftermath of an event to consider the importance of the shame construct, the ramifications of which are destructive, debilitating and long lasting.

Lewis, D. (2004). Bullying at work: the impact of shame among university and college lecturers, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 281-299.