Workplace woe: Are abusive bosses or inferior employees to blame?

Wayne Hochwarter

Considerable attention, both in blogs and in popular media, has been given to abusive bosses over the past few years. (See the Web sites and, for example.) Less discussed are employees’ responses to such behavior. How do employees react to abusive supervisors? Do they simply take what is dished out, or do they actively seek to change the situation?

Research recently conducted by Wayne Hochwarter, professor of management at Florida State University, and research associate Samantha Engelhardt sought to answer those questions by examining the responses of more than 180 employees from a wide variety of professions who reported supervisor abuse.

"Our goal was to isolate those who reported daily abuse from those who did not," Hochwarter said.

The differences between the two groups are staggering:

  • Thirty percent of those who reported abuse slowed down or purposely made errors, compared with 6 percent of those not reporting abuse.
  • Twenty-seven percent of those who reported abuse purposely hid from the boss, compared with 4 percent of those not reporting abuse.
  • Thirty-three percent of those who reported abuse confessed to not putting in maximum effort, compared with 9 percent of those not reporting abuse.
  • Twenty-nine percent of those who reported abuse took sick time off even when not ill, compared with 5 percent of those not reporting abuse.
  • Twenty-five percent of those who reported abuse took more or longer breaks, compared with 7 percent of those not reporting abuse.

Hochwarter and Engelhardt also found that those not reporting abuse were three times more likely to proactively fix problems, including perceived
abuse, than those who reported mistreatment.

"The data do not allow us to definitively state if abuse leads to these reactions, or if managers are just responding to their subordinates’ less-than-stellar behavior," Hochwarter said. "However, it is clear that
employee-employer relations are at one of the lowest points in history."

Hochwarter suggested that basic civility, including a commitment to active communication, may cure many workplace problems.

"Without communication, there can be no trust," he said. "And without trust, you’re going to have your share of employee-manager problems."

Hochwarter and Engelhardt’s research, which is being prepared for publication, follows a 2006 study conducted by Hochwarter and two FSU doctoral students that still is generating national media coverage nearly a year later. In that study, the researchers examined the problem of abusive bosses and documented their effects on employee health and job

"Employees stuck in an abusive relationship experienced more exhaustion, job tension, nervousness, depressed mood and mistrust," Hochwarter said of the 2006 research. "They also were less likely to take on additional tasks, such as working longer or on weekends, and were generally less satisfied with their job. Also, employees were more likely to leave if involved in an abusive relationship than if dissatisfied with pay."

More information about the 2006 study can be accessed at