Workplace bullying is the collective term for a range of behaviors designed to do such things as control, degrade, intimidate or humiliate a co-worker or subordinate. Exposure to these behaviors is known to increase a person’s risks for mental health problems such as depression, insomnia and a group of conditions called anxiety disorders. According to results of a study published in June 2013 in the journal Human Performance, perceived physical attractiveness plays a prominent role in determining who experiences workplace bullying. Generally speaking, co-workers and subordinates deemed “unattractive” serve as the targets of bullying considerably more often than their “attractive” counterparts.
Workplace Bullying Basics
Workplace bullying can take a number of forms in any given work environment. Common examples of bullying behaviors include isolating or excluding subordinates or co-workers, singling out others for improper criticism, improperly blaming others for work-related problems, shouting at others, swearing at others, assigning unachievable tasks to subordinates, selectively monitoring the activities of an employee without cause, or participating in any action designed to humiliate others. Perpetrators of workplace bullying can vary, and may include a high-level boss, a lower-level supervisor, a single co-worker, a group of co-workers, or a company’s entire organizational structure.
In a study published in 2012 in the journal BMJ Open, a team of Finnish researchers tracked the mental health impact of workplace bullying by tracking the prescription histories of over 6,000 workers in the city of Helsinki. The authors of this study concluded that targets of workplace bullying significantly increase their intake of medications designed to treat the symptoms of medically serious depression, insomnia and anxiety. Additional individual and organizational consequences of workplace bullying include higher levels of infectious illness, higher accident rates, increased chances for physical injury, declines in productivity, decreased work attendance, poor staff retention, and a loss of personal or professional standing.
The Role of Perceived Attractiveness
The study published in Human Performance had three phases. First, researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame interviewed more than 100 employees from a single workplace and asked them to give detailed descriptions of their experiences as targets of workplace bullying. In the second phase of the study, the researchers showed photos of all of the interviewees to a second group of participants who did not know or work with them. The people in this second group were asked to rank all interviewees according to their physical attractiveness. In the third phase of the study, the researchers correlated the workplace bullying histories of the group of interviewees with the physical attractiveness assessments of the group of study participants who did not know the interviewees.
After reviewing their findings, the researchers concluded that people perceived as “unattractive” are targets of workplace bullying far more often than people perceived as “attractive.” This fact remains true even when a range of other considerations—including length of employment, male or female gender, and age relative to the individuals acting as bullies—are included in the equation. Apparently, the source of these targeted bullying behaviors is negative emotional states generated within bullying perpetrators when they encounter or think about the physical appearance of their “unattractive” co-workers and subordinates.
The authors of the study in Human Performance believe that they are the first researchers to clearly identify the role of physical attractiveness in workplace bullying behaviors. In particular, they note the similarity of the attractiveness biases in the workplace with the attractiveness biases commonly found among teenagers and younger children. The study’s authors also note the fact that, with proper planning, corporations, institutions and independent business owners can use prior knowledge about the biases against “unattractive” employees to offset and prevent these employees’ victimization as targets of workplace bullying.
The authors of the study in Human Performance also looked at the role of co-worker and subordinate personality traits in risks for workplace bullying. They did this by asking people who knew the main group of participating employees outside of the workplace to rank those employees according to their levels of friendliness or general agreeability. After reviewing their findings, the researchers concluded that, just like people deemed physically “unattractive,” people deemed socially “disagreeable” act as targets of workplace bullying much more frequently than people viewed as friendly or socially “agreeable.” The study’s authors note that public and private businesses and institutions can offset and prevent this source of bullying, just like they can offset or prevent bullying based on perceived attractiveness.