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Oklahoma State University

Victim blaming in the workplace

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

So, why does the office bully get away with it? Sometimes it’s because the victim gets all the blame. The latest research from a decade-long study of incivility in the workplace by Spears School of Business researcher Dr. Matt Bowler and colleagues shows that supervisors often blame the victims of rude and abusive behavior. This is especially prevalent if the instigator is a high performer. The research builds on evidence that the perception of the victim often leads to victim blaming, said Bowler, interim director of the Spears MBA program and associate professor of management.

“Victim blaming is this tendency to overlook the wrongs of the high performer who is the perpetrator of abuse. In our society, we gravitate toward the high performer and we’re OK that perceptions of low performance cause people to be the subject of victim blaming,” Bowler said, whose research on workplace incivility, conducted with colleagues from the University of Central Florida, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Alabama, was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. “It’s easy to blame the victim of abuse who is not integral to the team or the company. We seem to have this idea that the victim deserves to be treated negatively.”

The research struck a nerve with readers of an article about the research posted on Reddit who have bombarded the site using Reddit’s “upvote” feature nearly 45,000 times since it was posted in March.

Bowler and his co-authors have studied rudeness in the workplace for more than a decade and have used a variety of research methods like analysis of leader-follower relationships and employee networks to collect a wealth of data on how workers treat each other. In one study, the researchers were able to gain insight into the perceptions of everyone in an organization through interviews. Workers were asked to report who they’re rude to and who is rude to them. It was no surprise that people tended not to report being rude to others, but offenders often didn’t recognize that coworkers considered them rude. And what about the perception of supervisors?

“We found that often the supervisor is willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt if they’re a high performer in the organization,” Bowler said. “It doesn’t surprise me that we’re willing to overlook the behavior of the higher performer. What surprises me is our willingness as a society and as business people to pin it on somebody just because they’re not as high a performer as the actual instigator of the behavior.”

Read more about the research at

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