Report: Victims of Bullying can be Sometimes Seen as Bully

By: Lauren Mineau

A new study found that victims of workplace abuse are often mislabeled as the bully and may even face stigma from their superiors.

A journal article “How leaders perceive employee deviance: Blaming victims while excusing favorites” recently appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology

The study found those who are bullied at work may actually be seen as insubordinate employees, even if they have a good performance record, if the supervisor likes the true bully more.

The peer-reviewed article was co-authored by Shannon Taylor, an associate professor of management in the University of Central Florida's College of Business.

"The results are eye-opening," Taylor said. "I think they are useful because, given all of these accounts in the media of bad behavior happening, people are often left wondering how can we blame victims, and why do we let these perpetrators off the hook, why do they go unpunished?"

Taylor noted that the flawed decision-making can be attributed to cognitive biases, such as the halo effect, in which positive attributes overshadow negative ones, or the horns effect, in which one negative attribute shows a person in an entirely poor light. 

Researchers performed their observance over four studies. The first two studies surveyed both employees and supervisors and found that supervisors tend to view victims of bullying as the bullies.

The next two studies were more of an evaluation where participants evaluated fellow employees based on their work performance and how they treat others.

Researchers found that when evaluators clearly knew a victim didn’t mistreat anyone, the victim was still seen as the bully. In the fourth study, they found even further that the victims are seen as bullied but are knocked down in performance reviews and receive poor evaluations.

All of the studies found that bullies were less likely to be seen as a bully if they got good reviews from a supervisor.

Taylor recommends that supervisors receive bias training to combat the issue.

"The first step is really awareness of these biases," Taylor said. "We hope this study will at least bring awareness to people's potential for bias."

Taylor noted that a high profile example of this in action was the treatment of Prof. Christine Blasey Ford during and after her testimony at the confirmation hearing of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

"What I think is really interesting about this is, when you hear stories of high-profile people engaging in bad behavior at work, a lot of these people have gone unpunished for long periods of time," Taylor said. "And we have examples of victims of this bad behavior being called out and attacked on social media and by the media. Our studies show this is actually pretty common. We're all susceptible to these biases."