Individual and situational predictors of workplace bullying: Why do perpetrators engage in the bullying of others?
Lars Johan Hauge*, Anders Skogstad and Ståle Einarsen
Faculty of Psychology, University of Bergen, Norway
Stressful working environments are often assumed to create conditions that may lead to
bullying. However, few studies have investigated how factors experienced in the work
environment may trigger perpetrators to engage in bullying of others. Drawing on Spector
and Fox’s (2005) stressor�emotion model of counterproductive work behaviour, the present study investigated the predictive effects of both individual and situational factors as predictors
of being a perpetrator of workplace bullying, as applied to a representative sample of the
Norwegian workforce (N�2359). Results from logistic regression analysis show that being oneself a target of bullying, regardless of the frequency, and being male strongly predicted
involvement in bullying of others. Among the situational factors, only role conflict and
interpersonal conflicts significantly predicted being a perpetrator of bullying. The present
findings support the notion that bullying will thrive in stressful working environments and
thus yield an important contribution in identifying antecedent conditions to counteract the
development of bullying at workplaces.
Keywords: bullying; harassment; aggression; job stress; perpetrator
Stressful working environments have long been assumed to create conditions that
may lead to the development of bullying at work (Leymann, 1996). Although the
reasons for why bullying develops at workplaces may be many and interwoven, and
be related to characteristics of both the targeted individual and the perpetrator,
prevailing explanations emphasize the importance of problematic organizational and
work-related conditions as underlying factors in this process (cf. Bowling & Beehr,
2006; Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2003; Leymann, 1996). A growing body of
research during the last couple of decades has shown a range of work-related factors
to be related to exposure to workplace bullying, while considerably less attention has
been devoted seeking to explain why perpetrators engage in bullying. The present
study aims to address this gap in workplace bullying research by investigating
individual and situational factors that may encourage individuals to become
perpetrators of bullying at work. After reviewing the relatively limited empirical
knowledge that exists on perpetrators of workplace bullying, we will investigate the
effects of the situational factors decision authority, role ambiguity, role conflict and
interpersonal conflicts as predictors of engaging in bullying of others, drawing on the
*Corresponding author. Email: [email protected]
ISSN 0267-8373 print/ISSN 1464-5335 online
# 2009 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/02678370903395568
Work & Stress
Vol. 23, No. 4, October�December 2009, 349�358
stressor�emotion model of counterproductive work behaviour as a theoretical backdrop (Spector & Fox, 2005). Their predictive effects will be investigated after
also taking into account the effects of four individual factors, namely target status,
gender, hierarchical position and age.
The phenomenon of workplace bullying refers to a gradually evolving process,
whereby an individual ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts by one or more perpetrators (Brodsky, 1976).
Workplace bullying consists of repeated and prolonged exposure to predominantly
psychological mistreatment, directed at a target who is typically teased, badgered
and insulted, and who perceives himself or herself as not having the opportunity to
retaliate in kind (Einarsen et al., 2003). Workplace bullying can take the form of
direct acts, such as verbal abuse, accusations and public humiliation, but it can also
be of a more subtle and indirect nature in the form of gossiping, rumour spreading
and social exclusion (Einarsen, Hoel, & Notelaers, 2009). However, when frequently
and persistently directed at the same individual, even such subtle and indirect
behaviour can be experienced as an extreme source of social stress at work (Zapf,
1999). Exposure to workplace bullying has repeatedly been shown to have
detrimental consequences for affected individuals and to have wide-ranging negative
consequences for organizations at large (cf. Aquino & Thau, 2009; Bowling & Beehr,
Several explanations have been put forward to account for why individuals engage in bullying of others at work. Engaging as a perpetrator of workplace
bullying has been proposed to be a consequence of oneself being exposed to bullying
and as a problem-focused coping strategy in defending oneself against further acts of
mistreatment (cf. Aquino & Thau, 2009; Lee & Brotheridge, 2006). Others have
proposed that bullying develops as a result of lack of social competencies and as a
result of micro-political behaviour within organizations, and further as a self-
regulatory process with regard to protection of ones self-esteem (see Zapf &
Einarsen, 2003 for a comprehensive discussion). However, although Zapf and
Einarsen argue that individual and personality factors on the part of the perpetrator
probably do play a role in the development of workplace bullying, they strongly
argue against one-sided and mono-causal explanations. Explanations for why such
behaviour takes place within workplaces will probably be too simplistic without also
taking into account work-related and organizational factors. In this sense, the
stressor�emotion model of counterproductive work behaviour may prove useful (cf. Spector & Fox, 2005).
According to the stressor�emotion model, stressors experienced in the work environment may induce negative emotions in some individuals, which, in turn, may
lead them to engage in aggressive behaviour towards others. Processes leading up to
aggressive behaviour are further related both to individual characteristics and to
whether the individual perceives him or herself to be in control of the situation
inducing the experience of stress and negative emotions. While several studies have
shown a range of work-related factors to be related to being exposed to workplace
bullying (see e.g. Hauge, Skogstad, & Einarsen, 2007 for a review), few studies have
so far explored how such factors may relate to being a perpetrator of bullying. Still,
reviewing studies relating to counterproductive work behaviour, Spector and Fox
(2005) identified experienced role ambiguity, role conflict and interpersonal conflicts
as important precipitating conditions for engaging in aggressive behaviour targeted
350 L. J. Hauge et al.
towards other individuals in the organization, thus corresponding to work-related
factors that are normally found as strong correlates of exposure to workplace
bullying (cf. Bowling & Beehr, 2006).
Due to difficulties in collecting and obtaining valid and reliable information,
existing empirical knowledge on perpetrators and perpetrator characteristics is
scarce and has mainly been obtained from self-reports of targets of bullying, while less evidence has been presented reflecting self-reports from perpetrators themselves
(Matthiesen & Einarsen, 2007; Zapf & Einarsen, 2003). Yet, the existing evidence
shows perpetrators to be males more often than females (e.g. De Cuyper, Baillien, &
De Witte, 2009; Hershcovis et al., 2007; Rayner, 1997), and to be supervisors and
managers more often than subordinates (e.g. Hoel, Cooper, & Faragher, 2001),
although Scandinavian studies in general report approximately equal numbers of
perpetrators among supervisors and subordinates (cf. Zapf, Einarsen, Hoel, &
Vartia, 2003). Engaging in aggressive behaviour is also frequently associated with
age. It is assumed that with increasing age, individuals better understand the
consequences of their behaviour and that they therefore are more likely to exert
control over their anger (Barling, Dupré, & Kelloway, 2009). However, studies have
shown mixed results in relation to age, with some studies reporting a negative
relationship (e.g. De Cuyper et al., 2009; Inness, Barling, & Turner, 2005), while
other studies have found no significant relationship between age and engaging in
aggressive behaviour at work (e.g. Glomb & Liao, 2003). Only a few studies have reported prevalence rates of perpetrators of bullying. In a
UK study, prevalence rates varied largely from 19.3% when applying a sole self-
report measure to 2.7% when applying a more stringent criterion reflecting both self-
and peer-reported behaviour (Coyne, Chong, Seigne, & Randall, 2003). None of the
perpetrators in the UK study reported being both a target and a perpetrator of
bullying. In a Norwegian study, Matthiesen and Einarsen (2007) found perpetrators
to yield a total prevalence of 7.5%. In addition to non-involved individuals, they
further distinguished between respondents who were perpetrators only, and
perpetrators who were both perpetrators and targets of bullying, constituting 5.4%
and 2.1% of the sample, respectively. This latter group of targets, who also engage in
bullying of others, has been characterized by a combination of both anxious and
aggressive reaction patterns. Their behaviour may cause irritation and tension in
their surroundings, and corresponds to that of those who, in school research, have
been labelled provocative victims or bully/targets (cf. Olweus, 2003). Matthiesen and
Einarsen (2007) showed that the bully/target group reported significantly lower levels
of self-esteem and higher levels of role stress than did both the perpetrator only
group and non-involved individuals. Moreover, Hauge and colleagues (2007) showed bully/targets to report significantly lower levels of job satisfaction and higher levels
of job stress than did non-involved individuals. However, applying a strict criterion
for significance, no significant differences were identified between the perpetrator-
only group and non-involved individuals.
Based on the relatively limited systematic knowledge that exists on perpetrators
of bullying, the present study will investigate both individual and situational factors
as predictors for engaging in bullying of others. Although some evidence has been
provided for why individuals engage in aggressive behaviour at work, drawing
conclusions based on zero-order correlations may capitalize on chance and
potentially lead to erroneous conclusions (cf. Barling et al., 2009). Drawing on
Work & Stress 351
situational factors that previously have been found to be of importance in relation to
a stressor�emotion framework (cf. Spector & Fox, 2005), the predictive effects of decision authority, role ambiguity, role conflict and interpersonal conflicts will be
investigated applying a multivariate design. In line with the existing empirical knowledge, the predictive effects of these situational factors will be investigated after
also taking into account the effects of the individual factors target status, gender,
hierarchical position and age.
Sample and procedure
This study constitutes an extension and reanalysis of data as employed by Hauge and
colleagues in a previous study (2007). The study sample is based on a representative
sample of the Norwegian workforce, collected through anonymous self-report
questionnaires by Statistics Norway (SSB). A total of 2539 questionnaires were
returned, yielding a response rate of 56.4%. To be able to retain as many respondents as possible for the analyses and to avoid loss of power, responses with minor number
of missing values were imputed by the EM algorithm in SPSS, yielding a sample of
2359 cases to be analysed. Thus, some minor differences existed as compared to the
overlapping results presented by Hauge et al. (2007). Males yielded 48.5% of the
analysed sample, with 19.8% reporting to be supervisors. Mean age was 43.7 years.
As previous studies have identified the individual factors target status, gender,
hierarchical position and age as possible important factors in relation to being a
perpetrator of bullying, the effects of these variables were taken into account in the analyses. The situational factors investigated in the present study refer to decision
authority, role ambiguity, role conflict and interpersonal conflicts (cf. Rizzo, House,
& Lirtzman, 1970; van Veldhoven & Meijman, 1994). To measure perpetration of
workplace bullying, respondents were asked to indicate if they themselves had
exposed others to bullying at their workplace during the last six months. Response
categories were ‘‘no,’’ ‘‘yes, to some extent’’ and ‘‘yes, to a large extent,’’ where the
last two categories were combined to avoid too small groups for the analyses.
Exposure to workplace bullying was measured by a self-labelling measure, whereby respondents were asked to indicate whether they considered themselves to have been
exposed to bullying at work during the last six months. Response categories were
‘‘no,’’ ‘‘rarely,’’ ‘‘now and then,’’ ‘‘once a week’’ and ‘‘several times a week.’’
Both exposure to and perpetration of workplace bullying were measured
according to the following definition: ‘‘Bullying takes place when one or more
persons systematically and over time feel that they have been subjected to negative
treatment on the part of one or more persons, in a situation in which the person(s)
exposed to the treatment have difficulty in defending themselves against it. It is not bullying when two equally strong opponents are in conflict with each other’’ (for a
full description of the measurement instruments applied, see Hauge et al., 2007).
To obtain zero-order correlations between the study variables, Pearson’s product
moment correlations were computed. For the correlational analysis, exposure to
workplace bullying was analysed as a binary variable (i.e. ‘‘no’’ and ‘‘yes’’). To
352 L. J. Hauge et al.
predict being a perpetrator of workplace bullying, logistic regression analysis was
conducted. Only variables correlating significantly with being a perpetrator of
bullying were included in the regression analysis. The predictor variable exposure to
workplace bullying was recoded into two dummy variables for the regression
analysis, reflecting being exposed to bullying occasionally (i.e. ‘‘rarely’’ and ‘‘now
and then’’) and on a weekly basis (i.e. ‘‘once a week’’ and ‘‘several times a week’’),
with no exposure to bullying as the reference group. The odds ratio obtained from
the logistic regression analysis is to be interpreted as the likelihood of being a
perpetrator of workplace bullying with an increase in a predictor variable by one unit
(cf. Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007).
Results and discussion
Perpetrators yielded 2.9% of the sample, with 1.9% being perpetrators only while a
further 1% of the perpetrators reported also being bullied themselves. The prevalence
rate found in the present sample is thus somewhat lower than what has been reported
in previous studies reporting prevalence rates on perpetrators of bullying.
Furthermore, results from the correlational analysis revealed moderate-to-weak
associations between being a perpetrator and most of the study variables. The
relative substantial correlation between being a perpetrator and being a target of
bullying (r .27) indicates a reasonable degree of overlap between the two, and thus
demonstrates the importance of taking into account target status when predicting
perpetration of bullying (cf. Glomb & Liao, 2003). Except for target status, only role
conflict and interpersonal conflicts showed relationships of any particular magnitude
with being a perpetrator of bullying (Table 1). In line with what has been found in
previous Scandinavian studies (cf. Zapf et al., 2003), no significant differences were
found with regard to hierarchical position of perpetrators (x2 0.03; df 1). In addition, the assumption that age is related to engaging in aggressive behaviour was not
supported in the present study. Hierarchical position and age were thus left out of the
following regression analysis.
The results from the logistic regression analysis showed target status to be the
most important predictor of being a perpetrator of workplace bullying. Being
exposed to bullying occasionally (OR 9.38) and on a weekly basis (OR 11.11), both
proved to be strong predictors of being a perpetrator, as compared to not being
exposed to bullying. The findings also show an increasing probability of being a
perpetrator with intensified frequency of exposure to bullying. In line with previous
findings (cf. Zapf et al., 2003), males were found to have a significantly higher
probability of being a perpetrator of bullying as compared to women (OR 2.09).
Among the situational factors, however, only role conflict (OR 1.37) and
interpersonal conflicts (OR 1.26) were able to significantly predict being a
perpetrator of bullying, although rather weakly (Table 2). Neither decision authority
nor role ambiguity was able to predict being a perpetrator of workplace bullying in
the present sample when taking into account the effects of the other variables. The large overlap between being a target and being a perpetrator of bullying
highlights the need to institute preventive measures against bullying at workplaces.
Regardless of the frequency of the bullying exposure, individuals who were being
exposed to bullying both occasionally and on a weekly basis all showed a substantial
propensity to engage as perpetrators of bullying. Perceptions of unfair treatment
Work & Stress 353
Table 1. Descriptive statistics and correlations.
Mean SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
1. Bullyinga (Perpetrator) 0.03 � � 2. Bullyinga (Target) 0.05 � .27** � 3. Genderb 0.49 � .06** .01 ns � 4. Hierarchical positionc 0.20 � .01 ns �.02 ns .12** � 5. Age 43.66 11.32 �.03 ns .01 ns .01 ns .07** � 6. Decision authority 2.70 0.57 �.07** �.16** .12** .29** .04 ns (.84) 7. Role ambiguity 2.17 0.92 .06** .14** .03 ns �.07** �.09** �.30** (.85) 8. Role conflict 3.12 1.29 .12** .19** .06** .07** �.08** �.27** .35** (.83) 9. Interpersonal conflicts 1.30 0.49 .16** .29** .01 ns .02 ns �.07** �.20** .28** .38** (.75)
Note: a coded 0 (No), 1 (Yes); b coded 0 (Female), 1 (Male); c coded 0 (Subordinate), 1 (Supervisor); Cronbach’s a coefficients are presented on the diagonal in parentheses. **pB.01; ns�non-significant.
u g e
have previously been found to be an important antecedent for engaging in aggressive
behaviour at work (cf. Lee & Brotheridge, 2006; Neuman & Baron, 2003). As being
exposed to bullying is likely to be perceived as unfair by most individuals, there exists
a possibility that individuals will respond in kind to the type of treatment they
receive, thus becoming perpetrators of bullying. Such a line of thinking is also in
accordance with frameworks describing a spiralling effect from relative mild forms of
uncivil behaviour into increasingly more intense and aggressive behaviour (cf.
Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Zapf & Gross, 2001). Although a cross-sectional design
cannot determine whether being a perpetrator is a consequence of being a target of
bullying or vice versa, the fact that one-third of targets at one point or another also
engages in bullying of others indicates an escalating work environment problem in
which an increasing number of individuals take the role of perpetrator or target as
time goes by. Not to forget the severe individual consequences of such exposure,
there is no doubt that organizations should be interested in terminating such
processes at an early stage, regardless of their causes.
The findings further indicate that situational factors relating to role conflict and
interpersonal conflicts at work can instigate tension and frustration in individuals,
which, in turn, may be projected onto others in the work environment (cf. Tedeschi &
Felson, 1994; Thylefors, 1987). Although these are relatively modest contributions,
identifying that being a perpetrator of bullying is significantly related to both
exposure to bullying and experienced stress at work indicates that preventive
measures should be implemented. These should involve a focus on both improving
the overall work environment to avoid individual stress resulting in the bullying of
others, but also on actively managing cases of bullying that may occur. However,
interventions are not likely to be effective by solely focusing on rehabilitation of
targets of bullying and on general work environment improvements. Active steps in
preventing individuals engaging in bullying of others must also be taken. Findings
from research on school bullying may prove such direct action to be the most
effective way to proceed in reducing bullying at work (cf. Olweus, 2003).
Organizations are likely to benefit from developing and implementing sound anti-
bullying policies and practices and taking active steps to prevent interaction among
individuals from escalating into bullying behaviour (cf. Einarsen & Hoel, 2008).
Workplace bullying will only be able to develop within the organizational contexts
that allow such behaviour to take place (Brodsky, 1976).
Table 2. Results of logistic regression analysis.
Dependent variable: Bullying (Perpetrator) 95% CI for OR
Independent variables B SE Wald test Odds ratio Lower CI Upper CI
1. Bullied (Occasionally) 2.24 0.33 45.67 9.38** 4.90 17.94
2. Bullied (Weekly) 2.41 0.68 12.57 11.11** 2.94 42.02
3. Gender 0.74 0.27 7.23 2.09** 1.22 3.57
4. Decision authority �0.03 0.14 0.05 0.97 ns 0.74 1.28 5. Role ambiguity �0.05 0.13 0.16 0.95 ns 0.74 1.22 6. Role conflict 0.32 0.14 4.81 1.37* 1.03 1.82
7. Interpersonal conflicts 0.23 0.11 4.14 1.26* 1.01 1.56
Note: *p B.05; **pB.01;ns�non-significant.
Work & Stress 355
Although this study has demonstrated relationships between individual and
situational factors as predictors of engaging in bullying of others in a large and
representative sample, some limitations need to be considered. Relying solely on self-
report methodology is always problematic and probably especially so with regard to
self-report of being a perpetrator of bullying due to the detrimental nature of such
behaviour. Although anonymity is ensured, there exists a significant possibility that
individuals will underreport engagement in such behaviour. Such underreporting
may attenuate correlations between bullying and other variables because some individuals will be less honest in their reporting than others and thus introduce error
in the observed relationships (cf. Spector & Fox, 2005). Triangulation with other
sources of information such as peer-reported behaviour may prove useful in reducing
possible mono-method bias.
Moreover, although rather weak relationships between the situational factors
and being a perpetrator of bullying were identified in the present study, thus
suggesting possible ignorable associations between the factors of interest, one
should keep in mind the strength of relationships obtained from self-labelling single- item measures as compared to multiple-item behavioural checklists in reflecting
different kinds of behaviours to assess engagement in bullying behaviour. In the case
of exposure to workplace bullying, correlations between situational factors and
behavioural multiple-item measures aimed at capturing workplace bullying are
normally of a considerably stronger nature than are correlations with self-labelling
measures (cf. Hauge et al., 2007). Thus, it is likely that the strength of observed
relationships would be of a non-ignorable nature if multiple-item measures were
applied, as is typically the case in studies of counterproductive behaviour towards other individuals at work (cf. Spector & Fox, 2005).
To summarize, we believe that the findings of this study make an important
contribution to research on workplace bullying in identifying factors of importance
for being a perpetrator of bullying at work. Research into this field will probably gain
considerably from bridging the gap that has existed between perpetrator and target-
oriented approaches towards bullying and other related constructs. It is likely that a
sound and thorough integration of these approaches will provide valuable knowledge
in attempting to successfully eliminate bullying from workplaces.
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