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Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Secondhand suffering hurts workplace

February 09. 2013 10:16PM

You arrive at the office and the first person you see is your boss seated at his computer. You offer up an enthusiastic "Good morning!" and are met with silence. He doesn't even grunt as he continues staring at the screen.

Seems you're invisible today.

A few minutes later, one of your co-workers arrives and before she even opens her mouth, your boss has not only greeted her by name but has reached into a box on his desk to hand her the biggest jelly doughnut you have even seen.

Seems you're not worthy of pastry today.

What's worse, a few of your co-workers have witnessed both scenes. They've seen the boss dress you down before. At least this time you escaped without any cutting remarks. You shuffle to your cube and try to shake off the early a.m. shot of humiliation. You're not loving your job and don't feel particularly motivated.

Neither do your co-workers. Surprise, surprise. Giving someone the silent treatment and ridiculing them in public damages more than just the intended target. Call it the secondhand smoke of bad boss behavior.

In what they believe is the first study to investigate "vicarious supervisory abuse," Paul Harvey, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Hampshire, and his research colleagues found that such behavior leads to job frustration, abuse of other co-workers and a lack of perceived organizational support.

Harvey, along with Kenneth Harris and Raina Harris from Indiana University Southeast and Melissa Cast from New Mexico State University, recently completed an article about the study for the Journal of Social Psychology.

Harvey says he and his research partners weren't surprised to learn that abusive behavior by a manager to an employee has the ability to infect the entire team.

"Actually, it's a fairly simple study, but that's sort of what inspired us in the first place," Harvey says. "We were curious to find out that we know a lot about what happens to the victim of abusive supervision. That's a fairly common thing. But we wondered about the bigger picture. How does it affect more than just the targeted victim?"

Harvey says the researchers were surprised at the size of the effect and that it was easily quantifiable. The results were based on a sample of 233 people who work in a wide range of occupations in the Southeast. Demographically, the sample was 46 percent men and was 86 percent white. They had an average age of 42.6 years, had worked in their job for seven years, had worked at their company for 10 years and worked an average of 46 hours a week.

Survey respondents were asked about supervisory abuse, vicarious supervisory abuse, job frustration, perceived organizational support, and co-worker abuse.

What the researchers learned hardly sounds shocking: People who work in an environment where their co-workers are treated poorly by managers suffer similar effects as the direct victim. They tend to pick up the vibes of the person suffering, a factor that likely comes back to haunt the organization, Harvey says.

"Most of those things will translate to lower performance," Harvey says. "A lot of the impacts all go back to a financial cost."

The study, which was conducted in late 2010, did not address the impact of the recession, but Harvey suspects tough times exacerbates bad behavior.

"Supervisors often become abusive while other aspects of their lives are stressful. It can be spill-over from family stress," he says. "It can be economic stress, trying to do more with less. You've cut staff and everyone is stressed out, and there is more pressure on them."

Rather than chew out, ignore or ridicule their employees, perhaps managers might choose instead to try the jelly doughnut approach. The bigger, the better.

Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook

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