Workplace Abuse's 'Ugly' Truth

In what's described as a first-of-a-kind study, researchers find that unattractive workers are more likely be the target of cruel behavior by co-workers.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013
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Are unattractive workers more likely to be on the receiving end of hostile and abusive behavior by colleagues?

If we're to believe the findings of a recent study by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame, the answer is yes.

In an article published in the latest edition of Human Performance, the researchers report the findings of a recent study that showed unattractive workers are more likely to be harassed and bullied by colleagues in their organization.

Appearance matters, they conclude.

The authors -- Brent Scott, associate professor of management at Michigan State University, and  Timothy A. Judge, professor at the University of Notre Dame - surveyed 114 workers at a healthcare facility in the southeastern United States, asking them how often their co-workers engaged in cruel behavior toward them (including saying hurtful things, acting rudely and making fun of them). 

Those deemed unattractive, the researchers found, were treated much more harshly than attractive employees, even when factors such as age, gender and tenure at the healthcare facility were factored in. (People who didn't know them were asked to rate their attractiveness from digital photos.)

"Although we like to think that we're professional and mature in the workplace," says Scott, "it can be just like high school in many ways."

Scott and Judge also explored how agreeable or friendly the workers were, based on questionnaires completed by their spouses, partners and friends, finding disagreeable workers are treated more harshly by their co-workers.

Knowing the potential target of hurtful behavior could help managers monitor susceptible employees and prevent them from becoming victims, Scott says.

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Not everyone agrees that's the answer, however.

Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, suggests the researchers are confusing workplace bullying with counterproductive work behavior.

By focusing on the victims, he says, they're missing the point.

"WBI's experience with the attractiveness of bullied targets is exactly the opposite of the business school prediction," Namie says. "Often women targeted for bullying are more attractive than their bullies. They are resented for their appearance. The reason for targeting is the threat perceived by the bully," such as jealousy or envy.

In light of that, Namie believes employers should focus on the aggressor and the work culture that encourages him or her, not the "victim," pointing out that in the U.S. "most mistreatment is perpetuated by managers."

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