Bullying bosses negatively impact employee behaviour: Study

Boss annoyed with her employee. Representative purpose only.

Employees bullied by their bosses are more likely to report unfairness and work stress, and consequently become less committed to their jobs or even retaliate, according to a study.

The findings, published in the Journal of Management, highlight the consequences of abusive supervision, which is becoming increasingly common in workplaces, said Liu-Qin Yang, an associate professor at Portland State University in the US.

Researchers reviewed 427 studies and quantitatively aggregated the results to better understand why and how bullying bosses can decrease “organisational citizenship behaviour” – or the voluntary extras you do that aren’t part of your job responsibilities – and increase “counterproductive work behaviour.”

Examples of such behaviours include sabotage at work, coming into work late, taking longer-than-allowed breaks, doing tasks incorrectly or withholding effort, all of which can affect your team and coworkers.


The researchers attribute the negative work behaviours to either perceptions of injustice or work stress. With perceptions of injustice, employees bullied by their boss see the treatment as unfair relative to the effort they have put into their jobs.

In response, they are more likely to purposely withhold from the unpaid extras that help the organisation, like helping coworkers with problems or attending meetings that are not mandatory. They are also more likely to engage in counterproductive work behaviour such as taking longer breaks or coming in late without notice, Yang said. Having an abusive boss can also lead to work stress, which reduces an employee’s ability to control negative behaviours or contribute to the organisation in a positive way.

The researchers found that fairness (or the lack thereof) accounted more for the link between abusive supervision and organizational citizenship behaviour, while work stress led to more counterproductive work behaviour. “Stress is sometimes uncontrollable. You don’t sleep well, so you come in late or take a longer break, lash out at your coworkers or disobey instructions,” Yang said. “But justice is more rational. Something isn’t fair, so you’re purposely not going to help other people or when the boss asks if anyone can come in on a Saturday to work, you don’t volunteer, he said.