- A concerning statistic. Research indicates 40% of American LGBT workers report being bullied at work.
- The financial cost to the business. Workplace bullying carries with it financial costs, such as lower productivity due to deteriorating morale and trust, higher staff turnover, increased healthcare expenditures due to stress-induced illness, loss of creativity and costs of investigations into allegations of bullying.
- Bullying affects workers of all sexual orientations differently. Bisexuals tend to experience more bullying than others. The research of PTSD symptoms suggest that bullying may impair these workers more than gay men, lesbians and heterosexuals.
Editor’s Note: This article, Part I of a two-part-installment, is an excerpt from “Bullying and Sexually Marginalized Workers: A Threat to the Employee Value Proposition,” was published in the Q4 2022 Journal of Total Rewards. Part I examines the problem and existing research in the area. Part II will offer managerial recommendations to help ensure all workers experience a bully-free workplace.
Workplace bullying is a highly destructive force in contemporary organizations. About 15% of workers across the globe have experienced some level of workplace bullying during their professional careers. The reasons behind workplace bullying are many, but include conditional influences (stress, role and interpersonal conflicts) and individual characteristics.
Organizations have tried with little success to implement various tactics to mitigate workplace bullying. A defining element of all workplace bullying is that bullies seek to demonstrate their superior power over targets. Workplace bullying is described as a situation where victims (referred to as “targets”) are repeatedly exposed to harassment, abuse, offenses, social exclusion or put in a position where they are unable to defend themselves from mistreatment.
It can occur on two levels. First, individual bullying consists of negative acts focused against individual targets. For example, bullies may act negatively toward targets by making fun of or criticizing their appearance. Alternatively, bullies may attempt to harm targets by hindering their work performance, such as withholding critical information or sabotaging their promotional opportunities.
Second, institutional bullying occurs when an organization sanctions, allows and — directly or indirectly — encourages policies ostensibly aimed at achieving organizational goals that inadvertently result in bullying. Such organizations are often referred to as having a “bullying culture.” Examples include setting unrealistic production goals, forcing overtime or publicly singling out those who cannot keep up with expectations.
Institutional bullying can also manifest in managers placing wrongful blame, sabotaging or interfering with work, stealing or taking credit for others’ ideas and retaliating against targets who report mistreatment. An example might be a “lean, mean and right-sized” culture that holds employees in a constant state of anxiety, perhaps through terminations based on results of forced-distribution performance ratings or workplaces that aim to create a sense of perpetual “urgency.”
Both levels of bullying, individual and institutional, can manifest through mockery, humiliation, jokes, gossip or other spoken abuse or intimidation, including threats, social exclusion, spying or other invasions of privacy.
Previous research has demonstrated many negative outcomes associated with workplace bullying. These include higher desire to leave the organization, reduced feelings of job security, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms (PTSD) and numerous mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, physical ailments and absenteeism.
The financial costs of workplace bullying are many, such as lowered productivity due to deteriorating morale and trust, replacing staff due to turnover, increased health care expenditures due to stress-induced illness, loss of creativity and cost of investigations into allegations of bullying.
Why Bullying Is Relevant for LGBT+ Workers
As of 2021, an estimated 5.6% of the U.S. population — more than 18 million Americans — considered themselves to be members of the LGBT+ community. This represents an increase from 3.5% just nine years earlier. Gay men, lesbians and bisexuals compose the largest percentage of the LGBT+ community. Thus, we focus on the LGB segment.
Because members of the LGB community, especially those who have disclosed their sexual orientation, may be considered as outside established work group norms, they might find themselves easy targets of bullying. Empirical research supports these claims. CareerBuilder found that 40% of U.S. LGBT workers report being bullied at work. Most LGBT targets state they are bullied repeatedly by one specific person and 13% state their bullying experiences occurred in groups.
Given the pervasiveness and importance that bullying may play in workplaces and the increasing prominence and acceptance of sexually marginalized workers, it is surprising that little academic research exists exploring these relationships
The existing research shows that sexually marginalized workers encounter more victimization, including verbal harassment, physical assault and discrimination, than their heterosexual counterparts in a range of contexts. Not only were nearly 17% of 2016 U.S. hate crimes based on sexual orientation bias, 35% to 50% of sexually marginalized individuals reported sexual orientation harassment.
Two notable studies focusing specifically on workplace bullying and sexually marginalized workers found that British LGB workers reported more bullying than heterosexuals, as did a study of Turkish LGBT+ workers.
Since we could find only two studies addressing LGB workers and workplace bullying, we conducted two: One of a large group of U.S. LGB and heterosexual working adults and another exploring bystander reactions to bullied targets of different sexual orientations.
Study 1a: Sexual Orientation, Bullying and Key Outcomes
We first wanted to confirm the previous finding that LGB workers experience more bullying than heterosexuals. We collected a sample of 800 U.S. heterosexual and LGB workers (more than 400 LGB and heterosexual workers each).
Surprisingly, heterosexuals reported more bullying than did LGB workers. This effect was statistically significant but not large. We are perplexed by this finding, but postulate that it may be due to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives practiced in U.S. organizations that are impactful enough to dissuade heterosexual workers from bullying LGB co-workers. However, LGB workers in our sample described more experiences of crude and offensive sexually harassing behavior and sexual coercion than did heterosexuals.
We were also interested in how bullying predicted critical work outcomes, turnover intentions and organizational commitment across LGB and heterosexual groups, expecting that bullied workers would be higher in turnover intentions and lower in commitment. Here our findings were mixed.
- Turnover intentions were unrelated to bullying, regardless of sexual orientation.
- Continuous organizational commitment (economic dependence on their organizations) was higher in heterosexual workers who reported more bullying than bullied LGB workers, opposite our predictions. Perhaps heterosexuals feel a more robust economic connection to their organizations while LGB workers, because of lower feelings of inclusion, do not intend to remain and thus economic dependence is less relevant.
- Affective organizational commitment (emotional attachment to the organization) or normative commitment (loyalty to the organization) were unaffected by bullying or sexual orientation.
Study 1b: Bullying, Sexual Orientation Subgroups and PTSD
In the analyses just described, we combined all sexually marginalized subgroups into one meta-category (LGB). As we noted above, while this is a common research approach, it may obscure fundamental differences between subgroups. Given the “super-marginalized” status bisexual workers seem to experience, we were particularly interested in comparing bisexual workers (who choose partners of either sex) with “monosexual workers” (who choose partners of one sex only: gay men, lesbians, and heterosexuals). We created two monosexual groups (LG and heterosexuals) and compared them to bisexual workers. Our focus was to determine if their bullying experiences were related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Work-related PTSD is a disorder that can drastically affect workers and the organization. It causes affected workers to internally replay traumatic workplace events, re-experience the associated emotional anguish and actively avoid triggering situations. Not only is PTSD detrimental to workers, but it jeopardizes organizational productivity. Research has shown that workplace mistreatment and bullying predict PTSD, but to our knowledge, no research has focused on these dynamics in LGB workers.
Using the same dataset as Study 1a, we found that:
- Higher levels of bullying were associated with higher PTSD symptoms across all groups.
- Bisexuals reported more bullying than did gay men and lesbians but not more than heterosexuals.
- Bisexuals were significantly higher in PTSD than in other groups.
- The amount of bullying bisexuals reported was related to their level of PTSD symptoms more strongly than it was for the monosexual workers. Bisexual workers who reported frequent bullying were significantly higher in PTSD symptoms than “frequently bullied” homosexuals or heterosexuals.
Thus, while we continue to be perplexed by the fact that heterosexuals reported more bullying than gay men and lesbians, bisexuals seem to be more affected by bullying, at least in terms of PTSD symptoms.
Study 2: How Do Bystanders Respond to Bullying in Sexually Marginalized Co-Workers?
A good deal of workplace bullying occurs in the presence of onlookers. How these bystanders respond to the mistreatment they witness may affect whether the bullying continues or even escalates. To explore if a bystander’s response to bullying would differ if the target was a sexually marginalized worker, we used an online experimental survey format. To limit the complexity of research design and sample size needed, we restricted the targets to women: heterosexual females, lesbians and bisexual females.
We created three vignettes, all identical except for the sexual orientation of the bullying target, describing bullying against an imaginary female worker. Our sample of about 170 adult U.S. workers was randomly presented with one of the three conditions (the target as a heterosexual woman, lesbian or bisexual woman). We were interested in: 1) how much bullying respondent “bystanders” perceived; 2) the level of personal responsibility they felt to support or protect the target; and 3) the actions “bystanders” would take.
Our findings showed that, if the target was lesbian, they felt less personal responsibility to help her and were less likely to intervene than if she was either heterosexual or bisexual.
Thus, the extant research, including our own, affirms that bullying affects workers of different sexual orientations differently. Heterosexuals — in previous studies — experience less workplace bullying than do LGB workers, although this was not the case in our sample. This discrepancy needs further exploration. Under what circumstances are heterosexuals experiencing more mistreatment than LGB workers? Do heterosexuals and LGB workers perceive bullying differently?
Second, there is evidence from previous research as well as our own that bisexuals tend to experience more bullying than others. Our findings regarding PTSD symptoms suggest that bullying may impair these workers more than gay men, lesbians and heterosexuals.