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After a Company Crisis, the Workplace Bullies Come Out

A new study finds that downsizing can result in managers abusing their weakest employees.
Kevin Spacey plays an abusive and vengeful manager in the movie Horrible Bosses.


Comparisons of the corporate environment to the harsh wilderness, where predators stalk their prey, may seem clichéd. But a new study suggests that they may not be too far off.

Pedro Neves, a professor at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal, found that a business crisis can influence superiors to go after the weakest links in the company. Neves's study, "Taking it Out on Survivors: Submissive Employees, Downsizing, and Abusive Supervision, was published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Neves researched 12 medium and large organizations to see if workplace abuse takes the form of "kicking the dog," or when someone vents frustrations toward people they have power over, instead of toward the source where it belongs.

"Supervisors ... target those most unable or unwilling to retaliate: submissive individuals characterized by low 'core self-evaluation,' and/or those with fewer co-worker allies," according to The British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. Core self-evaluation, or CSE, is a combination of personal traits relating to self-image and self-esteem.

The study required employees to assess statements like "my supervisor blames me to save himself/herself embarrassment" and "my supervisor tells me my thoughts or feelings are stupid." The results were that individuals with lower CSE, or less co-worker support, received more abuse from their bosses

Four out of the 12 companies had suffered downsizing in the last two years. Within those four organizations, Neves found that submissive employees were more likely to be abused. "We found that as core self-evaluations and co-worker support decreased, abusive supervision increased, particularly in downsized organizations, and this effect carried over to both in-role and extra-role performance," Neves writes.

The study also showed that submissive employees performed their jobs more poorly and were less engaged in the company's community. Neves says that the abused employees showed evidence of  "kicking the dog," themselves, taking their resentment toward their boss and manifesting it through acts aimed at undermining the company.

"A post-downsizing environment involves uncertainty, ruptures to social networks, and a higher sense of individual risk--all of which heightens vulnerabilities and gives confidence to aggressors that their abuse is unlikely to be fought against," the British Psychological Society writes on its blog.

In order to protect yourself from horrible bosses, Neves suggests cultivating relationships with your co-workers. And for leaders prone to abusive behavior, take responsibility for your actions and stop preying on the weak--it's an office, not a jungle.

Last updated: Jun 17, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter,

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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