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Interpersonal and Systemic Aspects of Emotional Abuse at Work: The Target's Perspective

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The most frequent form of workplace aggression is not physical, it is emotional and psychological in nature. Known by many names, emotional abuse at work is rapidly becoming recognized as pervasive and costly both in individual and organizational terms. Most of the research to date on emotional abuse at work has utilized survey and other quantitative methodologies in an effort to document the presence, prevalence, and impact of these behaviors. However, these methodologies are based on researchers' definitions and theories of what constitutes emotional abuse rather than on the meaning given to these experiences by the targets of these behaviors. A thorough understanding of this phenomenon requires a scholarly appreciation of the target's experience. Taking "feeling abused" as the criterion variable, this study examined target's experiences based on interviews with people who self-identifed as having experienced difficulties with a boss, coworker, or subordinate. The interpersonal aspects of emotional abuse focused on the nature of behaviors exhibited and the respondents' labeling of their experience. Consistent with elements of researchers' definitions, behaviors were defined as abusive when they were repetitive, resulted in injury or harm to target, and were experienced as a lack of recognition of the individual's integrity. Judgments of violation of standards of conduct and unsolicited nature of the behaviors were also related to respondents' experiences. Relative power differential was also an important element. However, contrary to researchers' definitions, actor intent was not central in defining the experience as abusive. The systemic aspect of emotional abuse was illustrated in the nature of organizational responding to concerns raised by respondents. These responses were of critical importance in respondents' labeling of their experiences as abusive. The focus on the meaning of the behaviors for the respondents provides an enriched picture of key definitional elements. Implications of the findings for future research are discussed.
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Document Type: Journal Article

Affiliations: Wayne State University

Publication date: 2001-01-01

More about this publication?
  • Violence and Victims discusses theory, research, policy, and clinical practice in the area of interpersonal violence and victimization across such disciplines as psychology, sociology, criminology, law, medicine, nursing, psychiatry, and social work.

    The journal's 2014 Impact Factor is 0.858.
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