Employees who have previously been the subject of incivility at the workplace run a greater risk of later being bullied at work. These are the findings of a year-long series of surveys carried out in collaboration with an engineer trade union.

“The results show how important it is to act immediately when you see disrespectful behaviour in the workplace,” says Kristoffer Holm, researcher at Malmö University and PhD in psychology with a focus on work and organisational psychology.

If you don't act in time, work-related conflicts can develop into bullying ...

Kristoffer Holm

Three surveys were carried out by Holm and researchers from Lund University.

On three occasions over the course of a year, questionnaires with the same questions were sent out to 5,000 randomly selected workers from the trade unions. The questions addressed the degree to which one experienced incivility or from being bullied at work. A final part dealt with how these actions affected well-being. A total of 1005 people answered one or more of the questionnaires.

“We specifically looked at those who we could see answered at least two of the questionnaires, and in this way we could follow the development over these twelve months,” says Holm.

Rude behaviour can be disparaging or sarcastic comments, not being invited to different contexts or being treated disrespectfully in different ways. Bullying is something that is repeated systematically where the victim feels that they are at a disadvantage; repeated negative actions that the person has difficulty defending against. But it is not just bullying that has consequences – even incivility can lead to poorer well-being, according to Holm.

The results show that there is an increased risk of workplace bullying over time for people who previously experienced being treated rudely. To some extent, the study also provides evidence that there is an increased risk of witnessing bullying if one has previously witnessed rudeness.

Of the participants in the study, approximately 73 per cent report that they have been treated rudely in the past month, approximately 10 per cent said that they have been bullied.

“The major contribution of our study is that we can see that there is a clear connection between rudeness and bullying over time. The risk was clearly elevated over the entire time span in the study. If you don't act in time, work-related conflicts can develop into bullying in the worst case,” says Holm.

“Early interventions are necessary. Rude behaviours can easily be normalised and spread in a workplace until someone is put at a disadvantage.”

Text: Magnus Jando & Adrian Grist