Workplace aggression is a specific type of aggression, which occurs in the workplace. Workplace aggression can include a wide range of behaviors, ranging from verbal acts (e.g., spreading rumors) to physical attacks (e.g., assault).
- 1 Defining workplace aggression
- 2 Classifying workplace aggression
- 3 Covert nature of workplace aggression
- 4 Predictors (antecedents)
- 5 Outcomes
- 6 Prevention
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
Defining workplace aggression
Aggression, in general, is considered to be any behavior that is carried out by an individual with the intent to cause harm to another person or group of people. The aggressor must believe that their behavior is harmful to their target(s), and that the target(s) will be motivated to avoid this behavior. A defining feature of aggression is the intent or motivation to harm. In order for a behavior to be considered an aggressive act, the individual committing the behavior must intend for there to be harm. In other words, if harm is inflicted on another without that specific intent, it is not considered aggression.
Aggression can occur in a variety of situations. One important domain to understand aggression is in the workplace. Workplace aggression is considered to be a specific type of counterproductive work behavior (CWB) and is defined as “any act of aggression, physical assault, threatening or coercive behavior that causes physical or emotional harm in a work setting.”
Some researchers specify that workplace aggression only includes efforts to harm coworkers, former coworkers, current employers, or past employers. Others include in workplace aggression any behaviors intended to harm another person that are enacted in a workplace.
Classifying workplace aggression
In order to delineate the range of behaviors that can be considered aggressive workplace behaviors, researchers have developed schemes of classification for workplace aggression. Neuman and Baron (1998) offer these three dimensions that encompass the range of workplace aggression:
- Expressions of hostility—behaviors that are primarily verbal or symbolic in nature.
- Obstructionism—behaviors intended to hinder an employee from performing their job or the organization from accomplishing its objectives.
- Overt aggression—violent acts.
In attempt to further break down the wide range of aggressive workplace behaviors, Baron and Neuman (1996) also classify workplace aggression based on these three dichotomies:
Aggressive acts can take any possible combination of these three dichotomies. For example, failing to deny false rumors about a coworker would be classified as verbal-passive-indirect. Purposely avoiding the presence of a coworker you know is searching for your assistance could be considered physical-passive-direct.
Other researchers offer a classification system based on the aggressor’s relationship to the victim.
- Criminal intent (Type I)—this type of aggression occurs when the aggressor has no relationship to the victim or organization.
- Customer/client (Type II)—the aggressor has a relationship with the organization and aggresses while they are being served as a customer.
- Worker on worker (Type III)—both the aggressor and the victim are employees in the same organization. Often, the aggressor is a subordinate, and the victim is a supervisor.
- Personal relationship (Type IV)—the aggressor has a relationship with an employee at an organization, but not the organization itself. This category includes victims who are assaulted by a domestic partner while at work.
Covert nature of workplace aggression
In the workplace much of the aggressive behaviors enacted on targets are considered to be covert in nature. According to Bjorkqvist, Osterman, and Hjelt-Back, covert behaviors are those behaviors that are designed to disguise the aggressive behavior and/or aggressive intentions from the target. Overt aggression, on the other hand, includes behaviors that do not hide the aggressive intent and are open in their intentions. Typically, covert aggression is verbal, indirect, and passive in nature, while overt aggression reflects the physical, direct, and active side of the dichotomies.
Workplace aggression often takes the form of covert behaviors. This can be attributed to what Bjorkqvist, Osterman, and Lagerspetz call the effect/danger ratio. This term refers to the aggressors’ subjective evaluation of the relative effects and danger of committing an aggressive act. For an aggressor, it is ideal to have a larger effect/danger ratio. In other words, aggressors want an act to have a large effect with relatively low risk of danger to themselves.
Individuals in the workplace are subjected to prolonged exposure to with each other. This prolonged exposure means the victims of their actions will likely have more time to retaliate, thus increasing the danger aspect of the ratio. Also, workplaces are often communal in nature. That is, people often work in groups and are surrounded by others. The presence of others acts as a sort of built in audience that could “punish” the aggressor for harming a victim. It is for these reasons that individuals will often choose to take covert forms of aggression.
Predictors of workplace aggression can occur at both the organizational level and the individual level. The organizational factors examined here include organizational justice, supervision and surveillance, changes in the work environment, and specific job characteristics. At the individual level, gender, age, and alcohol consumption are examined here. While this is a not comprehensive listing of predictors, it does cover the majority of workplace aggression predictors addressed in the empirical literature.
Perceived interpersonal justice, the degree to which people feel they are treated with fairness and respect, is negatively related to both psychological and physical aggression against supervisors. Inness, Barling, and Turner found similar results; perceived interpersonal injustice was related to workplace aggression in participants’ primary and secondary jobs.
Moreover, perceived procedural justice, the extent to which formal organizational procedures are assumed to be fair, is related to workplace aggression against supervisors. Greenberg and Barling found that the greater the perceptions of procedural justice, the less workplace aggression was reported.
Supervision and surveillance
Workplace surveillance (employee monitoring) is positively related to workplace aggression against supervisors, such that the greater the number of employee surveillance methods used, the greater the amount of workplace aggression. Furthermore, supervisory control over work performance has also been shown to be positively related to workplace aggression against supervisors.
Baron and Neuman found that certain changes in the work environment can lead to increased aggression which they attributed to heightened anxiety and stress. Specifically, pay cuts or freezes, changes in management, increased monitoring systems (e.g., increased computer monitoring), increased diversity, and the increased use of part-time employees all were related to higher levels of workplace aggression.
Other antecedents of workplace aggression found in the literature are specific job characteristics. LeBlanc and Kelloway found that certain job features, such as handling guns or collecting valuable items, were significantly more related to workplace aggression.
Time spent at work
Harvey and Keashly found that length of time at work was able to predict workplace aggression such that the longer hours a person worked, the more likely they were to report aggression. The authors attributed this finding to two possible reasons. First, the more hours worked, the greater statistical probability of being victimized. Second, longer hours worked could contribute to fatigue and frustration. This in turn may increase the likelihood of aggressive actions towards co-workers.
Gender has been shown to be a significant predictor of workplace aggression. For example, being male has been shown to be significantly related to reports of aggression against supervisors. Furthermore, males are more likely to commit aggressive acts in the presence of other men. Overt and covert aggression in work settings in relation to the subjective well-being of employees. Aggressive Behavior, 27, 360-371.</ref> This can be attributed to societal cultures that dictate “codes of honor.” Females, on the other hand, are no more likely to act aggressively in either the presence of females or males.
Age is significantly related to aggression. In their study of age and job performance, Ng and Feldman found that older workers (age 40 or older) engaged in less workplace aggression than younger workers.
The frequency and amount of alcohol typically consumed by a person predicts aggressive behavior. Those who consume more alcohol more frequently are more likely to aggress against a coworker. The Hebei tractor rampage began as workplace aggression following alcohol consumption.
Like the array of behaviors considered to be workplace aggression, the consequences of workplace aggression are also extensive. For example, Ng and Feldman suggest that “acts of workplace aggression can cause bodily harm to employees, pose physical danger for customers, create public relations crises, and harm the business reputation of the firm as a whole”. The outcomes of workplace aggression addressed here include the health and well-being of targeted employees and job performance. Gender differences in outcomes are also addressed.
Health and well-being
Workplace aggression can have devastating effects on an organization’s employees. For example, it has been found that targets of workplace aggression report lower levels of well-being. Other studies have shown that aggression in the workplace can cause the victims of such behaviors to suffer from health problems. Bjorkqvist, Osterman, and Hjelt-Back even found that targets exhibited symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as anxiety and depression.
Victims of workplace aggression may suffer from reduced job satisfaction. Lapierre, Spector, and Leck found that those who perceived being targets of workplace aggression reported significantly lower overall job satisfaction. Similarly, those who perceive abuse from their supervisors report lower levels of job satisfaction.
Gender differences in outcomes
Research has shown that males and females react differently to workplace aggression. While both males and females have reported lower well-being after experiencing aggression in the workplace, studies indicate that the relationship between experienced workplace aggression and decreased well-being was stronger for men. In one study, results showed that men who reported more experienced work aggression were more likely to report physical, psychosocial, affective, and cognitive problems. This study also showed that the type of aggression, whether it is overt or covert, did not matter for these outcomes. The study attributes these findings to the idea of modern day masculinity, which stresses achievement and success in the workplace.
Prevention programs focus on reducing instances of workplace aggression. Programs that incorporate personnel selection, organizational sanctions, and training are recommended.
Based on a workplace prevention program developed by the United States Postal Service (USPS), Neuman and Baron encourage organizations to use personnel screening and testing to identify potential employees who are likely to behave aggressively before they are even hired. This proactive strategy prevents individuals who are predisposed to aggress from even entering the workplace.
Explicit policies regarding workplace aggression may help organizations to reduce aggression. Employees who perceived that their organization would punish workplace aggressors reported less workplace aggression even when their perceptions of interpersonal justice were high. Neuman and Baron also suggest using organizational policies to curb workplace aggression and to shape strong anti-aggressive organizational norms.
Training is also an important part of a prevention program. Neuman and Baron suggest that training for both supervisors and subordinates should focus on teaching employees methods for dealing with aggression. Similarly, Rai advises that appropriate training should “inform employees that management will take threats seriously, encourage employees to report incidents, and demonstrate management’s commitment to deal with reported incidents.” 
- Deviant behavior
- Occupational health psychology
- Passive-aggressive behaviour
- Social undermining
- Workplace bullying
- Workplace conflict
- Workplace incivility
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- Bjorkqvist, K., Osterman, K., & Hjelt-Back, M. (1994). Aggression among university employees. Aggressive Behavior, 20, 173-184.
- Bjorkqvist, K., Osterman, K., Lagerspetz, K. J. (1994). Sex different in covert aggression among adults. Aggressive Behavior, 20, 27-33.
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- Inness, M., Barling, J., & Turner, N. (2005). Understanding Supervisor-targeted aggression: A within-person, between-jobs design. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 731-739.
- Greenberg, L., & Barling, J. (1999). Predicting employee aggression against coworkers, subordinates and supervisors: The roles of person behaviors and perceived workplace factors. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 20, 897-913.
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- Harvey, S., & Keashly, L. (2003). Predicting the risk for aggression in the workplace: Risk factors, self-esteem, and time at work. Social Behavior and Personality, 31, 807-814.
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- "China coal worker kills 11 in drunken rampage with tractor". The Hindu. August 2, 2010. http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/article548063.ece. Retrieved August 2, 2010.
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- Lapierre, L. M., Spector, P. E., & Leck, J. D. (2005). Sexual versus nonsexual workplace aggression and victims’ overall job satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 10, 155-169.
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- Dupre, K. E., & Barling, J. (2006). Predicting and preventing supervisory workplace aggression. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 11, 13-26.
- Douglas, S. C., & Martinko, M. J. (2001). Exploring the role of individual differences in the prediction of workplace aggression. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 547-559.
- LeBlanc, M. M., & Barling, J. (2004). Workplace aggression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 9-12.
- Kelloway, E.K., Barling, J., & Hurrell, J.J., Jr. (Eds.) (2006). Handbook of workplace violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.