Societies (Jun 2021)

Acceptable Behavior or Workplace Bullying?—How Perpetrator Gender and Hierarchical Status Affect Third Parties’ Attributions and Moral Judgments of Negative Behaviors

  • Eva Zedlacher,
  • Denise Salin

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 11, no. 2
p. 62


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Workplace bullying consists of repeated, long-term exposure to a variety of negative behaviors. However, it remains unclear when behaviors are seen as morally acceptable vs. become bullying. Moral judgments affect whether third parties deem it necessary to intervene. In this qualitative study, we first conceptualize and then explore via 27 interviews with Austrian HR professionals and employee representatives whether twelve diverse negative behaviors elicit distinct causal attributions and moral judgments. In particular, we examine how a perpetrator’s hierarchical position and gender shape the third parties’ evaluations. A qualitative content analysis reveals the behaviors vary in their perceived acceptability and associations with workplace bullying. Ambiguous behaviors require specific cues such a perpetrator’s malicious intent to be labeled workplace bullying. Overall, third parties judge behaviors by supervisors more harshly, particularly when managerial role expectations are violated. The majority of informants reject the notion that their perceptions are affected by perpetrator gender. Still, women who engage in behaviors associated with anger or a lack of empathy are often perceived as acting with intent. The findings suggest that the violation of social role expectations amplifies the attribution of dispositional causes (e.g., malicious intent). We discuss the relevance of perpetrator intent for research and practice.