Research Findings

What is workplace bullying, and how to respond to it? Different responses by unions and employers in Brazil


January 12, 2023

Can employers and unions use the same term to describe a workplace conflict and still disagree about the actual meaning of this term? Although it might sound counterintuitive, this is what happens to workplace bullying in the Brazilian banking sector. Those different interpretations of workplace bullying are a consequence of how unions and employers understand labor relations and influence how unions and employers respond to bullying in the workplace.

Workplace bullying: single or multiple definitions?

Defining workplace bullying should not be a difficult task. Despite the different terms used in different parts of the world, such as workplace bullying, mobbing, or “moral” harassment, academics have for a long time agreed to define it as “the systematic display of aggressive behavior and social exclusion at work directed towards a subordinate, a co-worker or even a superior, as well as the perception of being systematically exposed to such mistreatment while at work.”

Despite this easy-to-understand definition, employers and unions might hold very different understandings of bullying, its origins, and its consequences, directly impacting how they respond to it.

That is exactly what I observed after analyzing multiple documents and conducting more than 20 interviews with managers and union leaders in the Brazilian banking sector between 2017 and 2018.

In my recently published paper in the British Journal of Industrial Relations, I observed that unions in the Brazilian banking sector understand bullying as an inherent characteristic of how employment relations are organized in the sector, considering it a sectoral problem.

This understanding reflects unions’ general views on labor relations and results in attempts to fix the problem by changing the whole sector’s structure and how sales and performance goals are organized.

Banks, on the other hand, see bullying as a simple consequence of bad individual managers and try to respond to it by tackling the problem individually – whether by firing or training the bully.

Different interpretations of bullying do not happen by chance

It is essential to clarify that there is an explanation for why unions and banks have different interpretations of what is apparently the same conflict.

For more than half a century, labor relations scholars have relied on the concept of frames of reference to understand certain behaviors of unions and employers. Frames of reference can be defined as “the lenses through which actors perceive, understand, and react to the world around them.”

Relying on a classical division of three frames, banking unions in Brazil can be easily identified as holding a pluralist or a critical frame of reference. The pluralist perspective considers employers and employees as having a mix of shared and conflicting interests, demanding that conflicts be solved through institutional interventions that try to balance bargaining power. Meanwhile, the critical perspective considers the employment relationship a forum for sharp conflicts and unequal power dynamics between management and labor, making conflicts of interests an inherited characteristic of any labor relationship.

If the frames of reference are the lenses through which unions understand the world, it is no surprise that unions’ definition of workplace bullying reflects those frames. One union leader that I interviewed defined bullying in the sector as an “institutionalized problem implicit in the employment relationship due to some practices adopted by banks, such as [the definition of] performance goals.”

Banks, on the other hand, are found to hold what is called a unitarist frame, which assumes that employers and employees share a unity of many interests. Therefore, conflicts are interpersonal or a sign of organizational dysfunction. As a result, bullying is defined as an individual-level problem, such as managers being unaligned with the company’s practices or relying on an “old-school” management style.

The consequences of those different interpretations

Observing that banks and unions have different interpretations of bullying is not simply an academic trivia. It actually impacts how each of those actors responds to bullying in the workplace.

Unions, understanding the problem as sectoral, rely solely on conflict management tools that have at least the possibility of transforming sectoral practices in the long run. Sometimes this results in unions not focusing on the resolution of cases of individual bullying victims. After all, a sectoral problem will not be solved by resolving individual cases – only by changing sectoral practices.

In some extreme cases, this even leads to counterintuitive outcomes, such as unions developing sympathy for managers who engage in bullying behavior, since bullying is understood as emerging from an inherent conflict between all workers and management.

On the other hand, as banks understand the problem at an individual level, they rely solely on individual-level tools and solutions, such as the termination or training of the alleged bully managers. To identify and respond to bullying cases, banks rely on internal channels, to which unions have little or no access. Therefore, conflicts between unions and employers are not restricted to the definition of bullying but also include the tools and methods most appropriate to respond to the problem.

Can this be true for other types of conflict?

It is clear that even terms considered non-controversial in the academic debate, such as workplace bullying, can be subject to different interpretations by different actors in labor relations. In turn, those different interpretations will generate different responses from unions and employers alike.

What was observed in this context concerning workplace bullying can also be applied to other types of workplace conflicts, such as sexual harassment or discrimination? In the real world, apparently non-controversial terms can clearly hold many more meanings than expected.

Read More

Paulo Marzionna. “Is this workplace bullying? How ideas about conflict shape conflict management strategies” in British Journal of Industrial Relations 2022.

Image: mohamed_hassan via Pixabay (Pixabay License)

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