Workplace Bullying Research Paper

Correlation between Workplace Bullying and Agentic/Communal Friendships Yoo-sang (Rick) Yoon (201202272) Yeon-min (Leo) Kim (201200600) Yeji (Jenny) Park (201403859) June 20, 2018


Recently, #MeToo Movement sheds light on prevalent sexual abuse cases in the Korean society, particularly those in the workplace. About three months ago, one of the strongest presidential candidates, Ahn Hee-jung, was kicked out from his office due to continuous sexual harassment and raping on his secretary for the past eight months. Followed by this case, rapid downfall of several senior politicians and men of reputation backed by this movement has lit the fuse of open forums on workplace bullying in Korea. Workplace bullying is not only confined for the female members of society. It is about all types of overusing individuals power to intimidate, humiliate, insult or take advantage of others so-called “Gapjil(갑질)” in Korean . But since there is no clear legal definition of workplace bullying, this paper briefly sets a parameter and scope of workplace bullying in general perspective in Part I.

According to categories defined in Part I, Part II explains this phenomenon based on two research paradigms, “post-positivist” and “interpretive”. For the post-positivist research, surveys conducted by the Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea and database from information board for few lawmakers’ legislative activities are used. And for the in-depth comprehension, eight people have an interview about workplace bullying. By analyzing research results, this paper concludes with several key concepts relating with relations at the workplace and possible solutions to tackle on the workplace bullying.

KEY WORDS: Bullying, Gender, Race, Marital Status, Age, Occupation, Education, Culture of fear, Abusive power and control, Harassment, Coworker backstabbing, Agentic friendship, Repotting, Instrumental, Communal friendship, Relational currencies


Within the legal bound, there is no clear definition about workplace bullying. But based on common understanding about workplace bullying, it can be defined as “any types of physically, psychologically, verbally, nonverbally offensive, hostile, and insulting patterns of behavior” and “an abuse of power to undermine, humiliate, disparaging the dignity of the person being bullied”. And workplace bullying happens “continuously and repeatedly over time”. In most cases, workplace bullying is known as a type of bullying done by someone who has power over the victim. Especially this phenomenon is dominant in those societies where cultural factors such as Confucianism are strongly embedded in workplaces. But, those bullies can also be colleagues and sometimes subordinates in the workplace.

Specifically, the deep roots of workplace bullying can be mainly materialized into five factors:

  • gender;
  • race;
  • marital status;
  • education;
  • age;
  • and occupation.

Details aligned with these factors are explained in Part II and its analysis. Regardless of causes and types of workplace bullying, negative impacts are not only limited to those victims but also leading to fall in morale of employee and productivity and a change in corporate culture.


A. Post-Positivist Participants During August 23 to September 7 in 2017, the Human Rights Commission of the ROK conducted a survey about workplace bullying. Total 1506 people between the ages of 20 and 64 participated in this survey. All participants have at least 1 full year work experience, and this survey was conducted based on internet panel research. Standard error of this measurement is ±2.5% point at a 95% level of confidence.

Detail questions are as followed:

  1. damage of workplace bullying and response;
  2. perception about workplace bullying;
  3. countermeasures of workplaces;
  4. and experience of training or education about workplace bullying.


Among participants, 73.3% experiences workplace bullying and frequency of the bullying is as followed:

  1. less than once a month (26.8%);
  2. once a month (21.4%);
  3. one a week (13.2%);
  4. and almost everyday (12%).

And this frequency is closely intertwined with the rate of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts of those people underwent to the workplace bullying. Suicidal Thoughts and Suicide Attempts As indicated in Figure 1, those who experienced frequent workplace bullying tend to have more depression and thoughts about suicide. And types of bullying can be largely divided into six categories:

  1. Intentionally giving poor evaluation of employee performance (43.9%)
  2. Directing excessive workloads comparing to others (37.6%)
  3. Giving tasks before and after work or during the weekend (37.1%)
  4. Ignoring my opinions or thoughts without just reason (36.7%)
  5. Finding faults with trifles relating with the work (36.6%)
  6. Giving heavy workloads that I cannot finish within time (36%)

Given this database, types of bullying ranked on the top are all related to amount of workloads, respect and evaluation, and perpetrators in those bullying are committed by superior officers (42%) who use abusive power and control over victims. But beside this point, participants also point out colleagues (16.7%) and customers and associates’ workers (10.1%) commit bullying. In the case of bullying committed by coworkers, coworker backstabbing which includes discrediting others or false accusation happens. Top six reasons for workplace bullying are age (16.4%), social status (16.2%), gender (10.2%), physical conditions (9.2%), and education (8.7%).

Countermeasures by surrounding people According to Figure 2, coworkers or subordinates and other superiors tend to help victims getting out of workplace bullying rather than conceal or protect perpetrators. But those in charge of grievance committee or immediate superiors of perpetrators tend to conceal or protect perpetrators (40.3%) rather than helping victims (36.4%). And this is closely interconnected to training or education about bullying given in the workplace. According to the Human Rights Commission of the ROK, 41.3% of workplaces in the public sector get training or special education about workplace bullying. But only 19.3% of workplaces in the private sector get training or special education. Especially 17% of workplaces consisting less than 50 people offers training or education, but 47.6% of workplaces consisting more than 1000 people provides training or education for its employees. B. Interpretive The purpose of the interpretive research paradigm is to examine details of database from the Human Rights Commission of the ROK and people’s psychological understanding about the workplace bullying. In the interpretive research, this paper addresses mainly four questions:

  1. Have you ever been bullied or done bullying others in the workplace?
  2. Types of the workplace bullying (in the case of being bullied or witnessing)
  3. Surrounding people’s response and feelings (in the case of being bullied)
  4. My response and feelings (in the case of witnessing) & last comments Participants

Eight people got an interview through phone callings or kakaotalk, and all of them have at least one year working experiences. All participants are university graduates, and one person got a master’s degree. Seven participants are Koreans and one participant is a foreigner working in global marketing section of Korean corporate. Except three participants, rest of them got workplace bullying before. But those three people have witnessed workplace bullying before. Details addresses in the section below. And since all participants asked anonymity (detail information about themselves), this section addresses corresponding parts only relating with particular causes of workplace bullying without mentioning their names and corporate names. Interview Procedures and Protocol This section is based on grounded research approach which is a methodology of asking questions relating with the qualitative data. Given the data from the Human Rights Commission of the ROK, repeated ideas, codes or concepts are identified and interconnection between main concepts taught in the class and workplace bullying is defined.

Interviews were starting with broad and general questions about people’s experience relating with workplace bullying. And after this, details were asked to participants. And results are explained based on several causes aligned with the definition of workplace bullying. Results Except one participant, seven interviewees pointed out reasons of bullying based on those below. The reason for exceptional case was abnormal personality of the persons getting bullying.

1. Gender One participant who is 29 years old got workplace bullying such as sexual harassment from her two superiors. “…They talked about my female colleagues’ body shapes and my appearance at office dinners. They laughed and said it was joking. Several female colleagues and I talked about this matter a lot and realized that there were some females had same experiences. And especially those colleagues who went abroad with me and have special friendships beyond the workplace empathized a lot and gave great comforting relational currencies to me. Thus we, female colleagues, submitted a petition to a grievance committee. But there was no serious countermeasure from the corporate. But after that those two people realized the seriousness of their behaviors and statements, and now they speak and act carefully to female workers.”

2. Marital Status There was no participant who directly got bullying due to marital status, but one witnessed about the workplace bullying because of marital status. “She was very intelligent and hard-working person. She got married about two years ago and she had a child few months ago. Everyone in the workplace celebrated, but I saw people intentionally excluding her from some projects. That is because projects usually take a lot of time and efforts and people believed that it might be problematic to include her in projects in the case of the baby break. I feel a great contradiction of child care policy and reality especially for those working moms. If the workplace and people’s notion are like this way, who is going to have a baby?….”

3. Race Only one participant got bullying due to race. This participant graduated from the university in Korea about a year and half ago, and right now is working at global marketing team of the Korean corporate. “..Generally, people are nice but I feel a great depression when people especially my boss gives me a stack of files written in foreign languages. For example, when there is a paper written in English my boss asks me to translate it in Korean with organized formation in short-given time. But for me, both English and Korean are foreign languages. Since I am foreigner, people believe that I feel comfortable with foreign languages. Due to those excessive workloads, sometimes I got off work at 10 or 11 p.m. Many of my colleagues and my bosses are really good at speaking and writing English and some foreign languages…”

4. Age Among several causes, workplace bullying is dominant due to the reasons of age and occupation in Korean society. Surprisingly, this factor is one of the lower prevalence rates for workplace bullying in those western countries. The cause of age can be explained in the situations when relatively young and capable person get a high position comparing with those who are relatively older than him or her or because of only age differences older co-workers or superiors committing bullying. One of participants who is 29 and got master’s degree reminded her experience of the workplace bullying. “I saw a close colleague of mine being bullied. The perpetrator was a middle-aged worker who had a lot of experience in the company and my colleague who was the victim, entered the company from an open recruitment, with two years experience working there but she was in a higher position. Since the beginning of her career, the perpetrator always talked bad about her with trivial details such as “She didn’t say hi to me” or “She didn’t give me any chocolate on valentine’s day.”

5. Occupation & Education This factor is closely intertwined with various factors such as age, educational status, regular/temporary position, industrial differences etc. One participant shows clear example of workplace bullying because of occupation: (1) “I am working at duty free shop as a temporary position after I graduated from community college. I sometimes felt workplace bullying from head office in terms of its different welfare policies and attitudes toward temporary position workers comparing with those in regular position. I’ve been worked here about two years, and I became lethargic because there is nothing I can do against those bullying. I am seriously considering to quit my job.”


Given the database in part II, we can clearly see that workplace bullying happens due to multi-dimensional reasons. Workplace bullying due to gender mostly occurs between male and female, but there are some unique cases occurring among the same gender. Especially we can clearly see that age and occupational differences are top ranked reasons for bullying in Korea unlike other data given by western standard. Based on this difference, we can assume that cultural factor is embedded in Korea workplace bullying. Due to a male-dominated elders-first society backed by Confucianism and collectivism, culture of fear makes hard for those being committed or witnessed bullying stand against workplace bullying. Beside this, lack of the roles of grievance committee and strict policies against bullying can be blamed for other causes.


Based on general database and in-depth interview, workplace bullying can be characterized by duration, repetition, ill-intentioned, and power disparity between victims and perpetrators. As mentioned in interpretive research, workplace bullying is the acts debasing human dignity and eventually leading to job stress and dramatic falling of morale and productivity. All eight participants told that they could not stand against bullying with several reasons:

  1. agentic relationships and its instrumental feature (deterring people to meddle in workplace bullying);
  2. and culture or climate of fear about aftermath of standing against bullying.

To tackle workplace bullying, participants told the need of proper mechanism and policies to deal with workplace bullying. Furthermore, other participants pointed out that communal relationship through repotting in the workplace works as an outlet since they share the same relationship grounds and can precisely grasp the situation. At the end of interview, participants said we should keep in mind that everyone can be a perpetrator or a victim of workplace bullying. This statement gives a significant point that we should think about.


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