Human resource management practitioners’ responses to workplace bullying: cycles of symbolic violence

Susan Harrington, Samantha Warren, Charlotte Rayner

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    In the United Kingdom the majority of those reporting being bullied at work claim their manager as ‘the bully’ (Hoel and Beale, 2006). A global phenomenon, workplace bullying is damaging to those involved and hence their organizations (Einarsen et al., 2003), justifying academic attention and a practical need to develop mechanisms that tackle the phenomenon. Bullying is typically a problem ‘owned’ by Human Resource (HR) departments, yet existing evidence suggests that targets perceive HR practitioners (HRPs) as inactive, hence ineffective, in response to claims (Lewis and Rayner, 2003). However, very little is known about how HRPs themselves interpret and respond to claims of bullying. We address this gap, drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of ‘symbolic violence’ to interpret experiential interview data. Our findings suggest HRPs enact symbolic violence on employees who raise claims of bullying against their managers by attributing managerial bullying behaviours to legitimate performance management practices. A critical discourse analysis identified four interpretive mechanisms used by HRPs that served to exonerate managers from bullying behaviours, thereby protecting the interests of the organization at the expense of an employee advocacy role. These data suggest that, rather than being solely a phenomenon perpetrated by individuals, workplace bullying is often a symptom of managerialist and capitalistic discourses of intensified performance management in organizations, reinforced by the embedding of existing professionalization discourses with the field of Human Resource Management in the UK.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)368-389
    Number of pages22
    Issue number3
    Early online date29 Dec 2013
    Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2015


    • Bourdieu
    • critical discourse analysis
    • HRM
    • human resource management
    • intervention
    • managerialism
    • managers
    • Performance management
    • symbolic violence
    • workplace bullying


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