Workplace bullying through the eyes of human resource practitioners
: a Bourdieusian analysis

  • Susan Harrington

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis addresses an existing gap in the workplace bullying literature: how Human Resource Practitioners (HRPs) construct, interpret and respond to workplace bullying. Semistructured interviews were conducted with individual HRPs and a small focus group using two forms of data collection: HRPs’ unprompted interpretations of a vignette depicting a bullying situation and HRPs’ own experiential accounts of handling bullying claims. The HRPs were from private and public sector organisations, and all occupied roles that involved dealing with bullying claims. The interviews were analysed using Critical Discourse Analysis, and Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice provided the framework for interpreting the multilevel individual, organisational and social factors influencing HRPs’ bullying-related practice. The findings suggest that bullying is a complex and difficult issue for HRPs due to a combination of organisational pressure to protect managers, management-centric antibullying policies and the relative powerlessness of Human Resource Management and HRPs in organisations. HRPs applied a range of interpretive mechanisms that served to attribute blame to the target and legitimise the manager’s behaviour, even when the behaviour described met academic definitions of bullying. The way the HRPs constructed, interpreted and responded to bullying claims depended on whether the alleged bully was the target’s peer or manager. The HRPs consistently constructed peer-to-peer claims as interpersonal conflict and manager-to-employee claims as the target’s reaction to performance-management practices. The HRPs’ construct of ‘genuine bullying’ appeared to comprise four essential criteria: intentional and person-related behaviour between peers, which has significant negative impact on a trustworthy target. These findings have significant implications for research and practice. Firstly, HRPs’ construct of ‘genuine bullying’ is fundamentally different to academic and organisational definitions of bullying. Secondly, as a result of these constructs and interpretive mechanisms it appears very unlikely that any management behaviour in manager-to-employee claims would be constructed as bullying by HRPs.
Date of AwardSept 2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorCharlotte Rayner (Supervisor), Derek Adam-Smith (Supervisor) & Birgit Schyns (Supervisor)

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