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There are places where bullying is less expected, yet it can still be present. University students can experience bullying from any member of the university community. We will focus here on exploring bullying that can exist between a supervisor and their graduate student. This relationship, which can span several years, lends itself particularly to possible relationship difficulties that can lead to different forms of violence. In fact, this relationship is rooted in a power dynamic within a competitive and individualistic academic context that both graduate students and professors must follow in order to fit in and progress in the field (Yamada et al., 2014; Goodboy et al., 2015). Therefore, graduate students are a population that is particularly vulnerable to interpersonal violence in the workplace from their supervisors (Yamada et al., 2014; Goodboy et al., 2015).  

If we try to define workplace bullying precisely, we realize that there is no single definition due to the diverse nature of bullying behaviors (Yamada et al., 2014). A broad and commonly accepted definition would be that bullying is defined by the perpetration of negative behaviors that cause harm to another person, often taken in the dimensions of persistence over time and power imbalance, but not necessarily (Saunders et al., 2007). Several authors have attempted to define the types of workplace bullying that may be present in the academic environment. For example, four main types of workplace bullying behaviors have been identified by Simons and colleagues (2011): (1) Belittlement which consists of intimidating, shouting, teasing, gossiping, (2) Punishment which is expressed through repetitive criticism, threats, or accusations, (3) Managerial misconduct such as giving an excessive, unachievable, or underperforming workload or exercising excessive supervision, and finally (4) Exclusion which results in not taking into account the person's opinions or preventing the latter access to opportunities. But other categorizations also exist—for example, authors have categorized bullying behaviors at work as follows: threat to professional status (e.g., accusation regarding lack of effort), threat to personal standing (e.g., devaluing with reference to age), isolation (e.g., withholding of information), overwork (e.g., undue pressure), and destabilization (e.g., failure to give credit when due, excessive reminders of errors; Rayner & Hoel, 1997 in Yamada et al., 2014). 

The prevalence of workplace bullying varies widely. According to one study including 336 graduate students from at least 18 psychology programs in Canadian universities, more than 20% of Canadian graduate psychology students reported having been bullied by their current supervisor, (Yamada et al., 2014). In addition, people who witnessed or were made aware of the workplace bullying might be reluctant to intervene. Studies cited multiples reasons including powerlessness, fear, and ignorance of bystanders (Paull et al., 2020). This may be one of the factors contributing to the continuation of bullying behaviors. 

Workplace bullying is being increasingly recognized as a threat to the safety of the individuals who experience it, but it also affects the productivity of the organizations that allow this violence to occur (Yamada et al., 2014). The effects of workplace bullying on the career and professional prejudices of the victims as well as their mental health and physical health are increasingly demonstrated (Goodboy et al., 2015; McKay et al., 2008; Xu et al., 2018). To limit bullying in graduate student-supervisor relationships, Yamada and colleagues (2014) suggested a few administrative and individual strategies such as preparing faculty for the mentoring role through formal orientation, training, and regular opportunities to review student-supervisor relationship strengths and challenges, as well as creating a safe and formal reporting process that leads to effective actions to address relationship concerns. Furthermore, because of the power imbalance, Yamada and colleagues (2014) invite other faculty or staff in positions of power to support graduate students’ attempts to mitigate harmful student-supervisor relationships. 

The academic environment is particularly fertile for the development and maintenance of abusive behavior in graduate student-supervisor relationships (e.g., power relationships, multi-year relationships). While the experience of positive collaboration helps graduate students to feel more confident about their competence and potential for achievement, the consequences of experiencing workplace bullying can be particularly deleterious in the short and long term. It is therefore important to raise awareness and to empower direct victims and bystanders to speak out against this. 

About the Author 

Marine Tessier, MPs, is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the Université de Montréal. Her doctoral research project focuses on posttraumatic stress injuries among paramedics and emergency dispatchers. She has extensive clinical experience with diverse populations, including victims and perpetrators of violence. 


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