Workers Who Complain Suffer Consequences

If you're mistreated at work, it seems, you're damned if you complain, and damned if you don't.

A new study shows employees who gripe about being treated badly in the workplace are more likely to experience retaliation from bosses and co-workers.

The retribution is especially pronounced against people who hold less powerful jobs, such as secretarial or other support positions, and complain about wrongdoers who have more power, the study, based on research from the University of Michigan, found.

But employees who did not complain about being mistreated experienced more psychological and physical harm than those who did.

"When they spoke out about it, they were more likely to experience work and social retaliation, and if they didn't speak out, then their psychological well-being suffered," says Lilia Cortina, assistant professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan, who co-authored the study with Vicki J. Magley, assistant professor of psychology at DePaul University.

Effect on the Bottom Line

Not surprisingly, the study also found that employees who were mistreated in the workplace described worse work-related states than people who were less mistreated. In the same vein, workers who did not experience retaliation were more positive about their jobs than respondents who did experience some sort of retaliation.

Cortina says the results highlight the need for companies to foster an environment not only where employees respect one other, but also one in which workers feel comfortable speaking up if they are the target of mistreatment or harassment.

"These sort of negative employee outcomes translate into financial harm for the organization, whether it be employees calling in sick, taking medical leave or quitting," notes Cortina.

Cortina and Magley, along with Jill Hunter Williams and Regina Day Langhout of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also co-authored a study earlier this year that found that more than two-thirds of employees experienced some sort of rudeness, disrespect or incivility in the workplace.

This new study, which will be presented on Sunday at annual convention of the American Psychological Society, was based on data collected from 1,167 workers in the 8th Circuit federal court system.