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Do ageism, ethnic minorities explain workplace bullying in Estonia?

Tallinn coastline.
Tallinn coastline. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Tartu University researchers surveyed 11 major public and business organizations in Estonia to assess whether ageism causes workplace bullying and whether it increases with ethnic minority status and gender combined. The study found that ageism, gender, and ethnicity are not to blame.

Krista Jaakson, an associate professor of management at the University of Tartu, and her colleague Maria Dedova decided to focus on ageism, ethnicity and gender due to Estonia's post-socialist background and the largest gender wage gap in Europe.

The results indicate that a more nuanced approach should be taken towards addressing workplace bullying: women aged 40 and above are harmed solely in work-related spheres, not in personal matters; a too-general understanding of bullying fails to recognize this distinction.

Key findings of the survey were unexpected

  • Ageism does not explain bullying in Estonia and women report less work-related bullying than men. Estonia's post-socialist background and the highest gender wage gap in Europe suggests otherwise, but the reality is more nuanced.
  • There is gendered ageism in work-related bullying such that older women report more negative acts in their workplace.
  • Respondents from ethnic minority groups do not experience more bullying in general, nor in combination with age.
  • Surprisingly, managers reported both person- and work-related bullying more than employees with no subordinates.

Workspace bullying in Estonia is not ageism

Based on data from 11 organization, the study found that there is no evidence of correlation between employee age and perception of workplace bullying.

This result was surprising given Estonians' sentiments toward senior personnel, the researchers said. One explanation for the perceived absence of ageism in workspace is that older employees may not see harmful acts as harmful and underestimate their importance.

Jaakson and Dedova suggested that stigma, lack of awareness, or the "positivity effect" may be to blame.

Workplace bullying first became a topic in Estonian public discourse only in the mid-2000s, so employees aged 50 and up were active in the job market at the time when workplace misconduct was not widely discussed in society.

Also recent studies show that harmful behaviors at work are often not directly recognized as bullying. The researches looked for analogies in other countries, where researchers suggested that older employees may be embarrassed to admit they have fallen victim to bullying or unpleasant conduct because they see it as a sign of weakness.

Another hypothesis is the "positivity effect" – the fact that older people tend to recall more positive information compared to younger people. The researchers cited past studies that have shown that older adults have relatively low levels of unpleasant emotions in daily life. As a result, older employees may be less aware of harmful behavior directed at them.

Gendered ageism – twofold peril of work-related bullying

The key finding of the study is that gendered ageism comes out in the context of work-related bullying only, and the group affected most is women in their mid-40s.

Although it is commonly expected that women will be most affected by person-related bullying, the contrary came to light: women were more concerned about professional discredit instead, the study revealed.

This finding would be impossible to bring to light if only broader age groups or gender were studied, the researchers said.

Intriguingly, being female was not as such associated with more bullying. This result was important, as it pointed to a difference between the causes of wage discrimination in Estonia, the highest in Europe, and workplace bullying – both are mistreatments, but their root causes differ, the researchers said.

Estonia's 'most enormous' gender wage gap in Europe

Estonia's one of the largest gender wage gaps in Europe is linked to individual bargaining, the researchers said. Women in Estonia are disadvantaged in salary negotiations due to the absence of trade unions, collective bargaining agreements, and the treatment of salaries as confidential information.

Employers "legitimately capitalize" on this circumstance, which makes workplace bullying in Estonia an extremely peculiar occurrence, where every employee is affected, with women being no more vulnerable than men.

Neither ageism nor ethnicity emerged as a substantial factor

Respondents from ethnic minority groups also did not report more perceived bullying at work.

These findings were similar to the survey in Finland. In the Finnish study, culturally close immigrants to Finns, that is, Estonians and Swedes, did not report more bullying than ethnic Finns. The same seems to hold in Estonia, meaning that Russian minority groups, as culturally close to Estonians, did not report significantly more bullying.

While the younger generation of ethnic minority was more bullied in Finland, this did not occur in Estonia, where age did not make significant difference at all.

Managers reported more bullying than regular employees

Surprisingly, managers reported more personal and professional bullying than those with no subordinates. According to the researchers, it was rather surprising that managers reported substantially more workplace bullying. The sample included mostly line and middle managers, who could be more prone to bullying from subordinates (bottom-up bullying), peers (horizontal bullying), and superiors (top-down bullying), the researchers suggested.

Sector controls show that compared to the public sector there is consistently more work-related bullying in the construction sector, financial sector, and to a lesser degree energy sector.

Work cyber bullying is replacing physical intimidation

Given the effect of pandemics and the massive spread of remote work, some facets of bullying, like physical intimidation, start losing ground, while others, such as cyber bullying, emerge.

The disparity in technological knowledge raises concerns about the vulnerability of less advanced users of communication technologies and the occurrence of both work-related and person-related bullying in the virtual world. Remote work needs digitally aware staff, and older generations are at an obvious disadvantage in this regard.

This information was gathered in Estonia in 2018 and 2019. Organizations from various sectors, firm sizes and regions were chosen for the study. The final sample of 11 organizations included both public and private organizations in manufacturing and in service. There were 1,614 observations in the data. The Estonian Research Agency funded this study.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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