Workplace Bullying of Expats Working or Studying in Scandinavia

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Workplace Bullying of Expats Working or Studying in Scandinavia

Scandinavia has one of the lowest (meaning positive) scores regarding bullying, the prevalence of verbal bullying (or harassment); Sweden 407%, Norway 40.8% and Denmark 40.9%. Even though the Scandinavian labor market, for the most part, is fair and equal, workplace bullying of expats working or studying in Scandinavia exists.

If you don’t get along with your boss or feel unfairly treated, it may well be that you are being bullied by your boss. In 2021, researchers Michael Rosander and Stefan Blomberg presented the results of a study, showing that the risk of being bullied more than doubled for the foreign-born. Coming from a culturally dissimilar country, the risk of becoming a victim of bullying was almost fourfold. The increased risk was only for person-related bullying, indicating a risk of being excluded from the social work environment.

Workplace Bullying of Expats Working or Studying in Scandinavia
From a social identity perspective, foreign-born is a salient out-group easy to single out and with a predatory bullying origin they easily become the scapegoat of the group.

Scandinavia has one of the lowest rates of bullying in Europe. But according to Statistics Norway (SSB), 7% of Norwegians were bullied or sexually harassed in 2017, and bullying very often leads to symptoms of stress, insomnia, depression and anxiety.

From a social identity perspective, foreign-born is a salient out-group easy to single out and with a predatory bullying origin they easily become the scapegoat of the group or just an easy target of frustration. There was a greater risk associated with self-labelling as bullied than with the behavioral experience method, according to researchers Rosander & Blomberg.

Workplace Bullying of Expats Working or Studying in Scandinavia
Co-researcher Stefan Blomberg. Photo: Psykologitidningen.

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Related: The Co-working Culture in Scandinavian Countries
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Also at schools, bullying of expat children is a problem. A Danish teacher, Louise Ibsen, says they have a program for solving the problem. “We’re always trying to get the kids to work together in different types of groups, across genders and not always with their best friends,” she says. “The pupils also practicing social skills for how to communicate, and also how to compromise on different ideas.”

There are, however, unwritten rules within Scandinavian societies, and even within each company. Being a foreigner and applying all of this to a situation where we are supposed to be our most professional and productive selves is extremely difficult. That’s especially so when coming from a culture that is totally different.

Workplace Bullying of Expats Working or Studying in Scandinavia
Being born in another country coming to a new one for different reasons to start a new life, getting a job, and finding one’s way in a society where one is viewed as a minority may involve a number of obstacles. Photo: Timothy Eberly/Unsplash

Workplace bullying is a serious and detrimental problem found all over the world (for an overview see, e.g., Nielsen & Einarsen, Citation2012). The question this article possesses is what happens when the world comes to you.

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In Japan, and other countries, for example, there are strict customs in regards to dealing with people above you in a hierarchy. How do you then know when your boss oversteps the line, and would you speak up?

Being born in another country coming to a new one for different reasons to start a new life, getting a job, and finding one’s way in a society where one is viewed as a minority may involve a number of obstacles. Being viewed as the outsider in a group carries a risk of receiving a differential treatment in the workplace (Levine, Citation2017). This treatment could involve exclusion and other negative behaviors (Wesselmann & Williams, Citation2017).

Workplace Bullying of Expats Working or Studying in Scandinavia
One of the researchers, Michael Rosander. Photo: Sveriges Radio.

Fatemeh Shahmarvand is a parent and part of a Danish school board. This enables parents to take part in decisions regarding school programs, which plays a key role in preventing bullying, says Fatemeh.

According to The Norwegian Working Environment Act (Arbeidsmiljøloven), it is not legal to bully someone. One single episode is usually not considered bullying, unless it is very serious, but should be a consistent pattern over time.

Workplace bullying is defined as a systematic (e.g. weekly) negative treatment at work that continues for an extended period of time (e.g. six months) in situations where the victim has increasingly diminishing resources to defend him or herself (Einarsen et al., Citation2020b). Einarsen (Citation1999) described possible origins of bullying as dispute-related or predatory in nature.

“It’s very important that we dare to go close to them and dare to facilitate their life, not only life in the classroom but also life in their spare time. We work on trust, because trust is a way to get closely related to them, but it’s also to act upon the problems,” says Mette Trangbæk, headmaster at Greve Gymnasium in Denmark.

In the workplace, tt may go without saying, but there may be some examples where you should consider contacting the police, like when being exposed to sexual harassment.

Predatory bulling, on the other hand, refers to situations where the actions of the victim are not the main reason why bullying occurs. It is rather who the victim is, or what the victim represents for the bully, that can explain the exposure to bullying behaviors (Einarsen, Citation1999; Einarsen et al., Citation2020b), for example, belonging to an out-group in terms of scapegoating processes and prejudice (Thylefors, Citation1999), or simply being an easy target as a consequence of frustration and stress (Einarsen, Citation1999).

“We have all age groups calling about bullying, but it seems to be a particular problem for, let’s say 10 to 15-year-olds,” says Børns Vilkår’s CEO, Rasmus Kjeldahl. “And that’s where it’s extremely important for a child to belong to a group. The act of bullying is expulsion from the group.”

However, many people who bully act subtly, and not only through words, but also with disrespectful body language and even tone of voice. All of this is very hard to detect and prove, and even describe.

Bullying behaviors can involve a range of different acts and situations. Different dimensions of bullying behaviors have been suggested, for example work-related bullying, social isolation, personal attacks, verbal attacks, and physical violence (Einarsen, Citation1999; Zapf, Citation1999).

Helle Hansen is a Danish education and school bullying researcher. She’s one of the experts who designed anti-bullying programs introduced in Denmark’s schools 15 years ago.

“It’s harder to be a teenager. We had the lockdown. We had Covid. You’re more alone. In general, well-being is challenged. Young people, or kids who are involved in bullying, they need something. They need to understand the meaning of being here and being part of it,” she says.

Unfortunately, some people are easier targets; like those who may have lower productivity or even rationality, because of mental health illness or problems at home, people who haven’t learned the unwritten rules, or people you don’t expect will speak up.

Workplace Bullying of Expats Working or Studying in Scandinavia
Many people who bully act subtly, and not only through words, but also with disrespectful body language and even tone of voice. Photo: Jason Leung/Unsplash

There are relatively few studies that focuse on ethnicity in connection to workplace bullying, and even fewer that have included country of birth. An early study focusing on bullying and ethnicity in a European context was conducted by Lewis and Gunn (Citation2007). They showed that ethnic minorities are more exposed to workplace bullying—and if bullied by a line manager they are more often exposed to what they called personalized bullying (e.g. being excluded, ignored, or humiliated).

You can learn more about the Discrimination and Anti-discrimination in Denmark with analysis of the legal challenges here.

The Norwegian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal  is a neutral governmental organization, and represents no party. The Tribunal is an alternative to taking legal action in cases of workplace discrimination, harassment and retaliations. It is free of charge.

You can read about the individual rights and obligations in Sweden by going to Informationsverige.

Workplace Bullying of Expats Working or Studying in Scandinavia, written by Tor Kjolberg

Feature image (on top): © Morgan Basham/Unsplash

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Journalist, PR and marketing consultant Tor Kjolberg has several degrees in marketing management. He started out as a marketing manager in Scandinavian companies and his last engagement before going solo was as director in one of Norway’s largest corporations. Tor realized early on that writing engaging stories was more efficient and far cheaper than paying for ads. He wrote hundreds of articles on products and services offered by the companies he worked for. Thus, he was attuned to the fact that storytelling was his passion.

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