Posted by: Erin Stutesman | April 9, 2017

The Ethics of Identifying Difficult Populations

Exercise 11.1 of Qualitative Research Methods asks us about recruiting difficult populations, using workplace bullies as an example. This population is difficult to identify because they typically do not associate as such, whether through denial, shame or ignorance. As a result, most studies have focused on bullies’ victims. However, it could be extremely valuable to hear from bullies to understand their motivations. Researchers could then strategize how to prevent workplace bullying. Let’s examine some options on how to best conduct qualitative research on this tricky subject.

One potential opportunity is to unknowingly recruit bullies into an interview study with advertisements that read, “Do you have problem employees?” or “Do you have trouble controlling your irritation with your employees?” However, the phrasing of these questions implies that bullies are always in supervisory positions, which is not necessarily true. It is also possible to have frustration managing employees but not be a bully—for instance, a newer manager may not have much experience with difficult situations and could therefore feel frustration. These questions could be rephrased to ask: “Are you impatient with your colleagues?” or “Do you find working with other people frustrating?” or “Do your co-workers dislike you?” There is still a possibility that non-bullies would respond, but these questions aim to be more specific.

An unethical way to identify bullies would be to ask people to identify their former high school bullies and then have researchers recruit those bullies to ask about their jobs and leadership style. This tactic is unethical because that information is extremely subjective and relies on one population’s word against another’s—researchers do not know the circumstances of the former high schoolers experience, and cannot verify that they were bullied or not. Furthermore, people are capable of growth and change, especially after high school. Just because they were bullies as teenagers does not mean that they continue to be toxic in the professional world.

Once researchers are confident that they have recruited bullies, there are still further ethical implications to consider, such as how to avoid the “bully” label with participants, yet still use the data. One tactic could be to phrase interview questions around the subject of bullying, such as “Have you ever been called a bully?” or “Do you think you treat colleagues fairly?” These questions give participants the opportunity to consider their actions and respond honestly without automatically labeling them as bullies.

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