Abusive supervision is a distressing problem for individuals and organisations, with workplace
aggression impacting a disconcerting number of employees. The costs and concerns include
absenteeism, health care, and lost productivity.
Numerous studies have explored the adverse consequences of abusive supervision, but this
study is one of the fewer studies designed to add to the knowledge on antecedents of abusive
supervision. In this study, I test a model of implicit bias, microaggressions (employees'
evaluations of supervisors’ behaviour as being discriminatory), abusive supervision and
employee outcomes (intentions to quit, psychological distress and symptoms of post-traumatic
stress disorder). Manager-related moderating factors between implicit bias and
microaggressions (self-monitoring and individualised consideration) are also tested, as are
employee-related moderating factors of microaggressions and abusive supervision
perceptions (external and hostile attribution styles). Lastly, psychological capital as a
moderator of the relations between abusive supervision and adverse employee outcomes is
tested. The theoretical framing is social identity and job demands-resources theory, and the
sample is a diverse group of manager-employee dyads in the manufacturing industry in South
The critical contribution made by this study is establishing that abusive supervision may be a
reflection of managers’ implicit bias toward employees who are racially different from them, via
employees’ perceptions of managers’ microaggressions. However, results show that, for
managers who also exhibit greater transformational behaviours, racial bias may be associated
with lower reports of abusive supervision, as compared to managers who exhibit less
transformational leadership: Employees can still recognise the good in an otherwise badly
behaving manager. Also, congruent with social identity theory, results show that employees
are more likely to perceive their manager’s behaviour as abusive when they project
antagonistic and hostile intent onto the manager’s behaviour. A particularly important result,
considering the serious implications of this finding for organisations and individuals, is the
finding that abusive supervision and post-traumatic stress symptoms are positively associated.
Therefore, the psychological toll of abusive supervision may be more severe than demonstrated in previous research. The major methodological contribution of the study is the
use of implicit attitude testing (IAT) rather than other or self-reports of racial bias.
In summary, my study contributes to the field of organisational psychology by demonstrating
that not only does racial bias exist in the workplace today, but that it has also “gone
underground,” perhaps becoming more subtle and insidious than earlier forms of racial
discrimination. I also found that racial bias was linked to subordinate reports of abusive
supervision, through employee reports of subtle acts of racial discriminatory behaviour. The
detrimental outcomes from this for diverse employees were numerous. Themes for future
research include the determination of the contexts where psychological capital may best
function as a mitigating resource on the effects of abusive supervision, to explore religious bias
and religious-based microaggressions, and to explore what effect employee social status may
have on these relations.