School anti-bullying researcher questions whether “workplace bullying” is a real phenomenon

On occasion, I am left deeply dismayed by a commentary concerning workplace bullying. Such was my reaction to Elizabeth Englander’s “Is Workplace Bullying a Genuine Phenomenon?,” just published in The Atlantic (link here).

Dr. Englander is a psychologist who directs a center at Bridgewater State University that primarily addresses school bullying. Building on news stories of well-publicized toxic work situations, she questions the reality of workplace bullying. Here’s a snippet:

Whenever powerful people wage a campaign of misery against someone with less agency, it can be harmful. Victims of bullying are typically less productive, less happy, and less likely to be positive contributors to society. They’re more likely to use dangerous drugs, to be violent, and to break laws.

Bullying doesn’t refer to just any type of social cruelty, however; it’s specifically when an individual or group repeatedly and deliberately attacks a less powerful person.

…Just calling something bullying doesn’t make it so, of course, and identifying bullying among adults can be difficult. In schools, we can clearly distinguish between a child who makes a random mean comment about a haircut and a child who goes after a target every single day on a playground or on social media. Only the latter is waging a repetitive campaign of cruelty. In a workplace, a nasty comment that might seem like a single incident could actually be a repetitive behavior—or not. For example, if your boss berates and belittles you one day in a meeting, you may wonder if that’s how she talks about you to management. Could that explain why you weren’t promoted? Or maybe your boss was just having a bad day and she took her anger out on you—not great, but not bullying.

Englander is right on in saying that “identifying bullying among adults can be difficult” and that bullying, in its essence, is an abuse of power. She’s also right that workplace bullying is not about a “boss just having a bad day.” I personally agree with a definition of bullying that includes intent on the part of the aggressor. In fact, I have written the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill to include intent as a required element towards proving a legally actionable claim. (Not all anti-bullying advocates agree with me, but after considerable pondering I have held firm on this point.)

Despite this apparent common ground, Englander concludes:

Ultimately, the word bullying may be simply a distraction. Whether a workplace problem fits the definition of bullying is secondary. What’s more important is promoting professional behavior and workplaces that improve the lot of employees.

It appears that Englander is practicing the unfortunate academic game of defining a term restrictively (here, bullying), then questioning that which doesn’t fit easily within it, and finally (and somewhat paradoxically) claiming at the end that definitional distinctions are secondary distractions. Ultimately, by reserving the mantle of “bullying” mainly for applications to children, her commentary overlooks decades of research, public education, clinical, and advocacy work on an international scale about workplace bullying and mobbing. Perhaps had she done a deeper dive into that abundant body of work, rather than build her piece around individual instances of bad bossism, the published result would’ve been different.

Why not seek common ground instead?

Ms. Englander’s primary domain is bullying among children. Mine is workplace bullying. I respect that, at times, the dynamics of school bullying and workplace bullying are different. Indeed, I and many others have likened workplace bullying more to domestic abuse than to school bullying in terms of core relational dynamics. But I have increasingly regarded these differences as being less important than the similarities.

Thus, I am mystified as to what triggered Englander’s commentary. The heart of the movement to address workplace bullying and mobbing has always been in steadfast support of efforts to respond to other forms of interpersonal abuse, such as school bullying, cyberbullying, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment. We’ve also learned that it’s unproductive to get overly hung up on labels and vocabulary, especially when it comes to the risks of creating turf battles.

In sum, it’s unfortunate that Englander (and The Atlantic) would invest in an article that misses the mark so unnecessarily. The more constructive common ground is to comprehend that bullying behaviors exist at every life stage and to share many related insights for our mutual benefit.

Published: “Teaching Therapeutic Jurisprudence”

I’m happy to report that my latest law review article, “Teaching Therapeutic Jurisprudence,” has been published in the University of Baltimore Law Review. To access a freely downloadable pdf, please click here.

Therapeutic jurisprudence, or “TJ,” is a multidisciplinary field of theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law and policy, legal processes, and legal institutions. TJ has become a central framing theory for my work in drafting and advocating for legal protections against workplace bullying. From 2017-19, I served as the founding board chairperson of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a global, non-profit organization dedicated to public education about TJ.

The purpose of this article is to foster the incorporation of TJ into law school curricula, so that future lawyers may benefit from its insights and lessons. Here’s the abstract: 

If the field of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) is to enjoy greater influence in the realms of legal practice and the making of law and policy, then it must expand its presence in the standard law school curriculum. This Article aspires to provide guidance and suggest resources towards that end. Part I considers the ways in which TJ can be introduced into law school curricula, including dedicated courses and seminars, single-session overviews, and clinical and skills courses. This will include a detailed discussion of my initial design and teaching of a Law and Psychology Lab, built around TJ principles and applications, which I launched in the spring of 2020 at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. Part II is a bibliographical essay discussing resources that can be used as assigned and recommended reading in courses incorporating some TJ component.

What will America’s world of work look like as we emerge from the pandemic?

Second shot came 3 weeks later!

What will America’s world of work look like as we emerge from the pandemic? Now that vaccination numbers are up, new infections and COVID-19 fatalities are down, and businesses and cultural institutions are re-opening, it’s time to generate discussions about the future of work, workers, and workplaces during the months and years to come. 

Bullying and harassment

First, bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work — key topics for this blog — won’t be going away any time soon. As I reported last month, the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2021 national scientific survey revealed that, during the pandemic, a lot of bullying behaviors simply migrated to online platforms such as Zoom. Furthermore, individuals of Asian descent have been targeted for racial harassment due to the apparent origins of the coronavirus in China. Also, retail workers across the country have been verbally abused and physically assaulted by out-of-control customers who disagreed with mask and public safety requirements. In short, while this pandemic has brought out the best in some people, it also has brought out the worst in others.

The face-to-face workplace

Second, we’re going to see a somewhat clunky and varied transition back to working in face-to-face office settings again. Some workers can’t wait to get back to the office, while others have found themselves working effectively — and more contentedly — at home. Employers have experienced differing productivity levels with people working remotely, and some have been re-evaluating their need for large office spaces. We may see greater reliance on hybrid approaches that mix-and-match working from home and coming into the office when necessary.

Restaurant recoveries?

Third, many retailers, especially those in the restaurant and food service industry, are going to be in recovery mode. For example, will the pre-pandemic fondness that many Americans have for eating at restaurants return as vaccinations and improved ventilation systems make indoor dining safe possibilities? Fingers crossed that these industries will make robust comebacks!

Frontline workers

Fourth, millions of essential frontline workers have been putting themselves in harm’s way to stock shelves, operate cash registers, produce and deliver goods and packages, and perform countless other tasks to help keep our society going during this time. Will a grateful nation reward them with higher pay, better benefits, and stronger job security? It’s anyone’s guess as to whether that will occur.

Women bear the brunt

Fifth, the labor market impacts of this pandemic have been very gendered, with more women than men bearing the brunt of caregiving at home for children and the ill. While it may be premature to assess how this will effect current generations of women workers in the long term, the short-term impact has been palpable and threatens to endure.

Health care workers

Sixth, health care workers across the country who have been treating COVID-19 patients face trauma, exhaustion, and burnout from working long hours under the most difficult circumstances. They have been in the trenches of this war against the virus, and many have paid a price in terms of their physical and emotional health. We owe them a debt of gratitude, which includes providing all necessary measures to support them as they recover from this ordeal.

Ch-ch-changes

Seventh, we may witness a stream of career transitions, job changes, and early retirements, the cumulative results of individual and family contemplations about their lives during this long period of semi-quarantine. As I wrote in my personal blog over the weekend:

The pandemic appears to have prompted a lot of self-reflection among middle-aged folks during the past year or so, and the results of these inner dialogues are starting to emerge. More and more we’re hearing about career and job shifts, accelerated retirement timelines, moves to places near and far, changes in personal relationships, new hobbies and avocations, and more active pursuits of “bucket list” plans.

This stuff is popping up in everyday conversations, Facebook postings, and news features about life transitions in the shadow of COVID-19. I don’t know if it’s a temporary blip on the screen or the beginning of some major social ground shifting, but for now the phenomenon is real.

Haves and have-nots

Finally, the pandemic has exacerbated the divide between the haves and have-nots. Those who could work remotely and safely, watch their retirement accounts grow amidst a strong stock market, and take advantage of generous, employer-provided health care plans are coming out of this pandemic in pretty good shape. Those who lost their jobs, tapped into meager savings, and have struggled to obtain needed health care have found themselves increasingly reliant on special safety net measures enacted by the federal government. This is among the reasons why I hope that the Biden Administration’s proposals to create millions of jobs with good wages and benefits to help repair our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and build a healthy green economy are enacted. 

These points raise but a few of the compelling matters related to the post-pandemic future of work in America. In all, they highlight persistent challenges of opportunity, equality, and worker dignity that existed before this virus transformed our lives. Accordingly, I hope that we, as a society, will take the high road in prioritizing the needs of those who have struggled the most during one of the most challenging times in our history.

WBI survey: Workplace bullying zoomed online during pandemic

From WBI, workplacebullying.org

Workplace bullying didn’t disappear during the pandemic. Rather, much of this behavior simply went online, mainly via virtual meetings rather than by email.

This is among the key findings of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s latest scientific survey on workplace bullying in the U.S., done in partnership with Zogby Analytics, a leading global polling firm. The survey was conducted in January 2021 and collected data from a nationally representative sample of over 1,200 adults. (Click here for a summary and access to the full report by Dr. Gary Namie, WBI’s co-founder.)

Some 43 percent of respondents reported being subjected to bullying behaviors online either currently or previously, in contrast to a 30 percent prevalence rate overall. By a wide margin, virtual meetings were more likely than email to be the sources of bullying. (Click here for the survey report chapter examining remote bullying.)

This finding helps to answer questions I have raised earlier about how the coronavirus pandemic might affect the frequency and nature of bullying and mobbing behaviors at work. Last May, I was more optimistic that the challenges posed by the pandemic might help to bring out our best behaviors at work. But I did add:

However, some of the bad behavior, as I mentioned, will simply port over to an online setting. After all, less-than-wonderful co-workers can be jerks on Zoom and scheme and manipulate in the digital fog. This could give rise to more covert forms of bullying, sabotaging, and undermining of others.

I will be sharing more highlights from the WBI survey in future posts. The survey is a rich treasure trove of data on the state of work during these difficult times.

***

Disclosure: I have been affiliated with WBI on a pro bono basis since 1998, and I made a contribution to a crowdfunding campaign to fund this survey.

Workplace bullying, the Healthy Workplace Bill, and the “poster case”

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

On many occasions during my years of drafting and advocating for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, I’ve been asked, so, what’s your poster case?, or something along those lines.

This is an important topic, even if the term is somewhat coarse.

First, a bit of vocabulary: “Poster case” is a modification of the term “poster child,” the latter defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a child who has a disease and is pictured in posters to solicit funds for combating the disease.” Merriam-Webster then offers a secondary definition closer to what we’re talking about in this context: “a person having a public image that is identified with something (such as a cause).”

The substitution of the word “case” clarifies that we’re talking about a legal or legislative setting. Accordingly, a poster case instance of workplace bullying and mobbing is one that neatly and compactly captures the essential dynamics of severe work abuse and clearly shows the need for stronger legal protections in the form of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Phoebe Prince

A decade ago, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life. This tragedy galvanized public attention to school bullying, and it played an influential role in reviving a school anti-bullying bill that had been languishing in the state legislature. The bill suddenly picked up great momentum and was enacted into law.

Over the years, legislative staffers and others close to the policymaking process have quietly told us that passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill would be hastened if we had a “poster case” like that of Phoebe Prince — in other words, a deeply sympathetic individual who died by suicide associated with bullying at work.

In addition…

Those of us who have been advocating for law reform are acutely aware of suicides associated with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. Surviving family and friends of these bullying targets are among the readers of this blog. Their stories are heartbreaking and outrageous, and they are sometimes invoked in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill. For various reasons, no single instance has captured public attention sufficient to push the bill over the top, in the way that Phoebe Prince’s story gave decisive impetus to the school bullying law.

In any event, we must continue to broaden our focus, to include, but go beyond, these tragic suicide narratives. Countless numbers of bullied and mobbed workers are living with their experiences every day. Their experiences must always be given voice as well.

Here in Massachusetts, the Healthy Workplace Bill is once again before the state legislature, filed by Senator Paul Feeney for the 2021-22 session. Please go here to see the bill, currently designated as Senate Docket No. 2426. And if you live in Massachusetts and are so inclined, please contact your state senator and state representative (link here) and ask them to co-sponsor the bill.

Anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill reintroduced for 2021-22 session of Massachusetts Legislature

Here in the Bay State, State Senator Paul Feeney (D-Bristol & Norfolk) has just reintroduced workplace anti-bullying legislation known as the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) for the 2021-22 session of the Massachusetts Legislature (link here). The HWB permits targets of severe workplace bullying to seek damages in court and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively towards bullying behaviors at work. The bill is currently designated as Senate docket no. 2426; a bill number will be assigned later.

The HWB has been steadily gaining support in the Massachusetts Legislature. During the 2019-20 session, over half of the elected state senators and representatives signed on as co-sponsors. Although the coronavirus pandemic put the HWB on hold for much of the remainder of that session, the strong support for the bill within the State House anticipates the day that this bill will eventually become law.

As the author of the core language of this legislation, I can attest that it fills a large gap in our current employment protections, while treating employers fairly. The bill filed by Senator Feeney is the latest full version of the HWB, which adds an express statement that online workplace abuse is covered — making explicit what was previously implicit in previous filings.

If you’re a Massachusetts resident and would like to see the HWB enacted into law, please contact your state senator and state representative and ask them to sign on as co-sponsors. You may go here for contact information.

2012-2020: When gaslighting went mainstream

I first wrote about gaslighting behaviors in connection with workplace bullying in December 2012. Since then, gaslighting has been a recurring topic on this blog. (See below for a list of related pieces.) In preparing an essay I’m writing on the nation’s political psyche during the years 2015-20, I was curious about the degree to which gaslighting has become a mainstreamed concept in our public discourse. I did a quick series of Google searches on “gaslighting” by year, starting in 2012 and going through 2020. Here is what I found:

Google search: “Gaslighting”

Year          # “hits”

2012          26,100

2013          29,000

2014          34,500

2015          49,500

  2016          320,000

2017          87,000

 2018          126,000

 2019          155,000

 2020         204,000

Several conclusions and informed speculations become evident:

  • Clearly, the year-to-year pattern in hits indicates that gaslighting has been increasingly invoked in discussions of relationships, work, and civic life.
  • The difference between 2012 and 2020 represents an increase in Google hits by approximately 800 percent.
  • The 2016 spike may well have been fueled by that year’s U.S. presidential election, and possibly the 2020 increase was prompted by that year’s presidential election as well.

I’m glad that this term has taken hold, because it helps many workers understand the crazy making dynamics of their workplaces. That’s an important step toward both healing from abusive work experiences on an individual level and reforming workplaces on an institutional level.

RELATED POSTS

On gaslighting specifically

Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully (2020)

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers (2018)

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect” (2018)

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

Related posts (most mention gaslighting)

Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm (2019)

Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?” (2017)

How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing (2017)

Workplace mobbing: Understanding the maelstrom (2016)

Workplace bullying as crazy making abuse (2014)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (2014)

Targets of workplace bullying: The stress and anxiety of figuring out what the h**l is going on (2014)

Pre-publication posting: “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment”

Frequent readers of this blog may have noticed my periodic references to therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law, policy, and legal institutions. In legal events and transactions, TJ inherently favors outcomes that advance human dignity and psychological well-being. TJ has vitally informed my work on the legal implications of workplace bullying and my design of, and public education about, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

For many years, I have perceived the need for a law review article that comprehensively yet accessibly canvasses the field of TJ. I finally undertook the project myself, and the result is “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment,” slated to appear later this year in the University of Miami Law Review. I have posted a freely downloadable, pre-publication version to my Social Science Research Network page, which you may access here.

If you’re interested in learning more about TJ, then you may also check out the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (link here), a global non-profit dedicated to public education about the field. I helped to organize the ISTJ and served as its first board chair. As recounted in this blog post, we launched the ISTJ in 2017, at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Prague, Czech Republic.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is an important player in the drive toward making the law more embracing of human dignity and everyday human needs. This includes, of course, legal rights and responsibilities concerning the workplace, and so I’ve been very grateful for how insights yielded by TJ have informed my work.

How would you feel if your boss had a betting pool on how many workers would contract COVID-19?

We’re seeing plenty of instances of how the coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best and the worst of us, and here’s another bellringer example of the latter: Last year, seven managers at a Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were fired in the wake of accusations that they created a betting pool on how many of their employees would contract COVID-19. As reported by Sarah Al-Arshani for Business Insider (link here):

Tyson Foods fired seven management employees at a Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant following an independent investigation into allegations that managers bet money on how many workers would catch the virus during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

…The accusations came about after the discovery of an amended court document in the wrongful death lawsuit of Isidro Fernandez, a Tyson meatpacking worker who died of COVID-19 in April.

One of the fired managers defended the betting pool as a “morale boost” for exhausted managers, as reported by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press (link here):

Don Merschbrock, a former night manager at the plant in Waterloo, Iowa, said he was speaking in an attempt to show that the seven fired supervisors are “not the evil people” that Tyson has portrayed.

…The office pool involved roughly $50 cash, which went to the winner who picked the correct percentage of workers testing positive for the virus, Merschbrock said. He added that those involved didn’t believe the pool violated company policy and thought the plant’s positivity rate would be lower than the community rate due to their mitigation efforts.

“It was a group of exhausted supervisors that had worked so hard and so smart to solve many unsolvable problems,” Merschbrock said. “It was simply something fun, kind of a morale boost for having put forth an incredible effort. There was never any malicious intent. It was never meant to disparage anyone.”

The wrongful death lawsuit that outed the betting pool account alleges that Tyson managers had downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and covered up a COVID-19 outbreak so that workers would continue to report for their shifts. As further reported by Sarah Al-Arshani:

According to the lawsuit, some managers were demanding that sick employees come into work, and one employee, who vomited on the production line, was made to return to work the following day. 

The lawsuit also alleged that managers gave out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who worked all of their scheduled shifts for three months, and warned workers not to discuss COVID-19 while at work. 

Of course, the most serious concerns pertain to the actual health and safety of the workers, and it appears the Tyson has a lot to answer for on those points. The allegations reflect narratives as old as the history of wage labor: Pressuring workers to produce under unhealthy and life threatening conditions. They remind us of the muckraking work of journalist Upton Sinclair in the early 1900s, when he exposed horrific working conditions in the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle.

In addition, the betting pool reveals another level of disturbing management dehumanization of its own employees, one that goes beyond the immediate pressures of keeping production going under trying circumstances. To describe the bets as “something fun, kind of a morale boost,” while denying any malicious intent, simply doesn’t add up. It’s quite sick and twisted, and it doesn’t reflect well upon Tyson’s practices for hiring managers.

***

Hat-tip to Alayna Cohen for originally flagging this story for me.

“Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace,” 3rd edition

I’m late in mentioning publication of the latest edition of a work that I regard as the best one-volume, international, multi-author survey and analysis of workplace bullying: Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Theory, Research and Practice (3rd ed., 2020), edited by Ståle Valvatne Einarsen, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf, and Cary L. Cooper. It is published by Routledge and can easily be ordered online.

I am not an objective party in recommending the book, as I have contributed a chapter on legal protections against workplace bullying to each edition, the latest being “Bullying and the Law: Gradual Progress on a Global Scale.” That said, the overriding value of this volume is its blend of depth and breadth, with chapter contributions from internationally recognized experts in the field. 

I’m going to take the liberty of simply pasting in the entire table of contents, from the Routledge website:

Part A: The Nature of the Problem. 1. The Concept of Bullying at Work: The European Tradition. 2. By Any Other Name: American Perspective on Workplace Bullying. Part B: Empirical Evidence. 3. Empirical Findings on Bullying at Work. 4. Individual Consequences of Workplace Bullying. 5. The Organizational Cost of Workplace Bullying. 6. The Measurement of Bullying at Work. Part C: Explaining the Problem. 7. Individual Antecedents of Bullying: Victims and Perpetrators. 8. Organizational Causes of Workplace Bullying. 9. The Role of Leadership in Workplace Bullying. 10. Bullying and Conflict Resolution. 11. The Role of Discrimination in Bullying. 12. Harassment in the Digital World: Cyberbullying. 13. Cross-Cultural Issues in Workplace Bullying. Part D: Managing the Problem: Prevention and Treatment of Workplace Bullying. 14. Prevention and Treatment of Workplace Bullying: A Taxonomy and Overview. 15. An Occupational Health Perspective to the Prevention of Workplace Bullying. 16. Managing Workplace Bullying: The Role of Policies. 17. The Role of HRM in Dealing with Bullying. 18. Investigating Bullying Complaints. 19. Bullying and Individual Coping Strategies. 20. Managing Workplace Bullying: The Role of Counselling. 21. Rehabilitation and Treatment of Bullying Victims. 22. Legal Remedies Against Workplace Bullying: An Overview. 23. Strengths and Limitations of Legal Approaches to Bullying.

***

While I’m at it, for those seeking an encyclopedic review of research, analysis, and practice concerning workplace bullying and mobbing specifically in the United States, I am happy to tout the two-volume set co-edited by Maureen Duffy and me, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2019), published by Praeger/ABC-CLIO. It includes chapters by over 20 of the leading U.S. authorities on bullying and mobbing at work, including Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

***

Folks, these books are expensive, priced for practitioner/academic audiences and for library purchases. Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace lists at $130 (paperback ed.), and Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States lists at $131 (hardcover ed.). For practitioners and scholars specializing in these general subject areas, I believe they are worthy additions to one’s professional library. However, for those on tight budgets who seek authoritative, affordable introductions with a practical focus, I happily recommend:

  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009);
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (2011); and,
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014).
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