In 1998, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie founded the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (now the multi-faceted Workplace Bullying Institute), marking the real beginning of an American movement to respond to the destructive phenomenon of workplace bullying. During the ensuing ten years, we have witnessed the steady emergence of workplace bullying on the landscape of American employment relations. Key developments include:
- Media — Workplace bullying has received increasing news coverage by the print and electronic media, including articles in countless newspapers and feature segments on television news magazines. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Washington Post are among the major newspapers that have devoted features to workplace bullying.
- Stakeholder Awareness — We are seeing greater awareness and acknowledgement of workplace bullying among major employment relations stakeholders, including managers, human resources administrators, labor unions, and employment lawyers. Some companies now include bullying in their employee handbooks, and some unions are raising concerns about bullying at the negotiating table.
- Legislative Advocacy — There are now significant stirrings of grassroots legislative advocacy for workplace bullying laws, with variations of the Healthy Workplace Bill filed in some 12 state legislatures since 2003. This movement is growing, with volunteer organizers working in many states to advocate for this needed reform in the law.
- Research — Scholars from across the disciplines, ranging from tenured professors and seasoned practitioners to graduate/professional students, are presenting their research on workplace bullying at academic and professional conferences. In American universities, professors such as Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik (New Mexico), Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State), Joel Neuman (SUNY-New Paltz), and Suzy Fox and Lamont Stallworth (both of Loyola-Chicago) have become leading scholars on bullying and related topics.
But this movement has a long way to go before we can say that bullying has been “mainstreamed” into our workplace vocabularies:
- Employers continue to devote much heavier resources into sexual harassment and workplace violence training, despite that bullying is more frequent and sometimes equally or more harmful to individuals and organizations. Bullying situations are too often treated as mere personality conflicts.
- Labor unions are just starting to put workplace bullying on their agendas, even when their members have experienced such treatment for years.
- Too many therapists and mental health counselors dismiss complaints about bullying behaviors as ordinary stressors of being employed.
- The legal system is woefully inadequate in terms of protecting severely bullied workers.
- In relevant professional degree programs, such as organizational behavior, industrial/organizational psychology, mental health counseling, and law, workplace bullying is only beginning to appear in standard texts used by students.
I believe that the next five years will be critical for this movement, determining whether workplace bullying receives the ongoing attention it deserves — after all, 37 percent of American workers have experienced this mistreatment, according to the 2007 Zogby/Workplace Bullying Institute survey — or remains an interesting niche subject. Several things need to occur, including:
- States need to begin enacting workplace bullying legislation — hopefully some variation of the Healthy Workplace Bill — in order to provide targets of severe bullying with a legal claim and to provide an incentive for employers to take this behavior much more seriously.
- Organized labor, down but not out in America, needs to take on workplace bullying as a cause, educating its members, proposing collective bargaining provisions covering abusive supervision, and helping to advocate for law reform.
- Employers need to take workplace bullying seriously, regardless of liability exposure, for the sake of their productivity and the well-being of their employees.
- The mental health community needs to understand how widespread this behavior is and what it can do to people, and to develop effective counseling and treatment approaches.
- The academic community in fields such as business administration, labor studies, psychology, and law must be encouraged to introduce students to this topic in a manner proportionate to its impact in the workplace.
- Above all, the general public must see workplace bullying as a profound violation of human dignity that denies someone the right to do his or her job without undue interference or harassment.
Readers, how can we shine a light on workplace bullying, to the point where it no longer needs explaining to the average American? What will be the “tipping point(s)” that bring this problem squarely into the mainstream of our discussions about work?
[Note: Recently I opened a page on the Social Science Research Network to make available without charge my longer scholarly articles on workplace bullying and other employment law topics: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=506047.]