The U.S. Workplace Bullying Movement at 10

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.]

15 responses

  1. There are several others areas that employers and employes should be aware of concerning the issue of workplace bullying. Significant research is being conducted on “The Millenials” and the increase of narcissistic attributes this generation is displaying. Interestingly though, this same generation is expected to revolutionalize the workplace in postive ways as well, being that they will not tolerate an employment situation that is hostile and one that they cannot use their talents within. An employer who does not account for this will likely find that turnover will be high and keeping and retaining the best and brightest will not be possible.

    The situation that employers should be aware of is that this generation expects rewards sometimes referred to “narcissistic entitlement snydrome” for performing the day to day grunge work we all have to address as new or short -term employees. This term should not be confused with “narcissistic personality disorder” which is a far more serious health issue more so for the coworkers of this individual, than the person suffering from such. In either case, once Millenials that start finding their ways into leadership positions within the workplace, the frequency of workplace bullying will likely increase. Employers should start addressing the issue of workplace bullying now while the Millenials are just rising through the workplace ladder with policy and enforcement to protect their bottom line and allow all employees to work in a healthy and safe environment.

    It is good business sense to allow employees to work to their full potential, using their talents and creativity that will thereby lower the need for health care visits, turnover, workers comp and disability issues associated with workplace bullying. The Millenials will demand this and without a doubt, the other generations would welcome such as well.

    Mike Schlicht
    State Coordinator
    New York Healthy Workplace Advocates

    • Mike, thank you for your comment. This topic is relevant not only to bullying, but to the workplace of tomorrow in general. As an educator I can attest that these generational entitlement issues are popping up more frequently, along with the phrase “helicopter parents” to describe those who hover over their kids, (over)indulge them, and generally pave their way and smooth over the rough spots. I fear that some of these young folks will be among those claiming to be bullied when they’re told to do some of that grunge work or reprimanded for not getting the job done right. This will make it more difficult to distinguish truly abusive work environments from those where the employer understandably has to set some expectations and enforce them.

  2. Since California was the first state to introduce the Healthy Workplace Bill, I’d like to chime in here. The bill was active until Arnold took office, then it was immediately dropped. When our group went Citizen Lobbying at the Capital, we were told by twp front end people (receptionists) that they worked for the biggest bully of all downstairs. One told us a story about her daughter being targeted at work and cried in our presence about her helplessness. We were a bit taken aback, but not really surprised. Another time someone followed us out of the Capital building to tell us about his wife’s bullied experience at work.

    At another CA State Capital visit, we were told by legislative assistants (in a group setting) that our govenment is being dismantled from the inside out. They were having a difficult time keeping the protections already in place and had little hope of passing any more worker protections. Enforcement of current laws were weakening regularly.

    At this moment, Dec. 2008, our other co-founder was just interviewed on BNET for a 6 minute online news reel on workplace bullying. We plan to attend the California Working Families Policy Summit in January to continue laying foundation to promote the Healthy Workplace legislation in the future. Sadly, we know Arnold’s administration would never pass this law, even though it benefits both employers and employees.

    If anyone wants more information or would like to view the BNET clip, go to http://www.bullyfreeworkplace.org. I’d like to thank Dr. Yamada for taking the time to write this succinct, informed blog on workplace bullying. We are all working toward the same goal…to prevent and correct bullying in the workplace. Here’s to a New Year resolution to seeing the Healthy Workplace Bill passed into law in the USA in at least one state in 2009!

    Thank you, and Happy New year.
    Michelle E. Smith, M.A. Ed. Co-founder, California Healthy Workplace Advocates http://www.bullyfreeworkplace.org

    • For those who are discovering this blog and learning more about the legislative advocacy efforts to enact anti-workplace bullying laws, Michelle’s commentary provides a bird’s eye view of the challenges of doing so. It requires patience, smarts, and determination. Thank you, Michelle, for this response!

  3. The tipping point for the anti-workplace bullying movement will occur on January 20, 2009. Cultural norms trickle down from the top very rapidly.

    Our state watched a violent movie star governor realign political thinking in less than one month. Bullying became fashionable to such a point that gross armored vehicles called Hummers were suddenly acceptable as the bullies of the road. And cigar tents were erected in “no smoking” zones. Californians have suffered from well-recognized bullies in both Capitols – Sacramento and Washington. Not surprisingly, those two “leaders” didn’t get along with one another, as bullies seldom do.

    This past month the President of the United States was laughed at and called a bully by mainstream media because leaders of other nations would not shake hands with him. Americans are truly starting to own the “B word.” Acknowledgement is the crucial step to arresting abuse. Americans know we are percieved as the bullies of the Earth. Because of this, we are fearful of travel outside of the United States. And we are ashamed.

    On January 20th the falling star at the top of our tree will be replaced by an angel who is recognized, known, respected and loved throughout the world because he is NOT a bully. The management team he has assembled to promote harmony is clearly indicative of his recognition that work is integral to the human spirit and working together is absolutely necessary for our very survival as a planet.

    Our new President does not dismiss the notion that people are being hurt on the job by work abuse. I know this because he acknowledged it to me personally in 2004. I used the term “bludgeoned” and he did not even wince. He agreed with me saying, “You’re right. This is a hot-button issue.” His attitude will trickle down from the top, just as the Governor’s did in 2003.

    In the moment, change seems very slow like a clock that is watched too closely. Yet the paradox is that time flies. And the tide turns back every night. So will this very dark period of US history that turns to light on January 20th. We have hope.

    The ten years we have invested as Bullybusters are soon to pay off in dividends. Our words are not falling on deaf ears. Media interviews on this subject are loaded with pregnant pauses by journalists who’ve lived through workplace bullying experiences of their own. They get it; they work it; they write it. They want bullying to be acknowledged for what it is just as much as we do. They want bullying to stop in our schools, our hospitals, our workplaces, and our governments. Our press is under siege financially, but it is still free. And because of the internet, our mission has grown exponentially.

    While our greatest adversary is corporate America and it’s political mouthpiece, The Chamber of Commerce, we the people of the United States and our legislative employees have lost faith in their credibility. We are no longer buying what they are selling…literally and figuratively. The Chamber’s willingness to horrify and bully the public into submission has ended its heyday. We only have to allude to Hank Greenberg’s being bullied out of AIG to show how bullying can destroy an organization and undermine the very foundation of our global economy. Healthy workplaces and clean environments are not job killers. To argue otherwise is diabolical.

    Happy New Year, Bullybusters. We can get there from here. Five years from now we will be writing, “Remember when…”

    Carrie Clark, California Healthy Workplace Advocates

  4. Carrie, I too believe we’re entering a different political and social era, and it will be up to all of us to make a difference and to earn the opportunity we’ve been given. Thank you for those inspiring words.

    Readers, Carrie Clark is another pioneering activist in the growing response to workplace bullying. She’s featured in a short video that can be accessed here:
    http://www.bnet.com/2422-13722_23-221207.html

    -David

  5. Hello,
    My name is Carol and I am an industrial/organizational psychologists. I would like to know if there are any people in Wyoming that are part of your group. I would like their contact information if possible. Thank you.

    • Carol, thanks for your comment. As you can see from this link (http://workplacebullyinglaw.org/), there is no group in Wyoming currently that is advocating for a workplace bullying law. However, if you have a group willing to jumpstart the effort, Gary Namie would be very interested in hearing from you and indeed would help you organize a lobbying effort. Check out that website and fill out the online form to get in touch. Also, you can e-mail me at david_yamada@yahoo.com and I can forward your e-mail to Gary. Best, David

  6. [Editor’s note: I am publishing this comment in edited form. Lorna submitted a much longer comment that summarized her employment situation with regards to workplace bullying in considerable detail. I really appreciate Lorna’s comment but recommend caution when it comes to sharing such details in a public forum.]

    I am moving foward with legistlation in Montana. Senator Windy Boy is my sponsor again. Any help you can give is appreciated. The act is currently numbered LC 2097. Thank you may contact me: (406) 265-7167.

    I have also written my story in novel form. It is titled, After the Bell Rings. I am submitting a brief summary of my cases-one Federal and one State. Thank you.

    Lorna Stremcha

  7. David, your blog is a wonderful initiative. Workplace bullying is rife in Australia. And the comments by Mike Schlict resonate… loudly across the Pacific.
    I have been researching this area for some years and the situation appears to be worsening.

    • Glennis, thank you for the kind note! Australia has been among the (many) nations ahead of the U.S. in recognizing the destructiveness of workplace bullying, and many of us here in the States draw great inspiration from the work that you and others are doing.

      -David

  8. Power in Numbers is Need, Now!

    Update: 2/14/2009

    I was told by one of the legislatures representative in my district
    that there needs to be a ‘flood’ of letters for them to notice!

    If you want to help beat the ‘bully at work’ and be respected again, we
    all (54 million of us) need to let our legislatures know how you feel
    with a ‘flood’ of e-mails and follow-up with calls or visits. It only
    takes minutes compared to the hours that we have been bullied.

    Thank in advance,
    Fran(Noah)Gray
    NJ

  9. I’ve gone through many bullying experiences since my childhood and now in some work places. I’m really grateful to Drs. Ruth and Gary for doing something about educating employers about how it affects them.

    I lost my job because of being a target of chronic bullying in the absence of the manager. Hopefully, employers will one day realize how bad bullying is.

    • Rashmi, I’m sorry to hear about your experience. I think we’re moving forward on public awareness of this terrible mistreatment, and Gary and Ruth would no doubt appreciate your comment.

  10. Pingback: A brief history of the emergence of the U.S. workplace bullying movement « Minding the Workplace

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