Immersion in the Twisted World of Abuse at Work

[Note: In June I participated in the 6th International Conference on Workplace Bullying, held at the University of Quebec at Montreal.  A few weeks later I circulated this short retrospective essay on the conference and its meaning to fellow attendees.]

As I prepared my presentation for one of the panel discussions at the June 2008 workplace bullying conference in Montreal, I found myself in a curiously reflective frame of mind.  Especially as an American academician and lawyer, I have thought of our research, education, and advocacy on workplace bullying as being in their infancy.  How could I be in such a pensive mood when this work was still so, well, new?

But then I realized it was nearly ten years ago when I first contacted Gary and Ruth Namie, founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute, to talk to them about workplace bullying.  At the time I was a junior, untenured law professor, still trying to shape a scholarly agenda around my interests in employment law.  I also was horrified and angered by the way people sometimes were treated within academic institutions.  However, I didn’t have a name for this (mis)conduct until I read an online interview with Gary.

The proverbial light bulb switched on, and I called the Namies to ask if they had considered the legal and policy implications of workplace bullying.  I could not have imagined that it would lead to a collaboration and friendship that endures to this day.  And little did I know that I would be devoting so much of my professional life, and no small amount of heart and emotion, to combating this destructive phenomenon.

Immersing myself in the sometimes twisted world of abuse at work has been a transformative experience.  Despite my longstanding good intentions and commitment to workers’ rights under law, I had never before witnessed the kind of work-induced anguish that targets of severe bullying often experience.  I had understood intellectually, but not yet in my gut, how being treated abusively at work could render someone literally unable to get out of bed.  Seeing this, truly getting it, changes you.

So maybe this is why I approached the 2008 conference in such a reflective state.  Once I arrived in Montreal, I found that other “veterans” of this seemingly nascent field welcomed opportunities to step back and look at where we’ve been.  It was a good time to be in this mode: The many pioneers in attendance were joined by welcomed newcomers to this work and this conference.  Clearly, roots are growing and seeds are sprouting.  Something hopeful and exciting is going on here.

In addition to being treated to a compelling array of presentations and posters, we all were invited to become part of the new International Association on Bullying and Harassment at Work.  After a bit of plenary haggling that sometimes resembled a faculty meeting (talk about PTSD…), the newly constituted organization elected a strong board and anointed a fine president in Charlotte Rayner.  Even though there are countless details of organization, procedure, and leadership left to be worked out, the creation of a base association was a significant event.  Especially for those who have been attending conferences like this one for a decade or longer, the Association represents both a substantive and symbolic milestone, signaling that this work has emerged beyond the “niche” or “fad” stage and become a topic worthy of its own permanent organization.

I dearly hope that the Association will facilitate collegial support, intellectual diversity, and healthy questioning and dialogue.  Among the blessings of being part of this community of scholars and practitioners have been the many warm friendships and associations, forged over the years in settings that value knowledge, discovery, and human dignity.  May those values and practices endure as we continue our work.


Ken Westhues has posted a number of thoughtful reflections on the conference to his excellent webpage on mobbing in academe.

For a copy of the paper I presented at the conference, “Multidisciplinary Responses to Workplace Bullying: Systems, Synergy, and Sweat, go here.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Now online and taking members: International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment « Minding the Workplace

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

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