Workplace bullying as psychological torture

When I get more time to collect them, I’ll write a post on the arguments that opponents of workplace bullying laws are making to oppose extending legal protections to those who have been severely mistreated at work.  Not all of these arguments are without merit, but one of the most misguided claims is that a workplace bullying law would impose a “civility code” on employees and would allow people to recover damages for every little unpleasant exchange at work.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Workplace bullying, as many of us have come to define it, is targeted and often malicious.  In fact, the Healthy Workplace Bill that I drafted (which is serving as the basis of most of the workplace bullying legislation filed in the U.S.) requires plaintiffs to prove malice, a very high standard under the law.

How targets describe their experiences

But this is much more than a legal argument.  We must remember that severe workplace bullying is a form of psychological torture. This is borne out by the findings contained in an important 2006 article published in the Management Communication Quarterly (citation below).  Communications professors Sarah Tracy, Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, and Jess Alberts examined how bullying targets perceived their experiences and found that targets’ narratives “were saturated with metaphors of beating, physical abuse, and death.”

One target reported feeling “maimed” and “character assassinated,” while others used terms such as “‘beaten,’ ‘abused,’ ‘ripped,’ ‘broken,’ ‘scarred,’ and ‘eviscerated’.” The bullying process was described alternatively as a “game or battle,” a “nightmare,” “water torture,” and a “noxious substance.”  In describing themselves, targets used terms such as “slave or animal,” “prisoner,” child with “an abusive father,” and “heartbroken lover.”

Citation: Tracy, Sarah J., Lutgen-Sandvik, Pamela and Alberts, Jess K. (2006). Nightmares, Demons, and Slaves: Exploring the Painful Metaphors of Workplace Bullying. Management Communication Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2.

17 responses

  1. So let’s say that the victim was able to prove malice – difficult because bullying, like harassment, is not always obvious, tangible, or have witnesses. The withering look, the condescending tone, the nasty remarks, the extreme criticisms couched as deserved due to the bully’s perceived “poor performance” (if the boss is the bully). So assuming the victim jumped this very high first hurdle in spite of the nebulous nature of bullying in the workplace (not as tangible as on the playground).

    The ability to recover financial damages for psychological torture, if you will, is an insufficient and unsatisfactory outcome. As I’m sure is the case with harassment suits, financial gains will not recover the time lost spent defending oneself against the bully, rather than learning and developing one’s career. Nor will it recover the time spent rebuilding one’s confidence and finding a new job. Most of all, it will not in any way get to the root of the problem which is to help change the corporate culture of the company that allowed this to happen.

    A global company that makes billions of billions of dollars will not think twice about the amount that they would need to pay. I’m sure it is a pittance in comparison. Even a little bad press won’t do anything to change the culture. Then what? The bully returns to work on Monday, maybe gets dinged in that year’s performance review, but otherwise goes on business as usual and the victim is already out of a job with damaged self confidence? Does the bully then get special “sensitivity” or expensive executive coaching opportunities and another chance to “improve”? In the end it will seem to be inconvenient if anything. Meanwhile, what of the victim’s career?

    I think what needs to be a part of the outcome is a tangible negative impact on the bully’s career as well as the career of the bully’s boss (if proven that the boss knew and didn’t stop it). This is really the only thing that speaks to bullies in the workplace, in my opinion. Isn’t bullying a way of getting power? How better to punish them by taking away what they were after. I also think they should be fired, but would settle for demotion, salary cut, and zero bonus if being fired is out of the question.

    I guess I’m just saying that I don’t think it’s as simple as changing a law so that money can be recovered by the victim. That is not enough to stop a bully, especially when the culture and senior management supports bullying.

  2. Krista, you’re absolutely right: Changing the law to allow bullying targets to recover damages is not a panacea. Legal reform is only one piece of the puzzle, and I think we’re in agreement that not all employers will take it seriously. After all, the presence of discrimination law hasn’t stopped discrimination dead in its tracks either.

    But legal reform is a meaningful piece of the puzzle. In today’s business climate, the threat of liability can compel some employers to take counterproductive behavior more seriously. That’s exactly what happened in 1998, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers could be held strictly liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors. Many employers suddenly began taking sexual harassment much more seriously.

    So…..passage of workplace bullying laws will have some beneficial effect, but we’ll still have a long way to go. Thanks for your good comment.

  3. I just wanted to say that I was a victim of Workplace Bullying and psychologically and finacially never recovered. Of all places it was the well renowned health insurance company Highmark in Pittsburgh,PA. I filed a suit with the EEOC who will never even answer there phone calls.I first filed a suit in July 2008. I thought I would retire from this company, that I work six years for. I went out on short-term disability twice once in 08 and once in 09. It was my boss and my coworkers in my department. I reported it to my supervisor, her supervisor, HR, and finally the CEO. Everybody covered it up. They went so far as to hire an IME and paid him $3000-$5000 to tell them that it was okay to go back to my same position that was causing me the problem in the first place after my doctor wrote to them and told them that it would be damage to my health and well being. She stated that I should be removed from the hostile environment. I was ultimately fired in September of 2009 for not calling off three consecutive days, even though I called HR and told them that I couldn’t go back to that department in tears. They even denied me unemployment because of that. I suffered more anxiety, stress, physical, mental, and finacial problems than anyone could imagine. I have no retirement(because I had to use it to live on)and no savings left. My work performance was good, and I was attending college for Business Mgmt. to advance some more in the company. There is not a day that goes by that I think of how these people could be so evil and contridict their own policies and code of conduct and get away with it like I was nothing. I have so much documentation that proved everything and still nothing. Highmark has the nerve to promote Healthy High Five for children being bullied, but what about their own employees? Could someone out there please tell me what else I can do? I did finally find a job, but in retail and that depresses me also. I just wanted to know if there was anyone else out there that knows anything more that I can do. Nobody deserves this. Thank you.

    • Tina Marie, I’m very sorry to hear about your experience. If you want to learn more about possible responses and self-care in bullying situations, I recommend Gary and Ruth Namie’s The Bully at Work (2003 ed., with a revised edition out in June.) Take good care, David

    • I’m afraid I don’t know what you can do. I do know that I believe that I know how you feel and what it is like. You are not alone. You are a person of great worth and value. Others of equal worth and value will recognise and know that. There are lots of us. You are a good person and you were in the midst of badness. Thank you for being a good person and for bravely posting your experience on here to help others.

  4. Tina Marie,
    I can empathize with you. I am, and continue to be a victim of workplace bullying (psychological torture), also, interestingly, at an insurance company. The company’s managers seem to enjoy inflicting their torture on certain employees. I was originally the victim of this several years ago and was actually out on disability as a direct result of their actions which caused high anxiety and depression, and has resulted in prescribed medication use to treat the symptoms. Note that I have always been in the top 25-50% in the company in terms of “production”. For a few years after that, they seemed to back-off their negative ways. However, when a new manager came on the scene, the same types of psychological torture began again. While subtle to others, it was apparent to me what was going on. For example, roadblocks to productivity were made in such a way that they pretty much targeted me only, making it difficult, if not nearly impossible to do my job effectively. A complaint was made to higher-ups using their “corporate complaint system”, however, nothing seems to have occurred as a result of the claim made…other than the torture becoming more pronounced a short time later with some of the same tactics, including innuendo in messages. It feels like it’s retaliatory in nature. So, once again, their vicious cycle has come full-circle.

  5. Tina Marie and Paul, I have little faith in Human Resources. They are ultimately there to protect the company, not the employees. I worked in an HR department in an investment banking company. My “HR Rep” worked directly with my boss and literally said “that is not one I want to touch”, meaning she was afraid of my boss, as was my boss’s boss who took the path of least resistance. When I spoke with the head of HR upon leaving, he said he was once a bully and that there was a point in time where he learned that he couldn’t be a bully w/o consequences to his career. So, fast forward a year and a bit…that very same head of HR promotes my former boss to SVP! So much for that.

    Like Tina, I often find myself thinking back to this bitterly and while I’ve regained some of my confidence, I’m unemployed and haven’t made one bit of progress in my career, no doubt because my self esteem was shattered going into my next job and proved myself to be not as good/ confident as I now know I am. So, two years after the bullying experience, I am unemployed and she is the head of the dept making at least 200k more than when I left. That company denied my unemployment claim as well. Luckily, I sent myself an email every time she bullied me. I described the situation and had the date stamp from the email. I pulled all the emails into a document and faxed it over to the unemployment office. They approved my claim.

    I still struggle to move past this, and it’s very difficult seeing as I’m still getting through the repercussions of it all. I am looking for a job – again – and am pretty self conscious about the fact that I appear as a less than stellar candidate. Over the past three years I’ve had two jobs, one I left b/c of interpersonal problems with boss and the second I was laid off. Not good. And she…well, she’s on top of the world.

    Does anyone know of any sources or books I might read to help me get past this emotional block? I don’t want to think about her anymore or feel so upset by her, but it’s taking a very long time to get past this. I’ve become so cynical and bitter in a way, and am sad that even though I left, I’m still impacted. Might I add that I feel pathetic that I am still so angry and bitter about this? And embarrassed that I allowed myself to become so negative as a result.

    • Krista, thank you for sharing your experience here. For sources of possible assistance, I’ll raise the following possibilities:

      1. Gary & Ruth Namies’ The Bully at Work (Sourcebooks 2009) is chock full of information and advice and very affordable to boot.

      2. If you believe that mental health counseling may be of assistance, I’d certainly suggest exploring the possibility.

      3. Many people in this type of situation overlook the possibility of working with a professional career counselor. For example, here in Boston, I’ve recommended Dan King’s firm, Career Planning & Management ( Dan is a member of the New Workplace Institute advisory committee and has worked with people going thru difficult transitions. You might want to look for a similar career counselor in your area.

      Good luck with your situation,
      David Yamada

  6. Krista, your comments on “Human Resources” departments is right on the mark. They are there to cover only the company’s interest, and not it’s employees. The only thing they seem to do is make sure that the management does not overtly “cross the line” when it comes to employment law. I remember a telephone conference between the head of HR, my boss, and myself. Any complaint or issue I brought up was immediately “shot down” by not only my boss, but the HR person as well. I felt as if I was being “ganged-up on” and bullied even further. Nothing I said was being even remotely validated by either of them. Call me naive, but I believe the “proper” method of handling this is would be to listen to the two sides individually and then weigh the arguments, make a decision and/or mediate as warranted. I remember a prior meeting where the same boss and upper management had a conference with me regarding the issues I brought to light as a complaint. This was a face-to-face meeting, and was only slightly more cordial than the phone meeting. However, I believe they used a similar tactic to their advantage: having two or more adversarial representatives on the other side of the table across from only one of me.
    Unfortunately, unless legislation is passed, workplace bullying (i.e.: psychological torture) will continue to be the unspoken attack strategy on employees.
    Without any question whatsoever, I agree with David that someone who is the victim of psychological torture in the workplace should certainly seek mental health counseling. Otherwise, the scars of this will slowly eat away at one’s mind, self-esteem and confidence. It is emotionally damaging.

  7. I was/am a victim of workplace bullying. I worked at a Detention Center for 10 years and spent 4 being the victim of bullying by 3 supervisors. I was not an employee; I was a prisoner. I had a different set of rules to follow than everyone else. Even with a tape-recorded session in which the bullies clearly mistreated me, I could not win. I was transferred out of a job that I had been doing for 9 years and put into a job with a supervisor was also a bully. I applied for transfers to other depts but they just would not let me go. I finally had to retire early to escape with my retirement benefits. I had to pay thousands of dollars in order to get out. My family suffered. I suffered. Even with my tape recording, no one would believe me or take up for me. The thing that really galls me is that the Chief Bully was allowed to retire and then return to work in his same position when it was clear that he was not competent to do the job while I was forced out and left to try to live off half the salary that I had while working not to mention try to pay for all the medical bills that I have from being victimized at work. Something has GOT to be done about people like this! To put this monster back into the very same position in which he abused his authority and tormented others is uncalled for.

    • Melanie, thank you for sharing your account with us. Obviously I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that something must be done.

  8. Hello, the bullying I have received has caused post traumatic stress syndrome. I can no longer work at all right now and I have worked since I was 18 and now I’m 50. Isn’t it horrible. Jail is the only place for these evil people.

  9. Based on my experiences as a target, for over 5 years at a Big Ten US university, in a School of Education (where you’d expect your colleagues to be caring!) I will have to agree with all that’s been posted here: 1) bullying is psychological torture; 2) the bullies get away with their crimes; 3) employers hardly ever sanction the bullies, especially when there is corroboration of bullies on multiple administrative levels; 4) administrative processes for grievances against the bullies fail to provide the targets with justice and exist to protect the bullies, particularly those who have seniority in rank or who are administrators; and 5) the losses for the target are overwhelming and too numerous to list here. I will add that legal actions are costly for targets and the process is severely compromised and corrupted when the legal counsel for a university, for example, can use the state District Attorney to represent a university President against a university faculty member in a case that has been brought to bear because of actions taken against a faculty member due to bullying and mobbing of administrators. The reality is that the State has unlimited (or at least more resources than a professor) resources and time to spend defending their bullies. In addition to recovering from the abuse at the hands of the employer/supervisors, and the grief and shock at witnessing colleagues ‘stand by’ and do nothing, there is additional grief from the ‘indifference’ by other professional associates and colleagues. In my case, I was bullied out after 18 years, in mid career through a Gang of 4 administrators. I embodied all the classic characteristics of targets: excelling, high standards, could see through their facade of charm, tried to stop them from hurting others through my union work, exposed a colleague for lying on his vitae for promotion…list goes on…And they displayed all the characteristics of bullies and bully tactics; ranging from petty, to moving my office, taking away my classes, then my assignment, badmouthing me to my peers, instilling fear of reprisals with my peers, creating false narratives about my performance…list goes on…ending with my taking retirement two weeks after I turned 55. Two colleagues (untenured) in my dept. emailed me to wish me well when my retirement was announced. I don’t know which is worse experiencing the effects of bullying by supervisors or the indifference of colleagues who you were nice to, and who you wrote articles and grants with!

    And, when I announced to colleagues outside my institution via email that I am “retired”, some who knew ‘my situation,’ they did not even utter the words “Congratulations” or “Best Wishes. Some colleagues did not even respond to the email at all! And so, the ‘fallout’ also includes feelings that one no longer has political or social capital, and therefore you are no longer useful. There are so many levels of emotions to work through in addition to the new questions that surface such as, “What do I do now? Who am I now?

    The question “What lessons can be drawn from my experiences?” hopefully can lead to a re-discovery and re-invention of OneSelf, and a renewal of one’s Life and Purpose through Healing that includes being really loving and compassionate toward Self. Be Kind to YourSelf. Believe in YourSelf. Understand you did not deserve this. Equally important to stop Self-Blaming. Feel Blessed that you no longer have to subject yourself to treatment you do not deserve. There are ways to make a paycheck without compromising a Sense of Self! Love, Peace and Healing to All who have been targeted. I’ve been there. The greatest victory and reward I have from all of what I have experienced is to feel safe and joyful again.

  10. Yes me too. Isn’t it a relief, and a blessing. I am very pleased to here of a fellow survivor. Sometimes I just lie in bed and love not being in torment and looking forward to my future, that very day and the years beyond. But how do we help those who are not at that point yet – those who might feel bitter on hearing messages like that, believing that they won’t get there and that such messages are just salt in the wound. You point the way in asking- “What lessons can be drawn?” and going on to answer “Re-discovery” and further related transformative processes. Maybe some people will need these processes breaking dowm into small, possibly meticulously tiny, steps that start from where they are. And somebody holding their han through these steps – metaphorically and literally.

  11. Should read – “holding their hand” – not their han.

    also “breaking down” not dowm

    moderator – please edit as per above

  12. Thanks David, and all the respondents here. I am soooo sad to hear of these people who get away with it. People say that Karma is a great source or respite, however, as Krista says, the promotions and accolades just keep on coming to these assassins. I am just thinking of how the world runs on rhetoric and paper with words that sound and look good to companies, corporations and governments. So sad to think we live in this evil world…without respite at times.

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