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.