A brief history of the emergence of the U.S. workplace bullying movement

A meaningful memento signed by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie

As more people become aware of workplace bullying and efforts to respond to it, I thought it might be useful to offer a brief summary of how the American movement got started years ago:

European Roots

Most researchers concur that the pioneering work of the late Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann during the 1980s constituted the starting point for conceptualizing and understanding the phenomenon of workplace bullying.  He used the term “mobbing” to describe the kinds of abusive, hostile behaviors that were being directed at workers.

British journalist Andrea Adams popularized the term “workplace bullying” in the 1980s and early 1990s, using a series of BBC radio documentaries to bring the topic to a more public audience.   In 1992 Adams authored Bullying at Work: How to Confront and Overcome It, likely the first book to use “bullying” at work as its operative term.

American Stirrings

In the meantime, the problem of psychologically abusive behaviors at work and the harm they create began to attract more attention from American practitioners and researchers during the early to mid 1990s. The initial works came from authors in the mental health and human resources fields, examining the impact of psychologically abusive work behaviors on individuals and organizations.

A spate of “bad boss” books, often filled with anecdotes about working for horrible supervisors and intended for a more popular audience, appeared around this time as well.  Of course, this also was the decade of Dilbert, the syndicated cartoon series about cynical cubicle dwellers and their dysfunctional workplaces.

Campaign Against Workplace Bullying

But it would be up to Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie to introduce “workplace bullying” into the vocabulary of American employment relations during the late 1990s.  The Namies had discovered the works of Andrea Adams, Heinz Leymann, and other European writers and scholars.  They decided that an American campaign of research and education was necessary to expose this widespread form of common mistreatment at work, and they chose to use the term bullying because they believed it would resonate with the public.

Thus was borne the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying.  The Namies’ work coincided with the emergence of the World Wide Web as a medium for sharing and exchanging information, and so they began the Campaign by launching their “Bullybusters” website in January 1998.  Their first book, Bullyproof Yourself at Work!  Personal Strategies to Stop the Hurt From Harassment, would be published in 1999. (Of course, the Namies’ work would soon bloom into their signature Workplace Bullying Institute (link here), which continues to share vital information, research, and services.)

The media began to take note as well.  Leading newspapers such as the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today ran feature articles about workplace bullying.   Almost all of the coverage was exceedingly positive and encouraging, as it was clear that the topic resonated with the journalists assigned to report on it.

Workplace Bullying 2000

In January 2000, the Namies hosted “Workplace Bullying 2000,” the first U.S. conference on workplace bullying.  Held in Oakland, California, the conference featured presentations from an international assemblage of practitioners, academicians, and bullying targets.  Looking back, it is clear that this was a galvanizing event in the launching of this nascent movement.  In addition to the Namies, many of the North American speakers, including Loraleigh Keashly, Joel Neuman, Carol Fehner, Ken Westhues, and yours truly, have remained active in research, education, and advocacy efforts surrounding workplace bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors.

At that juncture, it was far from clear that this would become a lasting movement.  Nevertheless, we knew that we had tapped into something that cried out for attention and action.  Fortunately, these initiatives have blossomed to a point where workplace bullying has emerged beyond the “niche” stage within the realm of employment relations, and the work to understand and respond to it has been buoyed by scores of newcomers, armed with new insights, commitment, and enthusiasm.

This post is adapted from my law review article, “Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment” (Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 2010), which may be freely downloaded from this link.

This post was revised in August 2021.

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