Work and Workplaces of the New Decade: Notes on a “Dignitarian” Agenda

As we turn to a new decade, permit me to set out some notes on a “dignitarian” (to borrow Robert Fuller‘s wonderful term) agenda for work and workplaces for the next 10 years. Obviously this is far from the last word on the subject, but establishing some basic themes may be helpful:

1.  Let’s put human dignity at least on par with markets and management.

Enough of this blind worship of unfettered free markets and management power. This mentality led us to the current meltdown and to workplaces that are top-down and stressed out. We need to place human dignity front and center in our systems and practices of employment relations. How these values play out will vary among workplaces, public policy initiatives, and whatnot, but recognizing their centrality is a good first step.

2.  Let’s tackle all forms of mistreatment at work, especially bullying and discrimination.

Bullying and discrimination remain significant problems in the modern workplace. Better management, worker activism, enactment of workplace bullying laws, and effective enforcement of existing discrimination protections will point us in the right direction.

3.  How about a genuine safety net for the unemployed, injured, and sick?

If you lose a good job or suffer some other misfortune that prevents you from working, life’s challenges can pile up pretty quickly. We need to develop a better safety net for those who face life’s inevitable ups and downs. Health insurance (it looks like we may be getting there), adequate disability and workers’ compensation, and transitional assistance and training should be integrated in a way that helps people reclaim and rebuild their lives.

4.  We badly need to reform our ways of resolving workplace disputes.

Current approaches to resolving workplace disputes too often lead to expensive, lengthy, angry, and torturous proceedings for all parties involved. Even claimants who “win” their lawsuits often feel like they have been battered along the way by our justice system. We need to streamline these proceedings and find a way to use them to repair, not fracture, troubled employment relationships.

5.  The revival of an active, inclusive labor movement will fuel a dignitarian agenda.

Labor unions provide an important source of countervailing power to the authority exercised by management. Good, inclusive unions can give rank-and-file workers a rallying point for living wages, decent working conditions and fair treatment when problems arise.

6.  Automation isn’t the only reason why that new VCR costs only $40.

The globalization of markets has led to the exploitation of workers at home and abroad. It’s easy for us to forget this reality when we pick up that $40 VCR at the local “big box” superstore. Too many workers are toiling in sweatshop conditions in order for some of us to enjoy life niceties at a lower cost.

7.  With rights and privileges come responsibilities.

I fear that we are suffering from an integrity deficit in our workplaces, highlighted by scandals, corruption, and excessive executive compensation. This is not a screed against the big bad corporation; it cuts across the private, public, and non-profit sectors. We cannot have dignitarian workplaces without deeper individual commitment to doing our jobs ethically and competently.


This is something of responsive sequel to my post last week, “The Terrible 2000s: Goodbye and good riddance.” 

For a much lengthier, law & policy oriented discussion of these themes, see my law review article, “Human Dignity and Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review) which can be freely downloaded by clicking the title. 

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

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 a decade 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.

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, remain 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 is emerging 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 a forthcoming law review article tentatively titled, “Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment,” a draft of which can be freely downloaded here:

For two related posts:

Jan. 2009 — Immersion in the Twisted World of Abuse at Work

Dec. 2008 — The U.S. Workplace Bullying Movement at 10

Healthy Workplace Bill slated for Jan 27 hearing in Massachusetts

The Healthy Workplace Bill, introduced in Massachusetts as Senate No. 699 (2009-10 session) by Senator Joan Menard (D), Assistant Majority Leader, has been slated for a legislative hearing on Wednesday, January 27, 10:30 a.m. in Hearing Room A2 of the Massachusetts State House.

Support Requested

We are seeking organizations and individuals willing to testify (a 3-minute statement is the norm) and/or submit written statements in support. Please contact me at if you would like to do so.

Because of the short time periods allotted to speakers, I will be limiting my testimony to why I drafted the bill and what it attempts to accomplish.  We need others to add their reasons for why this legislation is necessary, including personal stories.

Planning Meeting

Also, we are holding a meeting on Thursday, January 14, 6 p.m. to plan for the hearing.  Please contact me if you would like to attend and I will include you on a mailing list announcing details and updates.

Background Info

I’ll be posting more very soon, but for background information about the bill’s introduction in Massachusetts (including a link to the full bill), please read this previous blog post, “Workplace bullying bill introduced in Massachusetts”:

Supporters of the bill may want to bookmark our bill website at:

For an extensive history behind, and explanation of, the Healthy Workplace Bill, see my forthcoming law review article “Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment,” a draft of which can be downloaded here:

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