Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman


(image courtesy shaow clipart)

Here’s my hypothesis, and I’m wondering if somewhere there’s a good study that brings together these strands: When it comes to workplace bullying and economic insecurity exacerbated by the Great Recession, single women — especially those with dependents — face a sort of double jeopardy.

Specially targeted for bullying?

Workplace bullying targets are not limited to any demographic set.  However, according to the 2007 national prevalence study (link here) conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International pollsters, nearly 6 of every 10 bullying targets are female.

In addition, while conceding that my impressions are anecdotal, I have found that, in my countless unsolicited exchanges with targets seeking legal referrals, unmarried women in their 30s or older, many of whom are single parents, appear to be disproportionately on the receiving end of some of the worst forms of bullying at work.

It makes sense, sadly.  Let’s start with the observation that truly abusive bullies often have a knack for sniffing out vulnerable individuals.  Then we look at potential targets: Demographically speaking, is there any group more vulnerable than single women raising kids?  They already are juggling work and caregiving, their schedules seem timed down to the minute, and not infrequently they are struggling financially — especially if there is no father in the picture.

Single women without children may not be as economically desperate to hold onto their jobs, but they can be very vulnerable as well.  Women in general remain underpaid compared to male counterparts. Those who came out of dissolved marriages may have re-entered the workforce later in life. Circumstances vary, but they may be less likely to have someone to fall back on if bullied out of a job.

Economic insecurity

In a report titled The Other Half: Unmarried Women, Economic Well-Being, and the Great Recession (link here) recently issued by the Center for American Progress and Women’s Voices. Women Vote, Liz Weiss and Page Gardner analyze the economic state of single women in the midst of the Great Recession.

Unmarried women lag behind single men and married couples by many economic measures, including earnings from work and household income, which includes earnings as well as other sources of income such as Social Security or investments. Unmarried women also have much lower median net wealth than men or couples, and they have significant debt. Single women are about as likely to have debt as single men, but the median value of their total debt is greater than single men. All of these factors combine to create a relatively insecure economic picture for unmarried women.

The Other Half is chock-full of facts, figures, and analysis. Clearly the mass media have underreported the impacts of the Great Recession on this significant segment of the population.

Summing up

Membership in any demographic group will not shield one from the realities of today’s workplace and economy. After all, plenty of white males with families and homes in the ‘burbs have experienced difficult work environments and unemployment. But when you start pulling together information about who is targeted for bullying at work and who is suffering financial distress, single women start to emerge as an especially vulnerable group.


Hat tip: I first learned about the work of Women’s Voices. Women Vote and The Other Half at a July Congressional briefing on women and unemployment, sponsored by the Americans for Democratic Action Education Fund, on whose board I serve.


Additional commentary, July 2018 — I wrote this piece some eight years ago, when the ravages of the Great Recession were still being felt most acutely. That said, during the intervening years I have become more aware of the targeting of middle-aged women in workplaces, especially when it comes to bullying, age discrimination, and other negative occurrences. I believe there are some bigger societal forces at play that have powerfully gendered dynamics driving them.

On hiring consultants

As a traveler in the worlds of employment relations, organizational behavior, and the non-profit and educational sectors, I encounter a lot of folks who market themselves as consultants and a lot of organizations that have retained them.

Consulting in general is pretty much a cottage industry.  There are few or no licensing requirements.  There is no necessary training or education. Just put together some materials (the imposters “borrow” liberally from others), hang out a shingle (literally or digitally), print up some stationery, and — bingo — you’re in business.

Some consultants are extraordinarily good at the work they do. They zero in on a client’s needs and provide wise advice and guidance. Others appear to be relying on a charlatan’s recipe that mixes a little knowledge with a lot of self-promotion.  In the Digital Age, it is far, far easier for the latter to present themselves as something they’re not.

Questions and considerations

This makes hiring a consultant tricky business. If you’re in the market for a consultant, chances are that you’ll be doing the bulk of the screening on your own.  I don’t claim to be the first or last word on how to do that screening, but these are among the questions I would ask:

1.  What are their credentials? I don’t mean that in a snooty way. This isn’t about Harvard vs. State U. Rather, does a prospective consultant present a body of work, education, and experience that conveys substance, knowledge, wisdom, and insight?

2. Do they talk in generalities or specifics? You can get stock information and advice from a book.  What’s worth paying for are expert insight and advice applied to your specific needs.  If you don’t hear a sincere commitment to understanding your organization and your situation, run, don’t walk.

3.  Are they faking it? This is related to the question above.  The minute you sense that someone’s knowledge base is thin, or that they’re feigning a level of expertise they simply don’t possess, move on.  Although I understand that building a consulting business involves a necessary dose of self-marketing, a consultant who exaggerates his or her qualifications and expertise probably is lacking in substance.

4. Are they serious and grounded? Personal qualities count. Good consultants are not saviors or stars, and they do not present themselves in such ways.  Rather, they bring understanding and commitment to help you address your challenges.

5. What do others say? A good consultant should come armed with references, if at all possible from past clients.  Call them, politely grill them, ask tough questions of whether this consultant was effective.

Judicious use

Generally speaking, a consultant should be retained when it is clear that existing resources are inadequate and the gap can be addressed by bringing in a third party. It follows that consultants should be used judiciously.  If an organization has a record of retaining consultants every time a problem or crisis arises, its core leadership is lacking essential competencies and skills, perhaps significantly.

Continuing education is good, but where are the jobs?

The latest New York Times special section on continuing education leads off with a piece from Steven Greenhouse on the growing trend of adults returning to school to obtain additional education and credentials:

With the world growing ever more complex and new technologies being developed every day, it’s hardly surprising that millions of Americans have returned to campus. . . . Many experts say continuing education is more important than ever because most college graduates will go through five to seven job changes over their careers.

But where are the jobs?

I’ve been around colleges and universities for most of my adult life as a student and faculty member.  As an educator and lifelong learner, I have cast my lot with institutions of higher learning that cater to mature students. I’ve seen, up close and personal, what opportunities to retool a career or change professions can do for people.

But in today’s economy, we must ask if all this added learning and credentialing opens doors to actual jobs.  Lately I’ve been reading too many accounts of working adults who pursued expensive degree and certificate programs believing they would enhance their employability, only to find few openings in their new field. And as a law professor at a university that appeals heavily to working adults, I’m well aware of the difficult job market awaiting our students as they approach graduation.

Generically speaking, continuing education remains a good thing, but is not a panacea in an economy that isn’t producing a lot of new jobs.  Before people engage in a potentially expensive and time-consuming course of study, they should get an honest assessment of what that program can do for them.

The moral obscenity of a “jobless recovery”

We should be alarmed by the growing and blithe use of the term “jobless recovery.”  Indeed, let’s look right under the surface to see what it means:

1. Recovery of profits and stock values that disproportionately benefit the people who have suffered least or not at all during the Great Recession.

2. Return of larger salaries and bonuses for top executives.

3. A “new normal” of high jobless rates, with more despair and desperation as people use up their unemployment benefits, drain their meager savings and retirement accounts, max out their credit cards, and lose their homes.

4. Further destruction of the middle class, with a widening gap between the richest and the poorest.

Suffering, not recovery

A “jobless recovery” is about human suffering, not a healthy economy. Most who invoke this term with a straight face presumably do not imagine themselves joining the millions of unemployed.  Rather, they see their jobs remaining relatively stable and their retirement accounts bouncing back from the worst of the meltdown. Too many have shelved any sense of empathy or urgency about an economy that is inflicting devastating pain on millions.

But make no mistake about it: Most of the gainfully employed are one job loss away from that very despair and desperation.  And how easily we forget that in a society with a frayed safety net, the falls come fast and hard.


For the U.S., I favor three key responses:

1.  Hire people and pay them a decent wage — In some sectors, corporate profits have roared back with a vengeance, yet companies aren’t hiring, and others are holding down wages and benefits for the rank-and-file.  As a society, we must send a message to companies that creating good jobs at good pay is part of the privilege of doing business, especially when revenues are strong.  It’s not about “capitalism” vs. “socialism” or left vs. right; it’s about how we conduct ourselves in a civil society.

2.  Create a jobs program — Among other things, we need a public works program that puts people back on a payroll doing the vital work of rebuilding America’s infrastructure. We’ve got nearly 41 million people on food stamps, with unemployment levels remaining high and steady.  We have roads and bridges in this country that are badly in need of repair, with safety and quality of life at stake.  Let’s match the need for jobs with the need to rebuild our country.

3.  Build a strong safety net — This recession is not about workers suddenly becoming lazy and unwilling to work.  Countless folks are pounding the pavements and scouring the Internet in search of decent jobs.  In the meantime, let’s support them through continued unemployment benefits, transitional assistance to train for vocations, and whatever help they need to secure their health care coverage.

NBC’s Today Show on bullying-related suicide of Virginia journal editor Kevin Morrissey

NBC’s Today Show devoted a full segment (click here) to the July 30 suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey (earlier posts here and here), reportedly due to workplace bullying.

Interviewees included Maria Morrissey, Kevin’s sister; Waldo Jaquith, a colleague of Morrissey who confirms that Morrissey was subjected to severe harassment on the job; and Lloyd Snook, the lawyer for Ted Genoways, the journal’s editor-in-chief who is alleged to have driven Morrissey to suicide.

Although I am glad that media coverage is drawing attention to this particular event and workplace bullying in general, I find it deeply saddening that it takes a suicide to shine a brighter public light on such a common and destructive phenomenon.

Fortunately, bullying-related suicides are rare, but what about the trail of clinical depression, post-trauma symptoms, and mangled livelihoods inflicted by this behavior that doesn’t make it onto the Today Show?


Free article — Readers seeking an overview of workplace bullying and organizations may find helpful my 2008 article, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” available without charge here.

Facebook pages on workplace bullying

Facebook has become a useful networking and information site for those interested in workplace bullying and advocacy for workplace bullying laws.  Here are Facebook links to some of the most popular pages specifically related to workplace bullying:

Workplace Bullying Institute — This page is hosted by the leading North American information and education center on workplace bullying.

Healthy Workplace Bill Legislative Campaign — This page is for the national legislative campaign to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

In addition, there are separately hosted pages for the following state campaigns: ArizonaConnecticut, Illinois, MassachusettsMinnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Wisconsin

International Educational Coalition on Workplace Bullying  — This page regularly posts news items, links, and topics for discussion.

Stop Workplace Bullies Now! — A page dedicated to public education about workplace bullying.

Beyond Workplace Bullying Australia — From friends down under, where attention to workplace bullying is strong and growing.

Workplace Bullying in Higher Education — This initiative comes out of the United Kingdom and is linked to a blog that has been covering bullying in higher ed for several years.

This list does not include many other FB groups whose interests include workplace bullying, as well as pages that appear to be inactive or have yet to attract a larger following.

Media tracks workplace bullying angle in suicide of Virginia journal editor

The July 30 suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey (earlier post here), reportedly due to workplace bullying, has become the subject of growing media attention.

Especially for those who are studying linkages between bullying and suicidal behavior, as well as instances of bullying in academe, this developing story merits your continued interest. In addition to Robin Wilson’s Aug. 12 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and accompanying online comments, here are two more recent and extensive news accounts. You’ll find my interview remarks in both:

The Hook, Charlottesville, Virginia

The most comprehensive account comes from Dave McNair of The Hook, a weekly newspaper in Charlottesville.  This investigative piece is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand this tragedy:

[On] Friday, July 30, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, 52-year-old Kevin Morrissey, took his own life. Since then, UVA has shrouded VQR behind a wall of silence, changing the office locks, launching an audit, and even routing all incoming telephone calls to the University’s public relations office.

A Hook investigation reveals that behind the staid, Thomas Jefferson-designed exterior of VQR’s headquarters swirl allegations of financial recklessness, conflicts of interest, and a bizarre pattern of management-by-email that drove a staffer to quit. Some say there was also a pattern of bullying that may have pushed a fragile man into tragic oblivion.

Ray Sanchez of also has weighed in with a detailed news story:

In the days before Kevin Morrissey committed suicide near the University of Virginia campus, at least two co-workers said they warned university officials about his growing despair over alleged workplace bullying at the award-winning Virginia Quarterly Review.

…On July 30, Morrissey, the review’s 52-year-old managing editor, walked to the old coal tower near campus and shot himself in the head. Morrissey’s death underscored the turmoil at the high-profile journal, according to co-workers.


Also, Robin Wilson reports today in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the University of Virginia announced it will investigate the workplace bullying allegations in connection with Kevin Morrissey’s death.

Aug. 23 followup — NBC’s Today Show did a segment on the Kevin Morrissey suicide.  Link here.


Free article — Readers seeking an overview of workplace bullying and organizations may find helpful my 2008 article, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” available without charge here.


The blogosphere on work: August 2010

Live from the blogosphere: Kevin Kennemer writes personally about job loss, Douglas LaBier shares ideas about unhealthy management and human rights, and Dan Seitz shares creative ways to quit.

Kevin Kennemer’s “jobectomy”

Chief People Officer Kevin Kennemer shares his personal story of leaving a terrible workplace and a bad boss:

I want to tell you a little story about shock and awe in the workplace. Technically, the term comes from the military doctrine of using overwhelming power to dominate the enemy, but sometimes in life those who shock are not the ones who awe.

…Walking out of the first floor lobby and into the parking garage, I couldn’t believe I had just been escorted to the elevator after undergoing a jobectomy: a termination meeting in a conference room with a member of management and an attorney in a sterile conference room.

Unhealthy management = human rights violation?

Psychologist and organizational consultant Douglas LaBier posts a thoughtful, wide-ranging entry to his Psychology Today blog, raising the question of whether unhealthy management violates human rights, and concluding with suggestions and questions about how to improve our workplaces:

I think the primary obstacle to thinking of unhealthy management as a human rights violation is something different. It’s rooted in a socially conditioned perspective about the link between work and mental health. That is, companies that do acknowledge a link at all between emotional disturbance and the workplace tend to think of troubles that people bring with them to the office. For example, depression, alcohol and drug problems, severe anxiety, uncontrollable anger, and acute family crises. Of course, many people experience conflicts like these for reasons largely unrelated to the workplace, and they do impact job performance and workplace relationships.

But these are in the category of how the person impacts the workplace. I find that the more pervasive and insidious conflicts today are those resulting from how the workplace impacts the person.

LaBier recognizes the role of the workplace bullying legislative movement in prodding employers to take workers’ human rights more seriously.

Hat tip: Kathy Hermes, Connecticut Healthy Workplace Advocates

“The 7 Ballsiest Ways Anyone Ever Quit Their Job”

This very funny post from Dan Seitz at needs no further explanation beyond its title.


Roughly once a month, I will collect interesting blog posts about work, workers, and workplaces and provide short summaries.  The blogosphere is chock full of interesting commentary on the experience of earning of our daily bread.  Enjoy!

Soldiers with PTSD misdiagnosed and dismissed

Despite all that we’ve learned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in recent decades, many returning veterans from the Iraq War — deeply wounded in mind if not in body — have been abandoned by the country they served.  As reported by Anne Flaherty for the Associated Press:

At the height of the Iraq war, the Army routinely fired hundreds of soldiers for having a personality disorder when they were more likely suffering from the traumatic stresses of war, discharge data suggests.

The Nation‘s investigative reporting

Flaherty credits the investigative reporting of The Nation magazine for drawing greater attention to this practice, which has resulted in denials of disability benefits and long-term medical care.  Here’s part of a recent Nation piece by Joshua Kors summarizing that reporting:

For three years The Nation has been reporting on military doctors’ fraudulent use of personality disorder to discharge wounded soldiers [see Kors, “How Specialist Town Lost His Benefits,” April 9, 2007]. PD is a severe mental illness that emerges during childhood and is listed in military regulations as a pre-existing condition, not a result of combat. Thus those who are discharged with PD are denied a lifetime of disability benefits, which the military is required to provide to soldiers wounded during service. Soldiers discharged with PD are also denied long-term medical care. And they have to give back a slice of their re-enlistment bonus. That amount is often larger than the soldier’s final paycheck. As a result, on the day of their discharge, many injured vets learn that they owe the Army several thousand dollars.

What can unite us

Flaherty further reports that problems persist despite the growing public interest:

Under pressure from Congress and the public, the Army later acknowledged the problem and drastically cut the number of soldiers given the designation. But advocates for veterans say an unknown number of troops still unfairly bear the stigma of a personality disorder, making them ineligible for military health care and other benefits.

In previous wars, we called it “shell shock” or accused soldiers of being cowards.  Now we understand much more about PTSD, but we’re misdiagnosing soldiers’ conditions and dismissing them from service, with potentially lifelong repercussions. This is a travesty.  Regardless of whether one favors or opposes the Iraq War, we can unite in supporting the men and women who are coming back from tours of duty there.

Study from India: HR aggravates workplace bullying experiences

In a study conducted via in-depth interviews of Indian workers who were targets of workplace bullying, organizational behavior professors Premilla D’Cruz and Ernesto Noronha (article link here) concluded that human resources managers created “an environment in which bullying remains unchallenged, allowed to thrive or actually encouraged in an indirect way….”

They found that seeking redress for bullying via HR “adversely affects both the bullying situation and targets’ coping.” HR “operates as one-sided managerialism” that “privileges employer organizations’ interests” instead of serving as a mediating mechanism that “engages employers and employees together in the employment relationship.”

Role of labor unions

D’Cruz and Noronha challenged the notion that HR’s presence in the modern company creates a mediating presence that diminishes the need for labor unions, concluding that “Bullying is less likely to occur and is more likely to be tackled when it does occur if there is a strong and well organized trade union presence at the workplace….”

I’d like to think that the late John Kenneth Galbraith, celebrated economist and one-time U.S. ambassador to India, somewhere is nodding his head in agreement.  In the 1950s, Galbraith wrote that organized labor exercised “countervailing power” in the battle over division of profits.  My guess is that he would concur that labor’s presence makes a difference with working conditions as well.

In the U.S.

These findings from India echo ongoing concerns about the current role of HR with respects to employment disputes in the U.S. This blog has raised questions about HR’s role in resolving employment disputes generally and in handling bullying complaints.  The state of the law with regard to workplace bullying plays into this.  As I wrote in a recent post on the HR-friendliness of the Healthy Workplace Bill, the absence of legal protections against bullying:

…means that managers who bully workers can leverage HR’s assistance in targeting another employee for mistreatment. At organizations rife with bullying, HR often becomes complicit in the abuse. Too many HR professionals become accomplices in bullying situations by doing management’s dirty work, such as firing a bullied worker as the final step of abuse.

Passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill would help conscientious HR professionals oppose workplace bullying and refuse to take part in efforts to bully a target out of a job, promotion, or raise.

This blog also has identified American labor unions as potentially valuable stakeholders in opposing workplace bullying.  This includes supporting the Healthy Workplace Bill and negotiating contract provisions covering workplace bullying.


The D’Cruz and Noronha study appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Qualitative Report and can be downloaded here.

Hat tip: Gary Namie

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