The year 2010 was a significant one for the emerging American movement to stop workplace bullying. Here is my attempt to characterize major developments of the past year.
An unfortunate but apt term entered our lexicon this year, “bullycide,” referring to suicides linked to bullying at work and schools.
In the workplace context, two such deaths became especially prominent. One involved the July suicide of Kevin Morrissey, an editor at the University of Virginia’s Virginia Quarterly Review, which was linked to severe bullying by his supervisor, the journal’s editor-in-chief.
Another involved the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, a health care worker whose story was shared with the Wisconsin legislature when it deliberated upon the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (see below for more on the HWB). We also heard about similar tragedies in other countries, such as the bullying-related suicide of Brodie Panlock, a young Australian woman who worked as a waitress.
On a very related note, suicides of bullied children figured prominently in the news this year. For example, the suicide of 15-year-old Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince attracted national news coverage. The suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi following the Internet posting of his intimate encounter with a man led to proposed federal legislation to protect college students from bullying and harassment.
Workplace bullying became more prominent in the realm of employment relations and in the public eye generally. The most significant breakthrough was how the movement to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill entered the mainstream of the news. Although the bill has yet to be enacted, the state senates of both New York and Illinois passed versions of it, with the progress in New York attracting considerable media attention. (Go here for my brief interview on MSNBC and here for a piece in Time magazine by Adam Cohen.)
Growing public support for workplace bullying legislation was evidenced in an online poll by Parade magazine, a popular Sunday insert in dozens of newspapers across the country. Some 93 percent of respondents voiced support for the proposition that workplace bullying should be illegal, a remarkable showing even taking into account the non-scientific nature of the survey.
It is a truism that the mass media like to build up and then tear down. We saw that turn with workplace bullying in the U.S. during the second half of 2010. Less flattering stories questioning the basis of the anti-bullying movement and characterizing it as an increasingly well-heeled industry appeared in prominent news outlets.
In addition, opposition to workplace bullying legislation showed a more public side. For example, after the New York state senate passed the Healthy Workplace Bill, the Society for Human Resource Management, the nation’s largest association of human resources professionals, came out in opposition to it. Others continued to opine that the legislation is a “job killer” because the threat of litigation would chase employers elsewhere.
Work to be done
The end of a calendar year provides a convenient opportunity to look back and assess. I think there are firm grounds for optimism: A term that few people used and understood a decade ago has now entered the mainstream of American employment relations, and even the backlash is a sign that the message is getting through.
But make no mistake about it, the abuse continues. Untold numbers of people suffer because of it, and thousands of organizations — knowingly or not — lose productivity and employee loyalty due to this form of mistreatment. In sum, the progress we have made to date must inspire us to do more.