Workplace bullying in the military

When I first started talking to people about workplace bullying, many would use military references, drawing upon images of hard-core drill sergeants and demanding officers. I’ve never felt comfortable with that instant association, perhaps because most of the career military folks I’ve known have struck me as being fair, even-keeled, and self-disciplined individuals.

Nevertheless, it would be equally wrongheaded to assume that the military services are immune from such behaviors. After all, we’re talking about people. Indeed, U.S. Air Force captain Genieve David recently speculated that high suicide rates in her branch of the service may be attributable, at least in part, to workplace bullying (link here):

Last year the U.S. Air Force lost 84 lives to suicide and this year the statistics have surpassed that. You’ve seen Wingman down days, taken the suicide awareness training, and have read commentaries from senior Air Force officials on taking care of each other–but no one has talked about bullying in the workplace as a possible factor that may contribute to these feelings of hopelessness or considering suicide.

My hypothesis

I am going to hazard a guess that workplace bullying is no more or less frequent in the military than in many other demanding, high stress vocations. However, when workplace bullying does occur in the armed forces, it may well be harsher and more aggressive due to the chain-of-command structure of the military and the macho culture of everyday military life. I further would guess that bullying behaviors are especially severe when the target is a non-conformist or is regarded as a boat rocker or whistleblower.

This is a topic worthy of deeper investigation, but for now, here are two stories about bullying in the military:

Bullied out of the Irish army

At the 2010 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, I attended a compelling session on whistleblowing and bullying that featured retired Irish Army captain Tom Clonan. Clonan shared with us the disturbing story of how he was retaliated against after submitting a report to his superiors about extensive levels of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault directed at female soldiers by their male colleagues.

Clonan had done the report as part of his doctoral research. As a result of this research project, he was subjected to an ongoing campaign of ostracizing by fellow officers and publicly accused by the military of fabricating his study.

It took an inquiry by the Irish Minister for Defence and Tom’s own libel suit against the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff for the Irish Defence Forces (eventually settled) to vindicate his name.  Nevertheless, his military career — until these events on an upward trajectory — was in shambles. He now is the Security Analyst for The Irish Times and a lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology School of Media.

A pioneering career run aground

Last year, Time magazine ran a piece (link here) detailing the career of U.S. Navy officer Holly Cowpens, whose style of command was so abusive that when her ship ran aground, the sailors on board were singing “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” knowing that such a major screw up could result in her being relieved of duty.

Time‘s Mark Thompson continues with the story:

Graf’s next command, as captain of the guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Cowpens, would be her last. Graf was relieved of duty in January, after nearly two years on the Cowpens, for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew, according to a blistering Navy inspector general’s report obtained by TIME. The report has rocked the service to its bilges because it calls into question the way the Navy chooses, promotes and then monitors its handpicked skippers.


Hat tip to eBossWatch for the Capt. David blog post.

16 responses

  1. I have worked as a female civilian for 30 in a military organization. I have seen standards lowered. I have seen women driven out – or running from the place to lesser paying jobs or to unemployment in order to get away from the harassment and yes, bullying that is running rampant – at least in my military organization. I even know of one extremely high performing male and more than one female who were mobbed by subordinates and whose outstanding work is now being marginalized and whose history is being rewritten to change them into marginal performers – by subordinates. Oh, and the higher ups are either letting it happen or actually egging them on. One female civilian boss asked her subordinate, an officer to perform a reasonable task within his job description. She was told to f- off – yes he used that word — in a group of other junior officers that she was also supervising. He has now been promoted and guess what – we fear for her mental health because we know that he will be made her boss and will then lead the mobbing from above and below. I have just been diagnosed with PTSD because since the early 2000’s ( I really can’t let this be traced to me, or I would provide exact dates and more information – I would be retaliated against) I have been dealing with an abusive male employee who has terrorized my mostly female staff. I have tried to get the “system” to respond and the “system” has portrayed us, I’m sure as “hysterical “ women – when what is actually happening is we have become his harem, his wives, to be verbally abused at will with no help coming. Even one my male employees told other staff that he would not have anything to do with this abusive man because of the way he talked about his, the abuser’s wife. The abuser went off again and the acting supervisor (I am no longer there), let me know that she was told not to put anything about the incident in writing and that tomorrow is another day. You can almost hear the incident being swept under the carpet. I fought not to let that happen since 200? and have paid a heavy price. I had one too many of my women in my office crying, saying they were afraid for their physical safety (more than one thought he was going to hit them. More than one was cornered in a corridor or office so they couldn’t get away from him. One used the term trapped. She left as quickly as she could – to a lesser paying job). It has become over the last decade ( it was not this band before although it always was sexist– now it is misogynistic bullying white male culture, at least in this service or this part of it, and most people put up with it because in today’s society it is one of last places where you can get a decent paycheck and half decent benefits (health insurance costs me $5,000/year and that does not include dental or eye care) and I am sure that even that is better than most working families get. I took early retirement which means I will be living not too well in retirement. I will, I hope be able to find employment, but I am not even sure that I can work again.

  2. WOW! I read everything I possibly could about Capt. Holly Graf. As far as I’m concerned…she was truly evil. But then…how the hell doed this kind of INSANITY get Institutionalized?
    I find this Workplace Bullying movement a Revelation to me. It just puts it all together about certain low points in my career. I am just coming off of a Bullying incident that resulted in the loss of my job. I’m still extremely angry and uncertain.
    Thank you for this website and thank you for your work Dr. Yamada.

    • She probably learned it at one of the Academies. I bet men are getting away with that or worse. She thought she could get ahead by copying what worked for the boys — and learned a lesson in sexism.

  3. I am also the victim of military bullying, but cannot find a regulation against bullying, so I can file an I.G. complaint. Searching desperately..

  4. I agree with the author. I feel that workplace bullying is overlooked in the military since ever 2-3 years people move around so either the victim or the bully changes bases. In my situation, I was unable to relocate due to a HUMANITARIAN reassignment after my mother died. I was a victim of workplace bullying and know first hand what it is like to feel helpless. I had even thought about suicide many times during my ordeal. My hopelessness came from the fact that I reached out to so many people and departments but unless you can prove discrimination based on sex, gender, age, or religion, you are referred back to your Chain of Command (which is where my bully originated and my CoC was not happy with me going to external offices and voicing concerns). Instead, went to the ER and sought advice from counsellors in the Mental Health office and later diagnosed with “Occupational Mood Disorder” by being unfairly treated by the office bully. In my situation, this resulted in a 10% disablity given by VA guidelines.

    So, my advice to any victim out there reading this is to seek help from medical staff instead and get it documented in your medical records. When you retire you can then try to justify getting at least a 50% disability to help receive additional payment from the VA. This will not help with the mental anguish you have gone through, but does help you enjoy life to the fullest because the military does nothing about workplace bullying.

    • Kris I can so identify with the bullying situation that you describe. It was/is happening to me right now. I was the target of an O-7 and he is still pushing to get me removed from AD by the secretary of the Army. I found some help thru the Workplace Bullying Institute: . I am also trying to line-up legal help from a non-profit organization that does pro-bono work for victims. I too sought help from the IG/JAG/Chaplain/EO, but because I am a white, male, christian, straight/married there was nothing they could do for me, except direct me back to the Chain-of-Command (who was the instigator). I received 2 very bad evals, a Memorandum of reprimand, and was sent home for 18 months so they could be the historian of misinformation at my workplace. Suicide rates are the highest they have every been in the military and I am sure that a good portion are due to workplace bullying in the force. I went to the ER having a heart attack (chest pains, blood pressure spiking, etc) due to the constant, daily bullying and harassment that was directed by this guy.

      I am receiving medical help for both the behavioral health and PTSD effects that I have endured. I am getting everything documented in my medical records but that will not help when I lose my $107,000/year military position after 12 yrs of AD. But my life is more important than a high-paying job. I am looking for a new career in case my fight ends with my military job.

    • Kris,
      i too was a victim of bullying in the military, so bad that i could not find any help. i like to say that i survived my ordeal, and thankfully found peace in my own way. I know there are many people out there, just hoping to be treated fairly and finding help seems to only come after a catastrophic event in a person’s life in order to be noticed.
      I thank you for your advice because its the best way to get help, would i have known, i doubt i would have endured so much, and even though the VA helps, i rather NOT have to suffer from depression and anxiety, but im glad there is help out there.
      to anyone who may ready this, please know that there is help, i have been in your shoes, or boots, and i found serenity through the VA.
      There are MANY people that care and understand your situation.
      Ask a fellow veteran, ask a friend, ask anyone, asking for help is a brave thing to do, and its a respectable thing to do.
      I am feeling so much better because i found out there are many resources for veterans like us who need them.
      Keep your head up.

  5. David, I am a CMSgt in the NY Air National Guard. The nature of the military structure allows those intent on bullying, a platform for bullying, and a system so biased in favor of the Command Leadership, that we ARE helpless against those intent on bullying subordinates. Where can we turn to for help? The Inspector General works for the Commanders, not the employees, yet this is all we have. I have a situation similar to Kris. How do we, the defenders of freedom, bring a bit of fairness into our lives?

  6. I, too, was bullied in the military as an active duty member. I was told to go to ADC, but I came to realize they act in defense mode. What I really needed was an offensive. What I think should be considered is having a legal organization similar to the JAG but on the same order as ADC. That is, having a prosecuting firm that does not work for any commanding officer on base, reports to a commanding officer at a different base, but those who are targets of bullying (or any other type of mistreatment, such as rape, hazing, etc..) can go to to file formal complaints without having to worry that the unit they are filing with (such as JAG) is working for the very person who is bullying them. I would also love to see ‘teams’ of folks who could be called upon to investigate without prejudice allegations of bullying. Here’s an idea of how such a team would work: First, each base or locale would have volunteers (active, reserve, retired, civilian, whatever) who would be willing to ‘go undercover’ if need be. Second, any person being bullied or seeing acts of bullying can contact the ‘team’ by phone or e-mail, explain the who, what, where of the bullying giving as many details as possible and include the jobs performed in the work center. A “team member” can be ‘planted’ in the guise of ‘learning about some job in the work center’ or ‘process improvement’. This person would be given his/her own workstation. Another “team member” can pose as the “boss” who hands over ‘busy work’ to make it look as though the investigation team member is doing (or trying to do) the assumed ‘real job’. The team members would document all instances of bullying and mistreatment, collect statements from other workers, and take their findings to the legal team set up as a separate “JAG” of sorts. This distinct JAG would have a team of Lawyers and Paralegals who would review the findings of the various teams and take whatever legal action is necessary. Chief Devil Dawg is right about the military structure (I’m retired Air Force). If the military is serious about stopping suicides (and yes, I’ve had many moments where I’d considered suicide, and some of it was due to being bullied), then they need to put in place some programs where targets and bystander witnesses can report incidents of bullying without fear of reprisal. While commanders know reprisal is illegal, targets and bystander witnesses know very well that bullying supervisors and commanders do not care about the laws against reprisals. Bullies are skilled at ‘hidden reprisals’. They can make it seem like they are ‘golden’ to those around them while putting the proverbial knives into their targets.

  7. Yes, workplace bullying is real. Military makes it so easy for people to get away with that. I believe the Chain of command is built to help cover NCOs that are crooked. I have seek help over and over and over again. My pressure has since raised from normal to hypertension. I don’t even pay attention to my family anymore.. Even when I do my job correctly… It’s wrong… I get yelled at like a child for no reason… How do you keep your military bearing after dealing with this?

  8. In the name of god, WHY – – WHY – – WHY is NOTHING BEING DONE to establish LAWS AGAINST THIS!!! We have laws to protect against discrimination. HOWEVER THERE ARE NO LAWS to protect against abusive, hostile or abrasive workplaces. As adults, we teach our childeren not to bully or to be the victims of bullying, yet – we go to work and are subject to excessive abuse, fueled by a military leadership style WHICH SUPPORTS hostile work enviorments. I have been the victim of hostile work enviorment steming from the deputy director of my office for years. Indeed I have become the office whipping post and am given 3 times the work load as everyone else, with less time alocated than everyone else and am called on the carpet for missing t’s crossed or i’s dotted (no joke – thats the truth and its all documented), I live and work in Kansas and there are NO LAWS to protect workers from hostile work enviorments. Even other co-workers have stated to others outside the organization that I am subject to excessive hotile treatment. Yet – nothing is done and worse, I have not ONE person to go to for help. EEO, Chaplin, etc… are ALL internal to TRADOC and provide little support. Legal HELP is what is desperately needed.

  9. I just got off of a military deployment and suffered the worst abuse you can imagine in the form of emotional torture by other females on the ship i nthe berthing. I still cannot wrap my brain around what happened out there to make me come home early

  10. And don’t make the assumption that bullying is always about screaming and yelling, because it isn’t. It is also publicly shaming the person to make them seem inferior.

  11. At my last Command, everything seemed to get worse every day. From my coworkers leaving everything on my shoulders in the ER (including leaving my unknowing 19 year old self at the time to have my patient collapse in my arms without a pulse. She died on the 15th of April.) to belittling me, screaming at me and harassing me in ways to make me feel both incompetent and worthless.

    In my last month there, an E-6 had just put on Chief. Early in her career as an E-6, I accidentally hit her in the face with a door. After apologizing and asking if she was alright, she acted as though everything was fine. Yeah, when she picked up Chief she made life a living hell. She called musters we normally wouldn’t have and then belittle me in front of everyone before getting on with her short message. I feel like bullying me was the whole point of the entire muster.. I only had two hours of sleep due to that and being on night shift. In the last month, 0-3 hours of sleep a day was simply the norm for me.

    I came here both braced and hopeful. I ended up in a wonderful clinic! Everyone was nice and for the first time in my career, after two horrible years, people actually listened to what I had to say.. My words had value. I hadn’t experienced this before and I had to question it. Then they moved me downstairs to an OB clinic. Every.. single.. day.. one of my coworkers, and this is her first duty station sharing the E-3 rank with me mind you, she makes me feel worthless and incompetent. The others give me looks, but don’t always say something. “Always.” They make her actions seem like something to chuckle over and everything is my fault. Maybe it is. I have been messing up more and more, but that’s probably because I’m waking up every 20-60 minutes on the nights before work. Some nights I wake up and can’t go back to sleep, like last Tuesday. I woke up before midnight and said screw it after laying in bed for an hour and a half afterward.

    I feel hopeless, sickly even. There is nowhere I can go, because things end up blown out of proportion here and they love taking people to MASS. I just want to keep my head down for the next two years and three months of absolute hell. An E-6 tried to cheer me up by saying I get my Good Conduct Medal in three months. Whoopedy freakin doo.. I can’t wait to get out. I stay out of trouble, I try to be polite, I’m done. I cut off my hair to be just a little loner than a buzz cut so I could try to boost my confidence in these situations, but these people have time here and I won’t be able to fight them because of it. People will side with them, they already do so. I’m keeping a log of what goes on so I can have some sort of pitiful defense when they eventually do worse than what they did today that could have gotten me into legal trouble.

  12. Aloha,
    Reading these comments sadden me as this has been happening and yet, still continues to this day.
    I’m wondering if anyone can provide the process they went through if they were successful in a bullying situation with the military? Appreciate any guidance.
    Mahalo for your time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: