Dr. Gary Namie’s podcast of a typical workplace bullying scenario

If you want to learn about the dynamics behind and the harm caused by workplace bullying, you owe it to yourself to listen to a tremendously insightful podcast (link here) by Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

The story of “Susan” and “Maude,” brilliantly told

Gary weaves a story of “Susan,” a once confident, highly competent employee who suffers a year-long campaign of targeted abuse at the hands of “Maude,” her new supervisor, culminating in her termination. Throughout the story, he explains the mounting psychological and physical harm that Susan experiences.

It’s a superb bit of narrative in roughly 12 minutes, capturing the essence of countless stories I’ve heard over the past decade.

Okay, I’m biased. I’ve been working with Gary and Ruth Namie since 1998, and they are colleagues and friends. But among the many times I’ve heard Gary speak, I found this podcast to be an especially useful teaching tool. He gets the detail and connects the dots as well as anyone I’ve encountered.

My only nitpick

In Gary’s summary of Susan’s legal options, he says that because her tormenter is a woman, discrimination laws could not help her. That’s likely given the facts of his scenario, but it’s worth noting that in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. (1998), the U.S. Supreme Court did hold that same-sex harassment claims are actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Thus, had Maude sexually harassed Susan, discrimination laws presumably would apply.

Getting back at a bad boss

Let’s say your boss sexually harassed a co-worker to the point where she quit her job to avoid further advances.

Is it acceptable for you to retaliate against the boss?

Charness/Levine study

Gary Charness (UC-Santa Barbara) and David Levine (UC-Berkeley) investigated that question. They conducted experiments to determine where people drew the line on retaliating against bad bosses, presenting hypothetical scenarios involving improper behavior by bosses and asking participants to indicate what types of retaliation might be acceptable.

Here’s a summary of their findings from strategy + business (link here; free registration may be necessary):

When is it okay to “get back at” a boss? It’s a thought that has occurred to many disgruntled employees, whether they have been discriminated against, believe they were passed over for promotion, or feel their work is unappreciated. According to this study, getting revenge against a supervisor is more acceptable to employees when the retaliation is an act of omission or inaction — essentially not doing something — than when it is an active attempt to cause harm.

Gender patterns

Just as we’re seeing evidence that women are more likely to use indirect means to engage in uncivil work behaviors, the Charness-Levine study also found that women were more likely to support passive forms of retaliation.

Shades of the 90s!

The Charness-Levine study echoes a spate of “bad boss” books, aimed at a popular readership, that appeared in the 1990s. For example, in The I Hate My Job Handbook: How to Deal with Hell at Work (1996), Ellen Tien & Valerie Frankel offer up (with big doses of humor) various strategies for striking back at bad bosses, including harmless pranks, anonymous pestering, selective vandalism, mockery & humiliation, and outright sabotage.

A darker take on getting back is Martin Sprouse, ed., Sabotage in the American Workplace: Anecdotes of Dissatisfaction, Mischief and Revenge (1992), which is loaded with purportedly true tales collected by the editor.

Norma Rae, meet Dilbert

In a 1998 law review article about freedom of speech at work (link here), I suggested that the appearance of these books and the popularity of the comic strip character Dilbert, the disgruntled cubicle dweller, indicated that workers were seeking “outlets for pent-up anger and frustration stemming from their work experiences.” Very few employees felt comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns openly at work, so they identified with expression that had gone underground.

Back to the future

Fifteen or twenty years later, not much has changed. Too many workers legitimately fear retaliation if they engage in responsible questioning or criticism of management decisions. And with the continued decline of the labor movement, fewer workers have the solidarity of a union to address concerns collectively.

In such a milieu, workers are more likely to engage in passive, indirect, and anonymous forms of retaliation than to risk their jobs by speaking openly and honestly. So long as too many employers choose to engage in command-and-control management practices, oppose labor unions, and retaliate against whistleblowers, this will remain the case.


For the full article, Gary Charness & David I. Levine, When Is Employee Retaliation Acceptable? Evidence from Quasi-Experiments, Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society (2010), go here.

Hat tip to eBossWatch for the strategy + business article.

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation explores the internship phenomenon

The first book-length examination of the sociological, economic, educational, and legal aspects of internships, Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (2011), has been published by Verso.

This is a badly needed book. As Perlin writes, internships are “a new and distinctive form, located at the nexus of transformations in higher education and the workplace.” During the past few decades, internships have become a virtual requirement for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students in many fields. Perlin estimates that “between 1 and 2 million people participate in internships each year in the U.S.”

In other words, we’re talking about a practice that involves a lot of people, mostly younger folks readying themselves for entry into a profession.

“Intern Bill of Rights”

In an Appendix, Perlin sets out his “Intern Bill of Rights,” a statement of nine provisions concerning compensation, fair treatment, legal protections, and personal dignity. It’s an excellent starting place for developing best practices and sound public policies covering interns.

“A Lawsuit Waiting to Happen”

Unfortunately, many interns are unpaid — as I have written, often in apparent violation of minimum wage laws. Perlin takes this thread and builds it into a chapter examining the many legal implications of internships.

Perlin makes special note of situations involving sexual harassment of unpaid student interns. He concludes, “This is the part you didn’t know; when something does happen, unpaid interns are largely on their own, without protection or recourse, caught in a frightening legal limbo.”

We concur!

I raised many of these legal concerns in my 2002 law review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” which Perlin graciously cites as the “best single source of information for American internships and the law.” You can download a free copy here.


Related posts

On the practice and legality of unpaid internships

News flash! Unpaid internships may be illegal

The legality and ethics of unpaid internships 

Seth Godin on the bully-as-victim

Writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin reminds us of his ability to pack a lot into few words in this pithy blog post from today:

The bully-victim cycle

A bully acts up in a meeting or in an online forum. He gets called on it and chastised for his behavior.

The bully then calls out the person who cited their behavior in the first place. He twists their words, casts blame and becomes an aggrieved victim.

Often, members of the tribe then respond by backing off, by making amends, by giving the bully another chance.

And soon the cycle continues.

Brands do this, bosses do it and so do passers-by. Being a bully is a choice, and falling for this cycle, permitting it to continue, is a mistake.

It’s complicated, sometimes

As Godin’s post suggests, sorting out who is the bully and who is the target can be more difficult than first meets the eye. Some situations just aren’t clear cut.

In some instances, “bullying” may not be the apt term. Instead, what you have is an exchange of incivilities, ranging from a true personality conflict between relative equals, to an organizational culture rife with people in a nasty mood.

Real bullying constitutes a form of abuse intended to harm another, often involving the exploitation of an uneven power relationship. Getting to the root of these situations may require some sleuthing, but once the context and facts are known, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

In particular, look for repeat offenders. Many bullies are recidivists, using the same or similar techniques (blame-the-victim is a favorite) over and again, while having the ruthless smarts to avoid being held accountable.


Hat tip to Larry Loebig for the Godin post.

Work on TV: CBS’s “The Good Wife” highlights worker abuse

Those who are knowledgeable about workplace bullying and abuse may regard this as ho-hum, but earlier this month a network television drama featured a story line involving a lawsuit against a deliberately abusive employer.

CBS’s “The Good Wife” is one of the better network lawyer shows, featuring Julianna Margulies as a Alicia Florrick, lawyer and wife of unfaithful spouse Peter Florrick, a one-time Chicago state’s attorney who is running to recapture his office after serving time in prison for corruption.

The Good Wife features strong acting and fun plot twists, making for a very watchable series.

“Wrongful Termination”

Earlier this month, in an episode titled “Wrongful Termination,” The Good Wife featured a story line built around a workplace suicide and allegations that the employer deliberately created an abusive work environment in order to push workers into quitting their jobs.

Alicia Florrick is part of the legal team bringing a lawsuit against this employer, with the claims grounded in allegations of psychological mistreatment of the workers.

Why this matters

If we want workplace bullying to be mainstreamed as an employment relations concern, then we need dramatic depictions of abusive work environments in the popular media. Putting these narratives before the general public serves as a powerful validating force for this movement.

In short, stuff like this shows us that workplace bullying is coming out into the open. It’s a seemingly modest but important development.


For Comcast cable subscribers, the episode is still available via On Demand as of this writing.

Army-style resilience training for lawyers?

An expert in positive psychology recommends that law firms provide Army-style resilience training to their lawyer recruits, reports Debra Cassens Weiss for the American Bar Association’s weekly e-newsletter (link here).

Psychology professor and lawyer Dan Bowling proposes that large law firms adopt programs used by the Army to help them train their new lawyers to be more resilient, because “they suffer from mental and emotional disorders at a higher rate than other professionals.”

What about root causes?

I happen to think that resilience is a good quality for everyone to possess. All but the most charmed existences have their ups and downs, and if we can deal with the latter more effectively, our lives will be better for it. That includes difficult situations and experiences at work.

But I hope that talking about symptoms doesn’t preclude deeper, mainstream conversations about root causes: Quite simply, a life in the law today can be stressful and difficult, and working conditions within our profession unnecessarily contribute to that state of affairs.

Hopeful voices and practices

Although large commercial law firms are not yet terribly receptive, thoughtful voices are emerging with alternatives. I’ve written about some of them before, but they are worth reintroducing:

  • The therapeutic jurisprudence movement (link here), founded by law professors David Wexler and the late Bruce Winick, examines how law and legal practice can lead to psychologically healthier outcomes for stakeholders in the legal system, including clients and lawyers.
  • Attorney J. Kim Wright is the founder of Cutting Edge Law (link here), a website that gathers a host of thoughtful alternative approaches to legal practice, and author of Lawyers as Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law (2010).
  • One of my former students at Suffolk University Law School, Gretchen Duhaime, has launched Practicing on Purpose (link here), which provides wellness training to lawyers and law students.
So yes, let’s talk about how to be more resilient. But let’s not lose sight of the more important goal, that of transforming a profession badly in need of change.

Study: Shoppers will pay more for goods produced by fairly treated workers

Are consumers willing to pay more for goods produced by workers who are treated fairly on the job?

Very likely, yes, according to a study by Michael Hiscox, Michael Broukhim, Claire Litwin, and Andrea Woloski (link here to abstract and downloadable pdf) examining bidding patterns on eBay. Here’s part of the abstract of their article:

We provide new evidence on consumer behavior from experiments conducted on eBay. We find that labels with information about certified fair labor standards in factories making polo shirts had a substantial positive effect on bidding. On average, shoppers paid a 45% premium for ethically labeled versus unlabeled shirts.

Whoa! Could it be that shopping with a social conscience is not a practice limited to left-wing do-gooders!?

Competing values

My mom was a child of the Great Depression. She clipped coupons, waited for sales, and spent judiciously. She embodied the idea of thrift as a virtue.

Today, however, we know that thrift may conflict with socially responsible consumerism. Many inexpensive goods are produced on the backs of poorly paid workers.

Especially in today’s difficult economy, it’s not my place to criticize someone who is struggling to make ends meet for shopping at stores like Wal-Mart in search of the lowest possible prices.

However, it is sadly ironic that the manufacturing, production, and marketing practices of many big retailers are fueling a “race to the bottom” mentality when it comes to wages and working conditions. In other words, the downward wage push created by these chains is contributing to an economy where many folks can’t afford to shop anywhere else.

The Hiscox, et al., study suggests that maybe we’re ready to blend thrifty consumer spending and social responsibility to fellow workers. A rising tide that lifts all boats beats a race to the bottom anytime.


Hat tip to Rick Bales at Workplace Prof Blog for his post on this study.

Bystanders to bullying: Thought vs. action

What happens when individuals observe others being mistreated at work? How do they regard the aggressor and the target? Do they actively side with the aggressor, or perhaps rush to help the target? Or maybe they do nothing.

A study of how people perceive aggression between others by Tara Reich and M. Sandy Hershcovis of the University of Manitoba may not answer all these questions, but it lends some insights worth considering.

“Observing aggression”

Presenting their paper “Observing aggression” at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s annual conference in Chicago last Friday, Tara Reich described two experiments in which participants observed aggressive behaviors by an individual toward a 3rd party, both of whom — unbeknownst to the participants — were actors.  The purpose of the experiments was to gauge participants’ attitudes and behaviors toward aggressors and targets.


It may come as no surprise that observers, on the whole, demonstrated more negative attitudes and more negative behaviors toward the aggressors. Indeed, if we are to have any hope for humanity, we’d expect people to be disapproving of those who commit aggressive or abusive behaviors and to show that disapproval in some way or another.


The results concerning observers’ attitudes and actions toward targets proved more twisty and interesting.

Observers’ attitudes toward targets did not worsen and, in fact, may have reflected sympathy for their plight. However, observers’ behaviors toward targets became more negative, similar to the rate of negative behaviors they directed toward aggressors.

Relevance to bullying

Okay, so this is one experiment, conducted in a very controlled setting, and not even set in a K-12 school or a workplace. And yet, these results have a strong ring of truth in them, at least to me, with special pertinence to bullying and mobbing behaviors at work, in schools, and in society generally.

Some random reactions:

Haven’t we seen other examples over time where bystanders who had no previous stake in a given relationship between two people nevertheless joined in on the abuse toward the target?

Even if observers do not feel more negatively toward the target, the target himself can only presume that the negative behavior he’s experiencing is due to animus, yes? This exacerbates the target’s feelings of mistreatment and abandonment.

Doesn’t this also shed some light on how mobs form, i.e., how people are enlisted into a group for the purpose of mobbing someone they do not personally dislike or oppose?

Clearly, these lines of inquiry are worth following.


I’m devoting several posts this week to responses and ideas sparked by papers presented at a panel on April 15 as part of SIOP’s annual conference in Chicago. The panel, which centered on research approaches to understanding incivility, was organized by doctoral student Benjamin Walsh and Professor Vicki Magley of the University of Connecticut’s industrial/organizational psychology program.

I was privileged to serve as the discussant on the panel, offering comments on each of the papers. It is exciting to see graduate students and professors examining these aspects of work and workplaces via their research studies and dissertations.

Worker suicides and the economy

Lest anyone doubt that a severe recession can have devastating effects on the psyches of affected workers, here is some evidence worth taking very seriously.

Thomas H. Maugh II, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times (link here), reports on a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study indicating that among working age people, suicides increase during bad economic times and decline during more prosperous times.

Everyone is familiar with stories of businessmen jumping to their deaths from window ledges during the Great Depression. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that those stories, sometimes viewed as apocryphal, have a strong basis in fact: The rate of suicides rises during times of economic hardship and declines in periods of prosperity.

This is no quick snapshot of the current recession. The CDC study spans 80 years of data.

Confirming reportage

When reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Furthermore, Uchitelle found that “layoffs damage companies by undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and get jobs again.  All lose some of the commitment, trust, and collegial behavior that stable employment or the expectation of stable employment normally engenders.”

Study on incivility toward graduate students reports effects similar to workplace bullying

During the past decade, we have learned a lot about incivility, bullying, and other negative behaviors in the workplace. However, we don’t know much about similar forms of mistreatment in academic settings.

That void is what led Susan Stewart (Western Illinois U. — Quad Cities), Nathan Bowling (Wright State U.), and Melissa Gruys (Wright State U.) to develop a study that asked graduate student members of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) about their experiences with anti-social behaviors by faculty members and fellow students.

Negative consequences

Among their key initial findings is that students who reported “more mistreatment have higher levels of depression, intention to leave, and adverse physical symptoms than students reporting less mistreatment from either source.”

This should sound familiar to those who have studied bullying at work. The effects of incivility experienced by these graduate students are very similar to those reported by employees who have been targets of workplace bullying.


I believe this is a very important line of inquiry. When these behaviors are perpetrated (and not infrequently validated) in graduate and professional school settings, those on the receiving end often suffer health consequences and a loss of self-confidence. Some students — targets, bystanders, and perpetrators alike — will adopt the behaviors in their own academic and professional lives. In such cases, co-workers, clients, patients, and customers also will pay a price down the road.

Awareness training could help to prevent these behaviors. For severe situations such as targeted bullying and sexual harassment, concrete sanctions may be appropriate. In sum, academe should zealously guard freedom of expression, but not to the point of being complicit in abusive behaviors.


I’m devoting several posts this week to responses and ideas sparked by papers presented at a panel on April 15 as part of SIOP’s annual conference in Chicago. The panel, which centered on research approaches to understanding incivility, was organized by doctoral student Benjamin Walsh and Professor Vicki Magley of the University of Connecticut’s industrial/organizational psychology program.

I was privileged to serve as the discussant on the panel, offering comments on each of the papers. It is exciting to see graduate students and professors examining these aspects of work and workplaces via their research studies and dissertations.

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