The American academic response to workplace bullying: A grounded orientation

Serious social problems typically attract a variety of scholars who engage in research and education designed to address them. This is no different with workplace bullying in the U.S.

However, whereas some social problems attract gobs of attention from those affiliated with elite academic institutions, the American academic response to workplace bullying has been driven, for the most part, by professors holding appointments at state and regional private universities. I believe this is a telling reason why so much of the important scholarly work concerning workplace bullying has genuine real world application.

Pioneering scholars

Consider the current institutional affiliations of some of the pioneering American academicians on workplace bullying and related behaviors: Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State), Joel Neuman (SUNY New Paltz), Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik (New Mexico), Suzi Fox (Loyola-Chicago), Judith Richman (Illinois-Chicago), and Kathleen Rospenda (Illinois-Chicago). Fine schools all, but not the Ivy League.

What ties their work together is a quality of intellectually stimulating research that consistently demonstrates on-the-ground relevance. This is not the space to engage in a summary of their studies and writings, but suffice it to say that their work is the stuff of both fascinating seminar discussions and practical insights into workplace behaviors.

In the emerging field of occupational health psychology, which has proven to be very hospitable to workplace bullying research, we see similar types of institutional affiliations. For example, the current and past presidents of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology include Vicki Magley (Connecticut), Janet Barnes-Farrell (Connecticut), Robert Sinclair (Clemson), Peter Chen (Colorado State), and Leslie Hammer (Portland State).

At this juncture, Robert Sutton (Stanford) is one of the few professors affiliated with an elite American university who is devoting serious attention to bullying-type behaviors.

Law schools

A similar picture emerges in terms of legal scholarship on workplace bullying. Most of the significant law review commentary has originated from a small group of law professors holding appointments at regional law schools.

In addition to my work as a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, other law professors authoring major pieces primarily about workplace bullying have included Brady Coleman (formerly at South Texas), Susan Harthill (Florida Coastal), and Kerri Stone (Florida International).

Non-traditional universities

Finally, non-traditional, distance learning universities are playing a major role in training the next wave of scholar-practitioners to enter the fray.

In fact, many of the first American dissertations and theses on workplace bullying came from students enrolled at places such as Walden University, Fielding Graduate University, Capella University, and the University of Phoenix.

Why? Because the flexible delivery models and practice-friendly orientations of those schools are hospitable to adult learners, and workplace bullying is more likely to be a topic that attracts people who have experienced the workplace.

Origins

This grounded response has been strongly influenced by the roots of the American movement to respond to workplace bullying.

Much of the original impetus to label and address bullying at work in the U.S. came from Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie during the late 1990s.  More than a decade later, their Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) is the most significant North American non-governmental organization addressing the problem today.

WBI is not a huge think tank operation; its small staff works on all aspects of bullying, ranging from its effects on individuals to the need for effective legal responses. While WBI has moved beyond being a shoestring operation, its resources pale compared to those of the Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management, two trade associations with very different takes on workplace bullying and the need for legal reform.

WBI has served as an important link between the practice and academic communities. From the start, the Namies made a concerted effort to link university professors, practitioners, and activists who are committed to addressing workplace bullying, and I believe that orientation played a critical role in creating a core community that respects both research and practice.

Ground level

Workplace bullying can lend itself to abstract theorizing, but it makes more sense when grasped at the ground level.

Thus, universities that welcome scholarship about workplace bullying may well be those that are neither fearful nor disdainful of the real world and do not greet the term “applied research” with knee-jerk hostility. They may be more likely to attract faculty and graduate students who have not led rarefied lives that might cause them to scoff at the notion of people and organizations suffering from the psychological abuse of employees.

Also, it is probable that workplace bullying, especially before it started to enter the mainstream of American employment relations, scared off more than a few potential professors and graduate students at elite schools because it seemed too risky to delve into something new and unexplored. Caution and timidity are two dominant, less-admirable traits of academe, and their hold can get stronger as one climbs the academic hierarchy.

Challenge

However, this relative paucity of elite institutional affiliations means that the American intellectual response to workplace bullying is something of a Little Engine That Could. While we can pat ourselves on the back for our populist look & feel, we also know that in traditional academe, institutional prestige counts for a lot with some folks.

Furthermore, in surveying law school employment law casebooks, industrial/organizational psychology treatises, labor relations texts, and the like, it is worth noting that workplace bullying still doesn’t get a lot of play. If workplace bullying is to become fully integrated into the study and practice of employment relations, that must change.

In sum, we academicians have our work cut out for us in terms of educating our colleagues about workplace bullying and its significance as a topic of research and study.

4 responses

  1. The reason that elite universities don’t support research into workplace bullying can only be because there is rampant workplace bullying at some of the most elite universities and the current leadership approves of it.

    • Aliana, I’m not sure there’s a cause-effect relationship there, but I do agree that workplace bullying is very common in higher education and is no stranger to elite universities.

      I blogged about the topic two years ago in this post that has become the most popular on the blog.

      • The anti-bullyig seed has been planted… let us watch it blossom into what we may call ethical behavior.

      • I agree. We’ve made huge strides during the past 10 years. The behavior has been named (though concededly some would prefer a different term), and there’s a growing consensus that we need to do something about it.

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