Does the Holocaust help us to comprehend targeted, malicious workplace bullying?

Do the individual and collective behaviors of the Holocaust help us to understand severe, targeted, personally destructive workplace bullying?

The question has been discussed within the workplace anti-bullying movement and requires respectful contemplation. I am well aware of the casual overuse of references to Hitler and the Nazis in our popular culture, especially in today’s overheated political discourse. Moreover, I acknowledge the dangers of comparing anything to the Holocaust, an outrage so profound that it is nearly impossible to fathom but for the abundant factual record.

Nevertheless, I have steeped myself in the experiences and literature of workplace bullying, and I have read many works about the Holocaust. Although the two forms of mistreatment are hardly equivalent — even the worst forms of workplace bullying are a world away from genocide — there are real connections between them.

The banality of evil

Philosopher Hannah Arendt famously employed the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. As summarized by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Arendt concluded that:

…far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews which could have accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual. He operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon those he targeted.

Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society.

Starting place

I subscribe to the theory that most cases of severe, repeated, targeted workplace bullying originate with a nasty individual. Whether that person can be clinically classified as a psychopath, sociopath, or narcissist matters less than whether he possesses the simple capacities to treat someone abusively and to enlist others to be of assistance.

More often than not, the abuser needs others to help with the dirty work. For example, if the intended coup de grâce is to eliminate the target from the workplace and perhaps to destroy her livelihood and career, the bully typically requires assistance to manipulate the employment record of a competent, even outstanding worker to make her look like a miscreant.

Cooperative bureaucrats

When, say, human resources officers and employment lawyers knowingly — or perhaps with a sort of deliberate ignorance — side with the abusers to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target, they play institutional roles very similar to the bureaucrats of the Nazi regime.

These professional handmaidens are more than simple bystanders looking the other way. They are complicit in the abuse; often they are among the key enablers leading to the final elimination of the target.

Focus on the enablers

Genocidal leaders such as Hitler are rarities. But bureaucratic enablers of workplace abuse are common. In this vein, if we use the phrase “banality of organizational injustice,” maybe that’s the essential point we can learn from those horrific events.


Additional resource

Kenneth Westhues, the University of Waterloo sociologist whose superb case studies of mobbing in academe are worth the concentrated study of any serious student of workplace abuse, does not hesitate to use the term “elimination” to describe the process of removing targeted professors from their jobs. Ken also draws comparisons between severe mobbing behaviors at work and perpetrators of larger-scale eliminations and genocides, including the Nazis.

11 responses

  1. Wow, a very interesting if not controversial analogy….. this is exactly what happens in the work enviroment. The basic human need is security. “Fire” gave us security when the the world was a predator hiechry. Fire burns but we learned to control it….. in most cases. Bully bosses are in control of the “fire” and basic human phsycology is safety around the fire….. not much hope! 🙂


  2. I had a long and varied HR career in technology in Silicon Valley and had plenty of opportunities to observe and experience workplace bullies first hand. In the end it came down to three choices.

    Leave the company and seek another job. I became an expert in this.

    Stay in place and take it. I tried this but this usually led to a high level of job dissatisfaction.

    Stand up to the bully and put your job on the line. In the end, this became my recourse. Because I was good at finding the next job, I could take this chance.

    The last bully I suffered was the CEO of a medium sized company. He was so busy bullying people that it shutdown communication within the organization. One by one the members of exec staff came to me expressing their dissatisfaction. I realized that I was the gate keeper on this. Once I stood down and no longer protected the jerk, the execs went to the board and complained. After a time the board had no choice. They fired him. Best HR work I ever did.

    These days I am a consultant and I admit to having a hair trigger on bullying. If someone even steps on the line I take them into a private office or conference room and tell them that they must have me mistaken with someone that they can pull that crap with.

    • I like “they must have me mistaken with someone that they can pull that crap with.”

      Unfortunately, after being raised in a household of three bullies: my father, my mother and my brother, I am fodder for pulling crap on. I just cannot stand up to it.

      Luckily, I have found a job where I am supported, appreciated and treated as a colleage, not a whipping boy. Unfortunately, it is a temporary job.

  3. I see a very clear analogy in that there are environmental triggers and rewards for those who are willing and able to circumvent compassion. A degree of narcissism is involved in order to insulate oneself from the spark of humanity that connects us all.

  4. Though I generally reject using language associated with the Holocaust for unrelated matters, this article is right on target.
    For those that read German, a recent article in Der Spiegel describes the Nazis’ intended humiliation of Jewish academicians by demotion and seizure of their titles, which is exactly what one of Dana-Farber’s many retaliations was to cause me emotional distress. Read on ALIANA’S CASE, a segment in:


    Titel-Raub der Nazis
    “Es war die absolute Perversion”

    Gunda Wöbken-Ekert

    Unter den Nazis erkannten deutsche Unis Tausenden Akademikern ihre Doktortitel ab – die “Depromotion” war eine große Demütigung für die, denen ohnehin fast nichts blieb. Gunda Wöbken-Ekert erklärt am Beispiel Würzburg, wie akribisch die Unis das Nazi-Unrecht umsetzten.

  5. With all due deference to Godwin’s Law, sometimes the analogy is worth mentioning, and in this case, I think you make a good point. The banality of evil is a chilling constant in human behavior. In schools and workplaces, there’s a growing recognition that bystanders may be the missing link in the chain. Bystanders will enable bullies if it prevents them from becoming the next targets, but get enough brave bystanders to intervene and the dynamic changes.

  6. Pingback: The Holocaust and Workplace Bullying – is there a comparison? | Workplace on the Edge

  7. Pingback: Workplace Bullying and the Holocaust:is there a comparison? - Workplace on the Edge

  8. David well written, 100% agreed, there are many social psychology theories that proved what your describe in your article. . for instance Kierkergaad (i think it was him) did say that you have to have courage to stand out from the herd. . . most people don’t. . . sadly. . . and this is what happens, collectively and globally if we are afraid to deal with bullies. . . it takes only a little wisdom of the psychopaths to understand how conformist humans are and they will have them wrapped around their fingers and will get them to do whatever they want to do.

  9. I had already made the same comparison in a paper I wrote about my mobbing experience: “The employees’ regression has a discrete quality, so that the loss of autonomy in relation to the employment reference group will leave other aspects of the personality intact. Put another way, psychological evaluation of individual employees would likely disclose no more than a capacity to regress under the pressure of group life, but would not disclose a special intensity of aggressive, sadistic or erotic trends, the expression of which will characterize the behavior of a job harasser. It is well to keep in mind: the many thousands of persons who concerted to perpetrate the Holocaust remained in their home lives devoted sons, loving husbands and caring fathers. See Grunberger, B. “The Anti-Semite and the Oedipal Conflict.” The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. Vol. 46: 380-85 at 380 (1964): “The lack of homogeneity in the ego affords us some degree of understanding of the anti-Semite, who, despite his role as a sadistic persecutor, may at the same time be a good member of the community, an affectionate husband, and an exemplary father.” Identical dynamics pertained to the socially-sanctioned regressed behaviors of slave owners in the United States.”

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: