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.
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.
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.
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.