How workplace bullying bears similarities to domestic abuse

Recently making the rounds among folks in the workplace anti-bullying community was a news summary of a 2009 study by Kansas State University doctoral graduate Meridith Selden (now a professor at Wilkes University) and her KSU dissertation adviser, prominent organizational psychology professor Ronald Downey, documenting the reluctance of employees who have been subjected to ongoing workplace hostility to leave their jobs.

Here is what Keri Forsythe said about the study on Office Arrow (link here):

According to a . . . study conducted by researchers at Kansas State (K-State) University, many workers would rather stay in hostile environments than seek employment elsewhere. Case in point: 45 percent of employees who report regular victimization by their coworkers and supervisors have no intention of leaving their jobs. Also, despite the constant emotional abuse they endure, 59 percent of respondents said that they either liked or “did not dislike” their jobs. A sign of the failing economy and workers’ lower career expectations? Not so, says Ron Downey, PhD, a psychology professor at K-State.

Since the research took place before the economic downturn, something else explained this phenomenon. Downey’s take: People would rather work in an oppressive environment than exert themselves to find a new job. “They might like their job, just not certain elements of it,” he says. “That really surprised us; that people weren’t ready to jump ship. We talk about the new workplace where people don’t stay at the same job forever, but getting a job is difficult and people don’t like to do it.”

I have speculated on the “Should I stay or should I go” dilemma and realize it can be a complicated decision. Of course, since the economic meltdown, many have no choice but to remain in a bad job. However, some people who do have options, or at least who could generate some possibilities, choose to stay.

Comparisons to domestic abuse

I’m veering off a bit from the focus of Drs. Selden and Downey, but I can’t help but ponder why people remain in work environments that have become downright abusive or bullying on a recurring basis.

Such scenarios often resemble all-too-common domestic abuse situations where the abused party stays in the relationship, either hoping that things will change or otherwise feeling trapped and without options. Looking at her choices “objectively,” we can see how she could remove herself from the relationship. However, there are complex psychological and economic reasons why she might remain.

Similar patterns often appear in severe workplace bullying situations. The abuse continues, and some targets keep enduring it, sometimes for years. Eventually they’re so psychologically beaten up that they lack the self-confidence and judgment to move on to a hopefully healthier work setting — or at least to remove themselves from the abusive one. On occasion, they become so consumed with the bullying situation itself that their “fight or flight” instincts break down and they become embroiled in a game they can’t win.

Workplace bullying resembles domestic abuse in another way: As a society, we have been too willing to deny its destructive impact and to dismiss it as a personality conflict or a bad match. It took us many, many years to recognize the harm wrought by domestic abuse, even in the face of mounting evidence. We’re still fighting that uphill battle with workplace bullying, despite real progress over the past decade.

When people ask me if workplace bullying is a lot like schoolyard bullying, I typically respond, yes, in a way, but that domestic abuse is the more apt comparison. These are among the reasons why.


Hat tip on Kansas State study: Drew Mitchell

17 responses

  1. I had to cope with a bully at 2 jobs. Maybe I did not try harder to leave because there were good aspects to both jobs. I also did not want the bullies to “win.” Thanks for the posting.

  2. Finally left a very well-paying job, but abusive work situation, of 14 years a year ago. It took most of the year to get past the “trauma”, but it was well worth it.

  3. At first I didn’t think I should be the one to have to leave since I did like my job and everyone at my place of work including my manager liked me better than the bully — who bullied everyone. So….I thought I could stay and the bully would go. Suffice to say — I waited long enough that my self-esteem was so low I really don’t think I interviewed well. Consequently — no job — I stayed until I got layed off in 2009 (7 years of bullying) and still haven’t found a job — except sporadic temp jobs for much less money. Different from domestic abuse, though, I was never under the illusion that the bully would change. I just thought more highly of my manager and upper level executives than I should have. I thought they would hold the correct person accountable. That company lost a lot of good people and the bully is still there — making a very high salary.

  4. Dave
    As you have heard before i am a target of workplace bullyuing and was severely injured in a non for profit organization in the Syracuse N.Y. area. I worked there 10 years and was so severely abused that i was taken out sick a year ago. When my psychologist asked for resonable accomodations so i could try and return i was terminated. Many people stay in these situations for various reasons. Some of the reasons i stayed are:
    1. When i took the job as Maintenance Director the place was a mess, i put in ungodly hours to turn it around and had been involved in millions of dollars in renovations, many i did myself, i was invested emotionally!
    2. The place had a daycare and camps, and my kids grew up there and i had many memories with them.
    3. I liked my job and the work i did, i wasnt about to be pushed out of it by someone that had a need to target someone else to make themselves feel good.
    I had many opportunities to leave towards the end but i had lost faith in my own abilities, and no longer felt worthy to anyone else, what i had was safe and familiar, the abuse seemed a trade off at that point. By the time i went out sick i had developed a severe phobia about my work and was broken!!! Unfortunately 6 months after i was taken out of work in my area there were about 10 great jobs similar to the one i had with great organizations, i was too sick to apply. 30 years in the same trade, what a shame! My psychologist already feels i probably will never be able to return to that line of work. I would encourage anyone that is a target of workplace bullying to get out at all costs. It is not worth losing your health, your longterm job abilities, possibly losing many, many years of hard work that in my case i probably cannot recover and use again. Hurting your family, Get out now and move on, it is the only safe way, and in the process, expose the bully by all means, that is very important, get out, save yourself and expose the bully!!!!!!!!!!!

    • I can related to you so much. I had an abusive relationship with my previous job. I love the boss, the job nature, working place and the salary. However, i am the target of bullying. I finally decided to leave that company in order to save myself and my self-esteem.

  5. I agree that there is a parallel between domestic violence and workplace bullying. My current position (2 years after leaving an abusive employment “partner”) is that I do not wish to engage in a similar “relationship”. I don’t know if this response is limited to people who “loved” their work, but the “heartbreak” is real. I now fear “commitment” and would prefer, for the time being, to be “single” (or unemployed).

  6. I think the analogy to domestic abuse is insightful and I can relate to the posted comments.

    In my case, I had a sick family member and needed the health insurance to cover the frequent ER trips and hospitalizations. Finding another job in my field would require moving and moving such a sick person did not seem realistic. Neither did trying to sell a house in this market.

    In the past, when I’ve worked with abusive people, I just found another job. This time, there was more at stake – a significant financial loss in selling the house and the risk of moving a sick person.

  7. David,
    My first comment here, but regular reader. First want to say thank you for all your work on this critically important issue.
    I think the comparison to domestic abuse is completely apt. We tend to forget that organizations, departments, teams operate with similar “family dynamics” and that first and foremost we are all psychological and emotional beings thrust together in these circumstances. Most organizations and “leaders” are still completely out of touch with those dynamics and lack the skill to appropriately plan and intervene when they see aberrant behavior.
    I also think that the power dynamics that fuel bullyism have been greatly exacerbated by the “threat” of economic displacement. Because bully psyches are so manipulatively opportunistic, they tend to thrive in this kind of adversity.
    This is a deep and complex issue and your commitment to continuously shedding more light on it is invaluable.

  8. i posted earlier and i think i failed to clearly point out the connection between workplace bullying and domestic abuse. The truth is they are very similar. With employers we need somethng from them and they need something from us. Like a marriage it is a give and take situation. Many spouses stay in an abuse situation because there are things they need and thngs they have invested. The truth is they could leave and find another partner or go on their own, but here is another problem as a society in western culture we have been taught to stick it out, do the right thing, go the distance, make it work, we see it in marriages all of the time and likewise we invest ourselves in the workplace like i did and it is hard to be driven away by a bully after working so hard, the same as it is for a spouse to break up their home with many other things that are good except for the abusive partner, there may be kids, extended family that one loves etc. At work a bully comes in and targets you and tries to make your life so miserable that you want to give it all up or you have to, and by the time they are done with you if you do not get out in time, like an abused spouse you no longer feel good to anyone else, so you stay where it seems safe for now, even though it is not safe where ones health is concerned. Again to all targets get out now and save yourself and expose the bully!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. I regret that I haven’t been able to respond individually to all of your thoughtful comments, as I anticipated this topic hitting awfully close to home for some readers. It’s difficult to contemplate this stuff, but important toward building our understanding.

  10. Following extensive research on the topic of workplace mobbing, I have found that interpersonal bullying transforms into mobbing when the aggressor is in a position of leadership in the organization and the target does not voluntarily leave. Mobbing is most common in organizations where voluntarily leaving is not easy or detrimental to one’s career. These workplaces include:

    Tenure track academic positions where leaving means starting anew on the tenure track or foregoing it altogether, competing for jobs with up to two or three hundred other applicants, and relocating to another part of the country (even more dififcult when a working spouse and/or children are involved.

    Workplaces protected by unions; benefits are high, and workers believe (often erroneously) that the union will protect them from the abuse; to leave for a non-union job may mean loss of insurance, pension, longevity and other benefits not easily replaced.

    Church-based employment, such as nuns or priests, where leaving is similar to tenure-track positions and means relocating and losing one’s community.

    Military employment where leaving is not an option;

    Older workers close to retirement; finding new work may be next to impossible, and workers hope to stick it out until retirement. (Similarly, workers from other countries or with limited education may be reluctant to risk unemployment knowing they won’t easily find comparable work.)

    Your analogy to domestic abuse certainly resonates with my experience in a number of respects, and mobbed and bullied workers certainly suffer a profound loss of self-esteem. Yet the type of employment and worker’s situation shapes the decision to voluntarily leave. When the worker does not, if mobbing commences, I have found that the determination to expel the worker resembles a brutal divorce — the history of the relationship is rapidly revised, past benign events re-written to conform to the new image of the worker as inherently bad, friends/co-workers take sides based on who they will have to interact with in the future, and the only ones who make out are the lawyers.

  11. Pingback: Past reflections on workplace bullying and worker dignity | H.A.L.T.

  12. Pingback: Psychological Safety At Work: The Hidden Employee Experience Essential

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