The “bully” label: Too stigmatizing, too mild, or too inevitable?

Anthropologist Janice Harper and school psychologist/consultant Izzy Kalman want to stop the use of the term “bully” to label those who treat others in psychologically and physically abusive ways at work and school.

In a recent Huffington Post piece (link here), Harper writes that the bully label “has to go”:

Calling a person a “bully” may be effective in bringing an aggressive individual down to size, but that very quality is what makes the label so problematic. The use of any derogatory label to describe a person is dehumanizing and promotes stereotypes. When we dehumanize a person with a label, we make it easier to attack them. In warfare, soldiers learn to kill other people by referring to them with terms associated with animals, monsters, evil, or any of a number of names which make it easier to see them as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity and hence, a threat to group survival.

On his Psychology Today blog (link here), Kalman, whose company produces materials and provides consultations on bullying, urges us to use “good psychology” — not laws or policies — to address bullying behaviors:

Bullying cannot be reduced by treating it like a crime. The behaviors that are being called bullying today are more appropriately called aggression or dominance behavior, and are part of the fabric of life. The attempt to outlaw human nature is bound to create more harm than good. If laws could make social and interpersonal problems disappear, all we would need to do is pass enough laws and we would have Utopia. The true solution is good psychology, teaching people to use their brains to understand and solve their problems.

They are not the first to sound these warnings. For example, Ken Westhues, the University of Waterloo sociologist whose thorough examinations of mobbing in academe are worthy of close study, cautions that we must not become what we abhor and expresses serious reservations about workplace anti-bullying laws and policies.

Over the years I’ve considered whether terms such as bully and bullying are becoming overused, but these recent critiques have prompted me to revisit the question more deeply. Most of my comments address workplace bullying as opposed to schoolyard bullying. Here goes:

Labeling behaviors

The benefits of naming and labeling behaviors can be considerable. I cannot begin to count how many workplace bullying targets have told me that they had no idea what they were enduring until they discovered articles, websites, and blogs discussing workplace bullying. The label resonated with them deeply; it captured their experiences.

By contrast, had more general, academic, or sanitized terms been used — “socially aggressive workplace behavior,” “inappropriate incivility at work,” to name two possibilities — it’s likely they would’ve skipped right over what they found.

In other words, labeling helps us to form frameworks for understanding. Consider, for example, how society finally labeled sexual harassment. Until the underlying behaviors were named, women so targeted had no easy way to refer to them. Today, however, the term sexual harassment is well understood.

Whether dealing with individuals, organizations, or society as a whole, labeling both the good and bad events in our lives helps us to develop a contextual comprehension of our experiences.

Labeling offenders

The benefits of labeling individuals engaging in bullying behaviors are less pronounced. For targets, it provides a natural way to tag and describe their tormenter(s). Obviously it’s an easy way to get the media interested as well, which, in turn, builds public understanding through their coverage.

However, here is where the concerns of Harper, Kalman, et al., do carry weight. Labels can endure, they can be overused, and at times they may lead to mobbing or ostracism.

Slippery slope?

We tend to be labeled by what we do, and that is bad news for individuals whose publicly defining behaviors are widely regarded as destructive or hurtful, whether they be “terrorists,” “corrupt politicians” or, yes, “bullies.”

But beware the slippery slope. If we rid our vocabulary of “bully,” would Dr. Harper also suggest that we abandon labels such as “murderer” or “pedophile” because of their stigmatizing potential? (I do not offer this point facetiously. For example, I have had conversations with women who have experienced both sexual assault and workplace bullying and told me that the latter was more traumatic.)

True, murderers typically are labeled only after our justice system has adjudicated them so. By contrast, because most instances of bullying (at least the workplace variety) are not actionable under law, the label is imposed by a court of public opinion if at all.

However, while concerns about group retribution are not unfounded, it’s much more likely that (a) the organization will ignore a complaint about bullying; and/or (2) the target will experience the bystander effect, whereby she is left without anyone coming to her assistance or defense (i.e., the mob turns against her).

Too mild?

On the other end of the spectrum, some thoughtful individuals believe that terms such as bully and bullying diminish the destructiveness of this form of mistreatment. Ongoing exchanges with one friendly critic persuaded me to invoke the term “abuse” more often in discussing workplace bullying.

Malicious, ongoing bullying at work ranks with other horrific forms of interpersonal abuse. For that relatively small number of people in our workplaces who destroy the souls of others, the bully label is an understated characterization of their behaviors. This is especially true for those who are stellar at indirect, passive-aggressive forms of bullying that can be maddeningly difficult to untangle, explain, and prove.

The role of the law

I happen to agree with Kalman that most instances of bullying should not be treated as a crime — unless, of course, the behaviors violate existing criminal laws, such as those governing homicide, battery, or sexual assault. In fact, I recently wrote that, for a variety of reasons, it would be difficult and legally problematic to broadly criminalize workplace bullying in the U.S. (Some within the workplace anti-bullying movement were very disappointed with my position.)

However, it also is horribly unjust how malicious, targeted behaviors that destroy someone’s health and livelihood currently fall between the cracks of existing worker protections. That’s why I drafted the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), which provides severely bullied workers with a legal claim for damages.

Interestingly, in drafting the HWB I did not use the term bully or bullying to label either individuals or the unlawful employment practices created by the legislation. The HWB imposes liability on both employer and perpetrator, recognizing that both organizational cultures and individual actions lead to psychological abuse at work.

The HWB also includes liability-avoiding incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying at work. This would encourage employers to send what Kalman calls “aggressive” employees to counseling for some “good psychology.”

Use, but don’t overuse

It behooves us to use these labels sparingly, and only when clearly appropriate. Personally, I am more concerned about branding a youth who bullies with a Scarlet B because of possible long-term emotional effects and the belief that children generally should be held less responsible than adults for their behaviors. When it comes to adult bullying at work, however, the stigmatization issue pales when matched against other valid goals and priorities.

In any event, while I respect the concerns shared by these critics, until we radically change our natural connection of deeds and labels, it’s unrealistic to expect that “bully” will disappear from our vocabulary. In addition, if we stop using the term, something else surely will take its place. Obvious substitutes such as “abuser” or “predator” might be even more stigmatizing and likely to trigger the kind of retribution we want to prevent.

51 responses

  1. I have always been uncomfortable with the “bully” label. It has “school yard” connotations and gets a a societal response as such. While I believe this behaviour is immature in practice, in the work place, the behaviour is much more premeditated and Machiavellian in nature. “phycological harassment” is my label of choice.

  2. Although the workplace behaviour associated with the term “bullying” is readily recognized and accepted by targets, I can understand the reluctance to use it for the reasons identified. “Psychological harassment” seems too mild from my experience… “psychological violence” is closer to the mark. Where the perpetrator is in a position of authority, “abusive supervision” frequently fits the bill if we are focussing on the behaviour rather than the individual. Or perhaps we might say an individual acts as a “human resource destruction agent” or “workplace hazard”, both of which suggest that they should be removed from the workplace environment. “Violator” covers a lot of ground- one can violate laws, policies, boundaries, norms, people…might be a broad enough term with minimal suggestion of permanence or stigma.

    Whatever you call the behaviour or the individual must capture the “pathogen” effect on both the target and the workplace objectives. After all, we call an adult who has stolen a bicycle or intentionally broken a window a criminal- and these are mere possessions which are easily repaired or replaced. The effects of bullying behaviour are not so easily quantified, reversed or remedied. And believe me, I’d rather give up a bicycle or live with a draft than have experienced what I did. If I’d had both arms and both legs broken I would be in a better position now than I am. If I had been defrauded of the amount of money I have been deprived of and expect not to earn in the future as a result of the behaviour I was subjected to in a workplace, my losses would be deemed valid . As it is- they are treated as imaginary (or my choice).

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter to me what you or anyone else calls it…I just want it to stop. So would a reasonable employer. So would a civilized society.

    • Wise words. A focus on organizational cultures can reveal a great deal (I will soon be writing a post on the similarities of the workplace to social structures in warfare as reflected in the roles of warlord, guards, jackals and the “worried killer”). Moreover, I know in my own case that had I had a better understanding of how power is operationalized in an organization, I would have realized that every level of management would respond identically to serve the interests of the ranking power, rather than the interests of the workplace, employees or humanity.

  3. If you have ever watched a herd of horses, a pack of dogs or read about groups of primates you can see bullying — except that we label it as members of the herd fighting to be the Alpha. Even puppies in a litter will sort themselves into Alpha all the way down to the runt that is mobbed in various ways by the rest of his brothers and sisters.

    I beleive that bullying is “natural” to all mamals that live in groups, as is mobbing. Our thin veneer of intelligence has not been able to overcome our “natural ” instincts especially as we have become too overcrowded. The fact that some of us see the harm and are trying to stop it indicates some evolutionary movement in the right direction.

    Call it whatever you want it is still devastating to the target. We once watched while a small herd of horses turned on the Alpha female who was old and sick. If we had not separated her from the herd and given her her own paddock they would have killed her. In the wild she would have been “run off”. Sounds to me like what goes on in the schools and workplaces — except that human targets can’t just “run off” and no one gives them their own paddock.

    We could label it abhorrent alpha wannabe behavior — but a bully by any other name is still a bully. And the trck is to get people to overcome their instincts to get and maintain Alpha status( good luck to the psychologists). A little shame at being labeled a bully may be just the medicine. For those wondering what happened to the mare who was so brutally dethroned. She lost weight and appetite, exhibited what we humans would call depression, and died a few months later. She was bullied to death.

  4. I think that labeling the behavior bullying has a great deal of merit. First, it recognizes that the target did nothing to cause the behavior. Next, it separates the pain of describing the details of the behavior from the overall phenomenon. Lastly, the degree of damage done by bullying is substantial. When people die because of a behavior, it needs a label with perjorative connotation!

  5. Thank you for addressing this pressing concern from such a thoughtful perspective Professor Yamada. I have great empathy for targets of bullying, having been a target of bullying as a child, and later in the workplace (where the bullying evolved into mobbing so severe that the aggression included subjecting me to a Homeland Security investigation, and professional smears that destroyed my livelihood). My concerns, however, stem from my experiences as a target witnessing how group psychology operated to transform an interpersonal bullying encounter, into a professional and psychological lynching, despite my prior stellar reputation and work record.

    The U.S. has been slow to understand the process of mobbing, which has led to treating bullying and mobbing as the same thing; targets who think it is the same process turn to the bullying literature and polices to seek understanding and redress. But once a bully succeeds — through gossip, influence and coercian — to turn the workforce against a target, mobbing commences. When that happens, kind, humane people are rapidly drawn into a battle that is shaped more by power relations and numbers than facts or fairness, and when that happens, lots of people become bullies. As the mobbing target turns for help, the consensus of the “bullying” mob works against them. As management closes ranks, “everyone” becomes a bully, but if the target makes that claim, they sound paranoid. If the mob makes that claim against the target, their “consensus” makes their case convincing.

    As mobbing commences and more and more people respond to gossip and the influence of managers seeking to rid the workplace of a “difficult employee,” they all too often revise the social history and identity of targets and see legitimate complaints as “complaining” and “negative” behavior, and their own vulnerability in the organization leads them to feel victims of the powerless “difficult” employee rather than of the the powerful and abusive institution.

    One of my fears is that targets who make reports of bullying may find themselves targets of a mob once they take that step. My mobbing commenced out of the blue when I reported sexual harassment; I did sue and did receive a relatively large settlement, but in the process lost my job, home, pension, savings, reputation and career, none of which have been restored. Although I was never, to my knowledge, accused of bullyiing, I have no doubt that had I not settled, I would have because it would have helped make me unsympathetic. Moreover, the laws in the U.S. make retaliation for reporting protected acts illegal. One reason the accusations against me became so bizarre was because retaliation is illegal, but termination for good cause is not — hence it was necessary to trump up a “good cause.” Anti-bullying laws could thus backfire as legitimate claims are defeated by mob mentality claiming the target’s actions were “bullying.”

    Although I have grave reservations about the efficacy of laws to protect targets, I hope this constructive dialogue continues because I believe we do share the objective of promoting compassion and dignity in the workplace (and schools and communitiies).

    • I experienced much of what hapened to you. I was mobbed by over 13 people on the instructions of the “queen bee”. My reputation was destroyed, over 20 years of work was thrashed and trashed. Everyday was a new humiliation, conflict or trumped up charge. I transfered within the organization but to get a transfer I had to sign a declaration that I would not sue. I was shell shocked for a year, just numb.They continued to trash talk me and thankfully got reprimanded for it. I can not fathom how this type of behavior is accomodated and the upper management can look the other way. Laws are needed to protect those who life and livlyhood is threatened by this type of workplace violence. It is criminal behavior.

    • Dr. Harper –

      Thank you for your Huffington Post article and your post here. Thank you also for sharing your personal experience – which is disturbing on so many levels.

      As a conflict consultant, mediator and paralegal in the area of civil rights, I have struggled with this behavioral phenomenon and have questioned the efficacy of various approaches to it. I, too, have my personal experiences and am always examining how these experiences – as well as my education and training – impact my overall view. Do they distort my perspective? Do they help me better understand the issues?

      I think it’s a little of both.

      My most prominent personal experience deals with being physically, verbally and emotionally abused from age 4 through my late teens – and all the confusion it created for me. The combination of being completely dependent on my abuser for my most basic needs and being told over and over again by my abuser that I caused his behavior – well, it was a bit much for my young self to assimilate. I was so ashamed. I could not tell anyone. What would I say? “I am so bad that I make my dad need to hit me.”

      From my perspective, I was the problem – and, it was my responsibility to figure out a solution. The solution: just do everything right. The difficulty with that solution was that the definition of “right” was a moving target.

      As I grew up, I felt an overwhelming need to understand my father. It became clearer to me (gratefully) over time that what I experienced was not the norm. Did I hate him? At times, yes. But what good did that do? None that I could decipher.

      Villianizing is easy. As you point out, it seeks to justify one’s own reaction without questioning whether that reaction is helpful or whether it aligns with one’s values and identity.

      I seek to be true to my values. I seek to be empathetic and compassionate. I seek to understand. When I label someone, I desert myself.

      As cliche as it sounds, I believe we need to focus on the behavior rather than the person. In situations involving “bullying,” there are any number of people in pain. We cannot effectively address the cause of pain by simply labeling a particular person as “evil.”

      Thank you again.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful insights and personal experience, Debra, and I am so sorry you were subjected to such prolonged abuse from someone you loved. During and after my own mobbing, if I had accepted as true the distorted images that were being cast of me, then I would have had to believe I was indeed deserving of the abuse and the past twenty year successful career had never happened. I rejected that unfounded and untrue image, realizing I was the scapegoat of an abusive organizational culture in which a few nasty people in positions of leadership or influence exploited a conflict at my expense and to their benefit, and the herd went along. Domestic abuse forces targets to confront similar painful choices, choosing between accepting the abuse as deserving, or recognizing that the abusers will be so profoundly and unnecessarily cruel to them, and that they will not stop.

        I am pleased, however, to see that you are a conflict mediator. I believe that mediation is the most powerful and constructive approach to resolving conflicts in the workplace and other organizations. Rather than demonizing any party, and subjecting them to spurious “fact-finding” investigations that become damaging tribunals with little interest in facts, mediation helps the parties to communicate, empathisize with the others’ perspectives, and consider creative alternatives and solutions that will do far more to foster compassiona and dignity in the workplace than will policies of intolerance and exclusion.

  6. Professor Yomada, I greatly appreciate your thoughtful article and comments about my views and those of Janice Harper, something that is quite rare. The topic of bullying has unleashed hatred and intolerance like nothing else in recent times. It is impossible to write something critical of antibullyism, regardless how logical, without getting villified by its proponents. The reason antibullyism is so popular is that everyone thinks the bully is someone else!

    The problem of the label “bully” being demeaning and demonizing is only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many problems with the academic definition of bullying––which is not at all the traditional definition of bullying––and with the research on bullying that I am amazed that it is still treated as a legitimate field of scientific study. Journal articles regularly contain egregrious errors of logic and make conclusions that are contraindicated by the studies themselves, yet they somehow pass the critical eyes of peer reviewers and get published. This happens because everyone, including scientists, hates bullies, and emotions interfere with logical thinking. I doubt there is any field of scientific study that is as rife with scientific errors as bullying. Almost everything I learned in psychology, psychotherapy and philosophy is repudiated by the field of bullying. But because the idea of trying to get rid of bullies sounds so right, and we all know the pain of being victimized, that we fail to consider what’s wrong with it.

    I would have no problem with antibullyism if it worked. But it doesn’t. Because it can’t. I have been warning for twelve years that the popular approach to bullying and the passage of anti-bullying laws are doomed to fail, and time has been proving me correct. The modern world has been combatting bullying intensively every since the Columbine shooting. There have been hundreds––if not thousands––of research studies on bullying and on bullying prevention programs. Anti-bullying laws have been passed in almost every state, the President and the world’s most beloved celebrities have made anti-bully declarations. Yet the problem continues unabated. No one seems willing to consider the possibility that bullying is becoming a bigger problem because of our attempts to eradicate it. If the anti-bully psychology were valid, the situation would be getting better rather than worse.

    Another problem with the academic definition of bullying is that it defines all aggressive behavior as bullying, so even when victims commit them, it is called bullying. That’s why so many people, both in school and the workplace, who experience themselves as victims get accused of being bullies.

    I have written lengthy articles about the problems with the definition and research on bullying. For anyone interested in understanding the problems with this field, here are the links:

    Best Wishes,
    Izzy Kalman

  7. I’d like to thank everyone for posting such thought provoking comments. I’m a little tied up right now and want to write more, but did want to acknowledge your contributions to the discussion, with appreciation. To Janice Harper and Izzy Kalman, whose writings I featured and sometimes took issue with, my thanks for fostering a responsive, cordial discussion on matters we all care deeply about.


  8. Workplace bullying is a form of torture it can cause pot traumatic stress in the target, anyone who thinks this should not be criminalized has no understanding of the trauma a target endured and must overcome. It is criminal!

      • I understand the frustration; my own experience was incomprehensibly traumatic. But any physical assault (or inciting violence) would already be a criminal act. To consider criminalizing “bullying,” are you suggesting we criminalize speech in America?

  9. It is good to see a more nuanced and civil discussion here. My mobbing experience was horrifying but I was very struck, both at the time and afterwards, that the deepest wounds were inflicted by friends. I was in a leadership position, highly articulate, and could not be brought down by a garden variety bully. Despite myself, I was astonished at the psychological skill brought to undermining my social supports, confidence and well-being. I broke down emotionally and suffered a stroke six months after leaving but have since moved forward to specialize in emotional healing of targets. I was drawn to Janice Harper and Ken Westhues work for the simple reason that they spoke to the psychological truth of my experience. Of the various articles and videos I have produced since the most challenging have involved a key component of healing – forgiveness. And again, being simple, it is easier to forgive flawed and frightened human beings caught in a group phenomenon, particularly where the “bully” is behind the scenes pulling the strings. I think that wider understanding of this phenomenon and its manifestations could be of more value than alot of bullying policies with strong individual focus. By the way, it’s probably my social work background but I gravitate towards using “psychological abuse in the workplace”.

    • I have given much thought to the idea of “forgiveness” without quite being able to incorporate it into my perspective (which is not fixed). Currently I like the idea of “absolution”. I can imagine “absolving” those whose actions have harmed me…to me it captures the nuance that the harm done is NOT SOLVED… but recognition of that would allow me to imagine us both moving forward without baggage. Truth and reconciliation.

    • I second Richard’s comment that it is refreshing to see a more nuanced and civil discussion on this topic, and his own work in the area of mobbing has done much to help targets cope with its damaging effects.

      I also think Kachina’s suggestion for thinking in terms of absolution over forgiveness is a step in the right direction, though not without also encouraging participants in aggression to accept responsibility for their part. To the extent that aggressors ask for forgiveness, however, I believe targets should consider extending it (I realize, however, that apologies are rare). But targets must move on, and to the extent we can forgive or absolve our abusers, the better our chances of healing and recovery.

      One of my concerns about focusing on bullying over mobbing, however, is that rather than see those who participate as responding to the social tides (although that is clearly what is going on), there comes a point at which they are responsible for their actions. Seeking a bully behind every mob continues to absolve participants for the damage they inflict, which as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is often far more grave than the damage caused by those who instigate the aggression. Responsibility and compassion are first steps, along with more thoughtful discussions such as this one.

  10. Thank you for your kind comments, Janice.

    Having experienced abusive behavior from such a young age, I had no other perspective with which to compare what was happening to me. As I grew up, I gained that perspective and it showed me that my experiences and relationships outside my family conflicted with the view of myself I’d come to believe as a result of the abuse. People liked and respected me – some even loved me. Things just didn’t line up.

    I can’t imagine having sat down with my father in mediation. I can’t even imagine what dynamics could have even led to such a situation. Had this opportunity ever come up, I believe I would have simply agreed with his version of the relationship and that I needed to change. I would not have had the wherewithal to question his behavior. I was too afraid and ashamed.

    As a mediator, I have faced a number of situations in which I questioned whether the process would be helpful. I examine each situation with great care and will only proceed with mediation under circumstances in which I believe the parties have a clear understanding of the process and their needs and goals – and from there we proceed, step-by-step, with caution and awareness.

    I am very reluctant to attach myself to any singular so-called “solution” to abusive relationships, including what has been referred to as “bullying.” While there may be some overarching commonalities in such relationships, clearly each situation is unique and requires something more than a cookie-cutter approach, e.g., “stand up – don’t be a victim,” “go to HR and file a complaint,” “go to management,” “sit down and openly communicate with the person,” etc.

    Than you again.

  11. Your comments are very astute; I just want to add that I didn’t mean to imply mediation is appropriate for dometstic abuse, especially abuse of a child. I was referring to workplace conflicts, where mediation has the best chance of resolving conflicts without damaging careers.

    • I didn’t read any implications into your post. 🙂

      Since I mediate workplace conflict, I definitely agree with you. As long as the parties understand that the process will not be used support or perpetuate abusive powerplays, mediation can be an overwhelmingly positive and constructive experience. I am honored to be trusted enought to be involved in the experience.

      Me, astute?? Naw, just a very human being who thrives on learning about life.

      Take care.

      • Janice and Debra, I’ve been following your thread with appreciation, a little too tied up with stuff to enter the conversation in a useful way, but thank you so much for sharing your personal stories and how they’ve informed your worldview on these matters.


  12. I can see mediation helping if there are vestiges of objectivity in the organization. I do worry about the whole thing being “stacked”. At one point during my mobbing my boss offered to “mediate” a meeting between me, every member of my staff and each colleague manager so that I could work out my personality conflict with each and every one of them. I think I would have been happier if it had been you, Debra. 🙂 Something I would like to see is everyone in these situations having a champion. Not everyone is in a union or is bullied by someone outside the union. Mobbing can be the most isolating experience in the world.

    • I believe it’s important for employers to carefully consider whether, as internal stakeholders, they have the capacity to be impartial under the types of circumstances we’re discussing – whether the task involves diagnosing apparent organizational and/or interpersonal conflict and/or dysfunction, determining whether an intervention is appropriate or necessary, and/or playing a prominent role in the intervention process.

      The next consideration needs to be how the involved parties will perceive the employer’s role in the process and possible motives and biases they may attribute to the employer.

      Certainly not every workplace situation requires external assistance. Each situation needs to be contemplated on a case-by-case basis.

      I’m so sorry to hear about your horrendous experience, but am grateful that you’re out there doing such good and important work. Thank you.

    • In my situation, a “facilitated discussion” was arranged and management pressured peers to participate as antagonists. Through my years-long ordeal it became increasingly difficult to identify and understand who was playing what parts in the destruction I was experiencing. When I finally filed a formal complaint, I named the employer (rather than any individuals) as respondent because I truly had no idea who was deploying what resources against me…just that I could feel the impacts.

      There were some individuals whose job descriptions prescribed responsibility in specific areas, for which I believe they should be held accountable. Many of those people I did not have direct contact with…they have never met me but had organizational obligations to me regardless. I therefore conclude that much of the attacking was not personal, but institutionalized in nature. I also noticed that as staff turned over, people of varying predispositions morphed into the “shape” of the position they held in the organization. To a large extent, the environment or culture was responsible.

      Having said that, individuals must be held accountable for their actions as well. I worked with people who had professional obligations and defined job responsibilities that they were not maintaining. They compromised their integrity (I can only speculate as to their motivations, but can imagine several that are plausible and understandable…financial pressure, workplace precedent and expectations, ignorance, misinformation….) but are still responsible for their actions.

      The biggest “bully” behind all of that was the organization itself. Yup…that corporate entity with legislated “personhood” but no brain, no consciousness, no personal agenda. Just a set of warm, fuzzy ideals and values attached to a “mission” it has no awareness of. It failed to provide adequate support, training, resources, education, and direction to its dependent employees. The systems within that big pseudo “organism” needed an overhaul…and if that isn’t in somebody’s job description it needs to be.

      • I think your and Richard’s experiences point to a real challenge in implementing any successful in-house mediation (while by the time a conflict gets to the point where an external party is called in, it’s pretty much too late for the target). And Kachina’s experience is classic mobbing, which is one of the limitations of the bully paradigm; she was attacked at all levels, and those she turned to for help fell in line with the organizational objectives of eliminating her (“the problem”). But perhaps one small step is to begin raising awareness of mobbing; if people better understand how it operates, when someone is targeted in an organization, others may have a better understanding that the target may not be the problem. Similarly, it may protect people from falling victim to the mob if they are considering reporting a “bully” who has organizational influence or power. Once an employee presents a problem to management, it’s like swimming with alligators . . .

    • I’m going to reiterate my pitch for why we need stronger legal protections against workplace bullying in connection with the possibility of mediation.

      Basically, there’s no incentive for employers to use mediation or any other alternative dispute resolution mechanism in the absence of potential liability. I wish that was not the case. I wish that employers would understand the organizational and individual destruction caused by workplace bullying. But they do not.

      When combined with the at-will disposability of workers, the absence of clear lines of liability for bullying means that employers can ignore or dismiss this problem. If the Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law, having effective mediation or ADR programs to address workplace conflict before it elevates to bullying will help insulate employers from liability and perhaps save some people from having to leave their jobs.

  13. I don’t really understand why it is important to even care about what labels you put on people who gang up on and abuse other individuals. I think the “bully” label may be overused, but the people demonstrating those types of “bullying behaviors” need to be stopped regardless of what label you choose to use. The most important point in moving forward to deal with this problem head-on is to develop some way to reach the individuals (victims, bullies, and their families) directly so they can be given the resources on how to deal with the issues they are facing on a daily basis. Most of the information I have seen or read focuses on the needs of the victims of bullying which is perfectly understandable, and is quite honestly the manner in which I first approached this issue. While I think the victims of bullying and their families should be the first priority in receiving help for the particular situation they are facing, it may produce more favorable results to look at helping the people who are causing the problem-the bullies themselves. If we would focus on helping the bullies recognize and overcome their insecurities and improve their self-esteem and self-confidence, this huge problem in our society could be drastically reduced. But, let’s stop worrying about what we call it, and instead focus on addressing the real issue.

  14. Hi, Rick –

    I think whether we’re talking about a behavior or a person, labels do matter. They have the potential to create assumptions, judgments and biases.

    I had the honor of participating in Dr. Laura Crawshaw’s week-long training in September. Laura has developed the “Boss Whispering” method of working with what she refers to as “abrasive” executives. Laura’s book: “Taming The Abrasive Manager: How To End Unnecessary Roughness In The Workplace” is a tremendous asset to this field and her success with implementing her method is both phenomenal and encouraging.

    Here’s a link to Laura’s website:

    Thanks for your post to this discussion.


  15. As Debra Healy and Carol Fehner know, I often post blog pieces to Facebook. I did so with this one, but reposted just a few minutes ago with this note:

    Thoughtful dialogue: The other day I posted this blog article on whether the term “bully” is an appropriate label. If you want to read a very thoughtful, civil, unfolding exchange about how people’s experiences inform their views on this and related topics, please return to the post and scroll down to the comments. I can’t take any credit for this — it’s thanks to those who have participated, with my FB friends Debra Healy and Carol Fehner among the discussants.

  16. Please Intellectualize all you like. However, from My experience and assisting many others, Mediation does not work and as far as I can see , In Australia. The person who does speak up about bullying being a target does become more targeted, more isolated than before and MOBBING in the work place common which ultimately leads to Psychological Injury NOT to mention financial, Career destroyed ,relationship injury etc etc. I feel as if I am stating the obvious here as in ALL research that every one who has lived, breathed and researched this topic will already BE AWARE of. You talk about FREEDOM of speech. My answer the that, How interesting a question that is you may ask and HOW ironic…WHAT about the Freedom of Speech for the Targets of Bullying? This is non existent as far as I ascertain through the whole process and becoming further harassed. victimized and suffer More so for the so called RIGHT of Freedom of Speech. PLEASE wake up to the irony of this! Back to MY original Comment. Bullying in workplaces is an “Assault of the Human Psyche”!

  17. Speaking from the perspective of a former target, I agree that the word bullying should be used less frequently. Bullying in the workplace gets confused with schoolyard bullying which is totally different. Also, use of a word most associated with the actions of children tends to diminish the severity of the financial, physical and psychological harm that such behavior causes for adults who are harassed in the workplace.

    I admit that personally naming it “bullying” and making those comparisons did help me to comprehend what was happening and to realize that I was being targeted for elimination because of my competence and integrity. Such malicious behavior cannot be mediated or treated with conflict resolution techniques. And, in my case, it did turn into mobbing. I have significant documentation to support my position that mediation and/or conflict resolution were never an option for what I endured and could not remedy the harassing behavior amounting to abuse of public office which continues to this day.

    So, I am at a loss for exact terminology except to say that people need to recognize when they are in such situations of harassment in the workplace and plan an exit as soon as possible.

    I really like the distinctions between workplace and childhood bullying that Janice Harper makes in her subsequent article here,

    • I think you’ve hit on some very important points, Lisa-Marie. The term does have its use in understanding the nature of the aggression, but it also has its limits.

      Mediation has the potential to resolve conflicts at early stages, but once mobbing commences, I agree that making an exit is probably the only effective response. Had I done so, I would have lost the battle, but saved my career. The longer I fought, and the stronger my case, the more determined they were to destroy my reputation and make me out to be as unsympathetic as possible.

      Nonetheless, to the worker who is only a few years short of retirement with little chance of finding comparable work, other tactics to preserve his/her health/sanity/ and job are needed, and that’s where I’d like to see clinicians better trained to recognize and treat mobbing, and workers better aware of how insidious and sneaky mobbing is so that the targeted worker isn’t so readily viewed as deserving and/or crazy.

    • I think it’s helpful to distinguish situations that elevate from a lesser form of conflict into bullying/mobbing from those that start at an abusive level practically from the get go.

      Mediation can help to nip conflict in the bud, including situations that otherwise could worsen and become abusive.

      But as I’ve said here often, mediation can serve to further torment the target once the situation has become abusive.

      Of course, drawing these distinctions in the abstract is a helluva lot easier than discerning them in reality…..

      • Hi, David –

        Determining whether mediation is appropriate requires thoughtful and thorough case development. Ultimately, it is up to the parties to decide whether or not to participate in mediation. However, in situations where I don’t believe mediation will be beneficial, I will not provide the service and I will explain my reasoning to the parties as well the employer. Of course, the parties are free to contact another mediator.

        In situations involving systemically dysfunctional organizational cultures, I offer a broader spectrum of approaches.

        Take care.

  18. They’re “bullies”, “harassers”, “antagonists”, “psychopaths”, etc. All of these terms should be at least included in a required college course on workplace relationships. It should probably even be taught in high school. It’s a start. The problem does appear to have a significant effect on some level of economics. I just don’t understand how anyone could think that the way to improve one’s self-esteem would be to destroy another person.

  19. I think and agree that if you find yourself in a toxic workplace GET OUT asap. Also organizations actually use this as a tool to get rid of older and more expensive employees. I have seen the documentation on this .

    You cannot change anyone’s personality, ( neither should we nor try) especially if they do happen to have any form of so called personality disorder ( and we all know this is unlikely) .

    It is actually beneficial to some organizations to have these sort of managers as they will have no qualms in doing what I stated in my first sentence.. Sound too way out for you…… what I just said. I do not think so. Look up Under Cover Lawyer in the USA!

    I can also tell you I have seen documentation to the like here in my own country as well.

    David I started mediation as soon as I knew there was an issue and followed all procedure and policy to the letter! I can assure you that it does not work . I was targeted even more so for doing the right thing. When the organization is paying for this they will always side with management.

    I have no faith in mediation what so ever. I have heard this from many many others that I assist. it became FAR worse for the targets.

    • Hi, Alice –

      I’m so sorry to hear about your experience with mediation.

      Mediation definitely has the potential to perpetuate greater damage when it is used in inappropriate situations. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to share a handout I prepared: “Mediating Workplace Abuse: Does It Work?” Please e-mail me at

      Take care.

  20. Interesting that the discussion tends to meander consistently toward the implications of the terms or labels we use to describe the behaviour when applied to finding solutions or addressing the problem. Clearly the aggressor(s), aggrieved, and employer will have different perspectives and experiences of the phenomena. Even the term aggressor may not always apply, as failure to act can be as damaging as taking action.
    There are active and passive elements of behaviour of all the players. Perhaps it would be more valuable to focus on the roles of the various players and the professional, organizational, and basic human rights and responsibilities explicit to the relationships so prescribed. By clarifying the intended relationship, the areas needing to be addressed in terms of aligning the actual situation with the explicit expectations would be more impersonal.
    It might become evident that professional standards preclude meeting organizational expectations. Or that a particular job description includes responsibilities that cannot be fulfilled with the resources available. Perhaps the existing work conditions infringe on human rights. In any event, the obligations imposed by the workplace relationships and parameters would be examined and re-evaluated.
    Given that the relationships of the players are determined by the employer…find a term that applies to the EMPLOYER rather than the employees. Like “unhealthy workplace” or “bullying workplace” or “workplace with low employment standards”…the ugly dark side of the world of work. If we look at domestic rather than employment relationships, the failure(or failing) of a marriage between humans implies nothing about the individuals involved-although the specifics of any particular case vary considerably and might include criminal activity or non-criminal violence. The remedies might include counselling, informal or formal renegotiation of the contract, criminal investigation, and/or legal dissolution of the relationship, depending on the specifics.
    At issue are the fundamentals of the contractual obligations…which are determined by law. If existing law doesn’t cover the situation, I guess we’re left with employees having personal problems which leaves us with each individual focussing on their personal priorities in the workplace instead of on their job responsibilities. And that leaves people whose personal agenda is to do the job they were hired to do open to exploitation of those who have other priorities (which might be so seemingly benign as securing and maintaining an income or as pathological as demeaning others to satisfy their insecurities ).

    • For the purpose of clarifying my experience and putting some context to my perspective, I was a registered nurse (no longer practicing). I have worked in in-patient psychiatric settings and as a clinician in mental health crisis response in the community, where I was frequently assessing whether the identified problem(s) were social or psychiatric in origin in order to determine appropriate plans with individuals to resolve the crisis.

  21. From the perspective of an individual who has experienced “inappropriate incivility at work,” I’d like to suggest that these attempts to sterilize the terms used to describe this form of abuse are likely to further complicate the problem. If the concern is about how to describe abusive individuals in the workplace who perpetrate the abuse in a manner that doesn’t de-humanize those individuals, then the effort would be more effectively directed at “rehabilitating” these individuals. I personally suspect that my abuser was himself abused at some point in his life. Does society refer to alcoholics, for example, as excessive imbibers of grain spirits? No. The first step to their recovery is admitting that they have a problem that is disrupting a healthy, well-rounded life. As I see it, the first step in the workplace is to call it what it is…it is a form of abuse so severe that it has even crossed the “incivility” line into bullying. Only then will employers be compelled to deal with the problem. If a cost-benefit analysis was undertaken in large companies or institutions, I would venture to guess that an effective program/empowered ombudsperson will cost far less than the fall-out from an abusive workplace.

  22. Sorry to steal Kalmans thunder but i dont think he knows what he is talking about. Why do nt we just pull all laws and when someone murders someone wwe just say he s not murderer or a criminal he just got really mad, hopefully he will learn from his lesson. Lets get real, labels are used to open peoples eyes and to categorize things so people can put a reference to a person place or thing or a type of behavior. Lets just pull all labels and when Kalmans kid picks up some pennicillin and takes it, doesnt know what it is and has an anaphalactic reaction because he or she is allergic to the product in the bottle, but couldnt tell because it was not labeled, and see how he likes that!!! Bully is a perfect label for people that target others and it should be a crime!!! No questions asked period. The ddamage that is being done to kids in school and people at work is palpable and dehumanizing, life altering, destructive, causes life long injury and destroys peoples lives. If that is not enough to put a label on it, or make it illegal, than America better wake up, and Kalman better hand in his psychology license. Until someone has been severely bullied and had their career destroyed like i did and developed post traumatic stress as a result, they will not likely understand the effects and how damaging it is.

    • “No questions asked?” The aggression and tyrannical rants expressed in some of these comments are bullying by any definition and likely to undermine any efforts at real reform.

      I have been dismissed in this and other blogs for “intellectualizing” the issue, as if reason and insight have no place in debating social policy. Hogwash. I, too, was severely bullied, had my career destroyed, lost my home and nearly every asset, and endured extreme trauma. Among the many aggressive acts committed against me and my family, my employers reported not only me, but my ten year old daughter, to Homeland Security and subjected me to what the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force termed an “aggressive” investigation. The allegations? That I was attempting to obtain classified nuclear information to build a hydrogen bomb (despite the fact that I cannot even master power point). I went from being described as “warm and welcoming,” “well-respected” and “indispensible,” to “a clear and present danger” within months of reporting sexual harassment — even after I was fully exonerated by four levels of law enforcement.

      The aggression against me began as bullying but escalated to mobbing — an extreme form of collective bullying that is very distinct from one-on-one bullying because it transforms otherwise kind and decent people into increasingly cruel and aggressive ones. I see this same process developing among some of the voices here, and find it as repulsive and self-serving as what I witnessed as a target. The people who mobbed me justified their aggression as moral because they viewed themselves as moral people — human rights advocates, in fact. Cloaked in their ideaology, they legitimated stripping me of my civil rights and destroying my livelihood without cause and in secrecy, in retaliation for filing a complaint.

      Cloaking aggression and venemous rants as progress and treating such platforms as moral because they are aimed at “bullies” is a dangerous direction to take and will ultimately defeat any objectives for humane and dignified workplaces and schools because they will repel potential support and lead to a backlash against those who want to help targets. If this kind of talk is the best you can muster, your bullies have defeated you, and your own humanity has been lost to the pain and rage you carry. And for that, I am truly sorry.

  23. Thank you MEL. Yes! That is the realities of workplace bullying, which often leads to mobbing and all you have stated .. And worse case scenario. SUICIDE. I think it is about time the intellectuals and academics actually started really listening to the TARGETS and allow “then to BE HEARD”I mean really heard. WE continually seem to have this view that targets or bullying are WEAK or something must have been wrong with US for this to HAPPEN…..WRONG! Thank you MEL. Like you, I was a highly very respected qualified health care profession before the so called BULLY came into my workplace. You only have to look up all the research on this IE DR Gary Namie! All there. NOW lets get real about this PLEASE. it is CRIMINAL it is wrong and it DOES KILL…period. Want stats on this too. I have them for you from Australia if you like. I am very well aware of the deaths in the USA as well regarding this tyranny. YES it should be criminalized. i have notice HERE that all the people that hypothesize, theorize etc etc have never been through this.

  24. Hi Everyone,

    I very much appreciate the heartfelt comments that have contributed to this discussion, but I also can see when the tenor of the exchange starts to get a little rough.

    I welcome differences of opinion in sorting through what this horrible phenomenon is all about. In doing so, we need to value both personal experiences and intellectual or academic perspectives, and I want this forum to be open to both. So…I won’t try to referee the disagreements that have emerged from this exchange; rather, I’d ask us to give one another room to have different opinions and insights.

    Thanks much,

  25. Thank you for your thoughts, David.

    Our perspectives can differ greatly depending on where we are in the process of learning about and/or dealing with abusive workplace situations (this includes everyone who is touched by the events: targets, those accused of abusive behavior, witnesses to abusive behavior, etc.).

    The process appears to have stages (similar to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, for example) that don’t necessarily unfold in any specific order.

    I am grateful to know so many of us are out here communicating and seeking effective ways to understand and approach this phenomenon.

    Thank you all.

  26. Debra, I really like what you have stated here about KUBLER ROSS .YES the various stages of grieving here for sure. SEVERAL losses ,many facets of the targets lives in fact. all at once. Yes, David you are right a well. Bullying affects ALL stakeholders Everyone in different ways and yes we are all damaged in various ways from it all. I hope with absolute sincerity can be addressed appropriately. All these stories and mine, ( which I have not stated) ARE “horrendous”and extremely sad. WE must not lose fact and connection with the people and targets of bullying and they just need to be heard and LISTENED to. I have been researching, writing , listening, intellectualizing, seeking real understanding from all angles, on an on but we need action and real action before too many more lives are ruined or die and the associated collateral damage. i have just found out here in Australia that a REPORT was done and acknowledged amongst the so called safety fraternity here 10 years ago about this and people, dying from workplace bullying. GUESS what they :are still ranting on and on and NOTHING has been done. Maybe this may explain a little about my comments and where I am coming from. I hear it all over and over again with not joy and no change. if I have offended anyone at all this has NOT been my intention.m I am just speaking my truth, what I have seen heard, and experienced. Action is what is needed and soon. When people become emotional about this as well. I understand this for sure, as it is about their whole life. Their whole life and their whole lifes’ work gone, their families affected etc. WE all must not ever forget this either. I have noticed that many here in Australia e who do not understand have never been through this tyranny themselves. Willfull Blindess is a safe way to play the life game, for many . Hard and difficult road to act and speak up ( like all the people here who commented on this thread, who have suffered,). The road to act is a very difficult and frustrating road, but we must all never give up and do what we can. . On that I bit good bye. Please keep up the “good fight” as lives are being destroyed. I know! MINE was as well.

    • In addition to being a mediator and conflict consultant, I work as a paralegal in a law firm. We settled a tragic case this week involving workplace abuse. We represented the husband of a woman who committed suicide after being tormented at her workplace over a period of time. Because (as of yet) there is no law against such conduct, our client’s claims were wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Unfortunately, the court ruled that the victim’s suicide notes (expressing that she could no longer endure the abuse at her workplace) were inadmissible under the Rules of Evidence. These are incredibly difficult cases.

      Take care.

      • Dear Debra.

        I’m so sorry. I’m honestly stunned to hear that a judge refused to admit what amounts to a “dying declaration.” The note would have been written under circumstances in which the declarant’s death was imminent, and the note appears to have pertained to the “cause or circumstances.” I am very surprised…was the note found to be too “prejudicial?” I know that in this discussion thread, my question here is not relevant to the issue, and I apologize to those of you who came here to talk about such a painful experience. (I’m a student…I just wanted to understand the ruling, because it may help me help others in the future if, heaven forbid, I should ever have to run into this kind of problem.)

        Again, I am so terribly sorry…for the victim, her husband, and for you. This is yet another horrible loss that could have been prevented if the state legislature had acted on their duty to protect Mass. citizens through good law.

  27. How tragic and heart breaking is all this. This is WHY we fight and seek REAL change in LAW reforms. It is a MUST to have law reform for the above stated case and many many more we hear about. Like I say many times.Bullying maims destroys( the destroyer) and kills. GOD bless you all in this fight against it in seeking wisdom and knowledge. I am sorry but this all just break’s my heart to hear this.. You see I have loved people, ( devoted my life ) to and cared for them all my life and to see this ( and through my experience) just breaks my heart even further. Alas we must never give up and tell our stories, till heard. I am so sad for the husband and his family also to the legal firm who where brave and true to their profession to fight justly for unjust wrong even though know how difficult it was to win they still tried! Maybe we should name bullying The Exterminator! I return to what I said in the beginning of this threat. Bullying is an ” Assault on the Human Psyche:! Read up on this and you will see why I say this.The above legal case shows this in its its affects.

  28. Hi, Ingrid –

    “Dying declarations” are very difficult to get into evidence. In Oregon (where this case was filed), we have no case law on point. Therefore, we had to rely on cases from other jurisdictions – which do not have precendential authority.

    My recollection (without having the ruling in front of me) is the court determined that because the timing of the victim’s death was totally within her control, her statements could be self-serving, e.g., there is no recognized motivation to tell the truth. The victim retained the ability to draft a statement to her liking that included accusations of others and were, therefore, potentially tainted with her personal motives. Furthermore, the victim could not be subjected to cross-examination to determine her motives in drafting the notes.

    The law involves the balancing of rights – which at times can seem completely off-kilter.

    Yes, this was a heart-wrenching, preventable loss of a life.

    Thank you.

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