What the 1990s taught us about abusive work environments

Many journalists who interview me about workplace bullying ask if the recessionary economy has contributed to the frequency and severity of bullying behaviors. I point them to various studies and commentaries linking the current meltdown and bad work environments, but I also tell them about research that emerged from the recessionary years of the 1990s.

Deja vu, all over again

You see, we’ve been here before. As social psychologist Harvey Hornstein, author of Brutal Bosses and Their Prey (1996), told Fortune magazine in 1996, “(n)early half the cases of abusive bosses that I’ve uncovered can be attributed to the Nineties work environment.”

This environment, according to Hornstein, “ignited explosions of brutality both from innate bullies who thrive on their mistreatment of others and form overburdened bosses who might never have behaved that work in less stressful times.” Hornstein observed that many companies in the 90s adopted a downsizing mentality and carved away layers of workers, leaving the survivors to “produce more with fewer resources.”

Also, in a study published in 1998, organizational behavior experts Robert Baron and Joel Neuman found that popular cost-cutting measures such as downsizing and layoffs, and organizational changes such as corporate restructuring, are “significantly related to expressions of hostility and obstructionism” in the workplace.

So what’s new?

Unfortunately, this recession is much deeper and more enduring than what we saw in the early 1990s. Sure, some people are getting jobs, but the unemployment rate remains high and job mobility has become more limited.

It means that when targets of bullying, sexual harassment, and other forms of mistreatment either “voluntarily” leave or are pushed out of their jobs, their options may be constrained. No doubt many workers are toughing out very hostile, dysfunctional workplaces for that very reason. We need to tackle pro-actively those workplaces that enable bullying, but we also need a stronger job market to give targets the options they need to move on.


The 1990s information was drawn from my law review article, David C. Yamada, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” Georgetown Law Journal (2000), a free download here.

5 responses

  1. My sister works for a state agency (not Massachusetts) and has been enduring years of bullying by her boss including repeatedly being written up and having to go to hearings where she is found innocent of whatever ridiculous charges were filed (e.g., taking too many Mondays off), yet her supervisor keeps filing and has no consequences for wasting everyone’s time and making my sister’s life miserable. Now my sister has been diagnosed with a severe auto-immune disease, and she is still toughing it out because she is a single mom with kids in college and can’t risk losing her income. I wish she had some recourse.

  2. I took a demotion from a job I loved and excelled at in order to transfer away from,the psychpathic bully that tried to destroy my life for 18 months. Last week she was demoted and transfered to my office. When I objected, I was told like it or leave. Three of her minions were transfered to my office 8 months ago, and I was told the same thing. The whole organization is dysfunctional due to the lack of leadership and a predatory HR department. I have 5 years to go until I retire. I hope I can endure it.

  3. It’s also important to keep in mind that it is not just workplaces that will be more abuse prone in times of stress and limited options. These effects will no doubt extend to educational settings, clubs, organisations, etc. Is there a way to extend the focus from workplace bullying or mobbing to a wider perspective?

    • Increasingly we’re connecting the dots between different forms of abuse, such as workplace bullying, school & Internet bullying, and domestic abuse. Others will follow, especially if researchers emerge to study these other areas and professional & lesrned organizations appear to sddress them.

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