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.