Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying

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It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.

You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; (3) disproportionally come from privileged backgrounds; and (4) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured, competitive educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of analytical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence.

You then unleash them into the world of work. Uh oh.

Med schools

In a 2012 New York Times blog piece that attracted over 1,000 comments (link here), Dr. Pauline Chen wrote about a resident doctor who terrified the medical students with his explosive behavior:

Powerfully built and with the face of a boxer, he cast a bone-chilling shadow wherever he went in the hospital.

At least that is what my medical school classmates and I thought whenever we passed by a certain resident, or doctor-in-training, just a few years older than we were.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I now see that the young man was a brilliant and promising young doctor who took his patients’ conditions to heart but who also possessed a temper so explosive that medical students dreaded working with him. He had called various classmates “stupid” and “useless” and could erupt with little warning in the middle of hospital halls. Like frightened little mice, we endured the treatment as an inevitable part of medical training, fearful that doing otherwise could result in a career-destroying evaluation or grade.

Chen went on to discuss studies documenting high levels of abuse directed at medical students, as well as efforts that have been undertaken by some medical schools to change their educational environments — often with disappointing results.

In a 2019 Boston Globe feature (link here), Dr. Amitha Kalaichandran focused on the bullying of new doctors doing their residencies:

THERE’S NO QUESTION that bullying is endemic in medical education. One study revealed that about half of residents and fellows in the U.S. reported being bullied, most often by their attending physicians. Canadian researchers found that 78 percent of residents surveyed reported being bullied and harassed in their training, often by attendings or program directors.

. . . Search “bullying in residency” and you’ll get thousands of hits, from heart-wrenching blog posts to short opinion articles to forums on sites like Reddit or Quora where residents anonymously share their experiences and advise targets. There are tales of discriminatory remarks. There are performance reviews in which attending physicians detail fabricated incidents that the residents can’t refute.

Law schools

Lest I be accused of tossing bricks from my glass house, let me quickly acknowledge that law schools are no better at educating their students to be socially intelligent practitioners. Even in the face of pressures being exerted by accreditors and leaders of the Bar to do a better job of preparing students for actual practice, law schools overwhelmingly emphasize the study of judicial decisions, statutes, and regulations.

To the extent that lawyering skills become a part of the law school curriculum through simulation courses, clinical programs, and externships, much of the focus remains on advocacy as the most valuable interpersonal skill. Client counseling and everyday interpersonal communications are considered “soft” skills, and they typically do not get a lot of attention.

Consequently, a lot of lawyers who possess the intelligence to earn a law degree and pass a bar exam come up short on interpersonal skills. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the legal profession is home to a lot of workplace bullying. Too many lawyers are wired to act aggressively in any interpersonal situation, including dealing with colleagues and clients. Some cross the line and are downright abusive.

Survey results illustrate the breadth of the problem. A 2018 International Bar Association survey about bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession (link here) concluded:

The legal profession has a problem. In 2018, the International Bar Association (IBA) and market research company Acritas conducted the largest-ever global survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the profession. Nearly 7,000 individuals from 135 countries responded to the survey, from across the spectrum of legal workplaces: law firms, in-house, barristers’ chambers, government and the judiciary. The results provide empirical confirmation that bullying and sexual harassment are rife in the legal profession. Approximately one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied in connection with their employment.  

Start early

The cues for what constitutes appropriate behavior often are communicated initially in these professional schools. Doctors and lawyers in training may have no idea how to conduct themselves as practitioners. Some may have initially been influenced by a lot of unfortunate “role models” on television. Soon they are shaped by their real-life teachers and mentors. If we want to prevent workplace bullying, then the training schools for these professions are the first and perhaps best places to start. In terms of introducing future professionals to best practices and ideal ways of interacting with colleagues and those who need their services, this critical onboarding period can communicate what is expected of them.


This post was revised in September 2019.

Hat tip to Dr. Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State U.) for the New York Times article.

8 responses

  1. Great post David. I know of at least 3 or 4 doctors in our little town that are using bullying behaviors to control their staff both in the office and even those that do not work directly for them but belong to the hospital personnel.

    There is one thing that this article doesn’t touch on and yet in another post about the school bus monitor, Karen Klien the bullying behaviors are starting in schools and then progressing on into the workforce.

    These doctors and lawyers have probably come up through lower and middle schools before going on to professional schooling with the bullying attitudes and actions.

    I am curious as to why you are only pointing to these two professions and the schools as being incubators for workplace bullies. I know that some other professions are also suffering with bullies these days too. As to whether or not their schooling’s have been instrumental in the proliferation of workplace bullies is yet to be seen.

    I am of the simplistic, general opinion that bullying starts at a young age and without some type of intervention the activity will continue on into adulthood and therefore into the workplace.

  2. Excellent column, David. May I add prestigious MBA program grads to your list? I could swear that there is actually some secret course that they are all taught on how to execute insidious, cut-throat workplace bullying tactics that are essentially fail-safe.

    As for your thoughts on doctors and lawyers, let’s just say that if I were an Indian Chief, I would no longer be honored to be a part of that old saying! : )

  3. My bully was an uneducated (high school diploma) manager. She grew up in a small deep south county in Florida. She was left behind academically in jr high. However people who went to school with her said she was a not too smart bully in high school too. My take on it is that you have to have a certain type of personality to bully which is self centered and arrogant. It really doesn’t matter if you are educated or not. Certain work systems might tolerate bullying, but it starts in grade school.

  4. Bullying may start in grade school, but when it gets certain high-priced initials after its name, it gains an extra layer of impunity and a whole lot more arrogance.

    • I agree. Too often we assume that the education includes an unfaltering commitment to professionalism, ethics and integrity. We fail to question the legitimacy of the authority we accord those who are well-educated but either inexperienced or unethical. Accountability is believed to be inherent in systems of subsequent employment that fail to deliver and frequently actively encourage and reward unprofessional, unethical actions that undermine the integrity of individuals and the institutions which so proudly tout their “virtues” over their responsibilities.

      The value of education lies in the application of acquired knowledge. Systems that spawn and sustain destructive individuals and practices need to be examined in the transparent light of truth instead of cloaked in opaque mantles of superiority. Let the emperors parade in their glory and the masses determine their fitness to lead and inspire!

  5. Pingback: Where do workers and managers learn about respect? – SafetyAtWorkBlog

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