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.
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.
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.
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.