Workplace bullying 2.0: When targets become change agents

Here’s an often underrated indicator of how a social movement gains momentum and legitimacy: More and more victims of abuse and mistreatment begin to speak out publicly, sharing their experiences and calling for change.

It’s happening with the workplace anti-bullying movement right now, and I realized that many of us (myself included) have taken this shift for granted. Put simply, greater numbers of people who have experienced (or closely witnessed) workplace bullying are making their voices heard. They are doing so through legislative testimony, letters to the editor and website comments, blogs and articles, media interviews, radio and television appearances, and posted videos.

Not long ago

Believe me, it hasn’t always been this way.

When this movement was in its infancy roughly a decade ago, it was unusual to find bullying targets willing to go public with their stories. Public understanding of workplace bullying was at such a low level that most targets didn’t even know what to call their ordeals. Many who did were embarrassed and reluctant to talk about their experiences openly.

In fact, the paucity of targets’ narratives was such that at the first American conference on workplace bullying hosted by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in January 2000, a session featuring a bullying target describing her experiences in detail was regarded as a pioneering and important part of the gathering.

The shift

I believe that at least three major factors have made it easier and safer for individuals to share their stories.

First, putting a label on this form of abuse has made it much easier for us to talk about it. True, some would prefer to use terms such as work abuse or mobbing, and others consider the labels of bullying and bully to be too stigmatizing. Regardless, it’s very difficult to talk about something without giving it a name, and the term workplace bullying has resonated with many.

Second, growing media coverage of workplace bullying has brought this phenomenon out of the closet. Bullying targets have shared their stories with reporters, and many others have done so — perhaps more anonymously — through comments posted to articles and blog pieces on the Internet. This has served as a powerful validating force for those who have experienced workplace bullying, making it easier for them to speak out as well.

Third, the legislative campaign to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill has highlighted workplace bullying as a significant social and public policy concern. Bullying targets have shared powerful in-person testimony and written statements with their elected officials. Many others have visited, called, and e-mailed their legislators urging support.

Looking forward

When those who have experienced or observed injustice and mistreatment become voices for change, remarkable progress can occur.

We are at that juncture today with the U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement. A form of abuse that few even knew what to call a decade ago now is entering the mainstream of our discussions about the workplace. This progress can be attributed in no small part to the growing chorus of voices calling for change.


A note for bullying targets

In making these observations, I don’t want anyone who has experienced workplace bullying to feel compelled to share your story publicly. There is no shame whatsoever in remaining private, and in many cases it is the wise thing to do. Indeed, going public with one’s story may have mental health, career, and legal implications, so the decision to do so should be weighed carefully.

For some, a safer approach may be to describe one’s experiences without a lot of detail in a letter to a legislator, urging passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill. If preserving anonymity is important, blogging or posting comments on the Internet using a pseudonym is a viable option as well.


Workplace bullying 2.0

This is one of a series of blog posts under the “workplace bullying 2.0″ rubric, exploring the degree to which workplace bullying has become a mainstream topic in American employment relations. For other posts in the series, go here.

9 responses

  1. Very good observations, as always, David. As in other social-change movements, there’s a slow trickle, then a stream, then a tidal wave.

    Thank you for reminding people that they don’t have to go public, as well. Overall, the more targets who can speak publicly about their experiences, the better. But a target’s primary responsibility is to his/her own safety and health. If those aren’t served by coming out, or coming out at this time or under those circumstances, then by all means, don’t. If those things chance and you can do so later, that’s great, but it’s your call.

    • Lisa, thanks much for underscoring the point that sharing one’s story is a completely individual decision. In fact, on many instances I have advised people not to do so, because there were too many risks in going public.

    • I agree. Each individual needs to carefully weigh their risks and options, and have their decision respected. Each of us is the expert on our own life, values, and risk tolerance. The best support anyone else can offer is to support the individual’s expertise on their own circumstances, fill knowledge gaps, and assist the individuals in exploring options that promote making informed decisions.

  2. I have never experienced such awful mistreatment by the people that I considered my friends. My workplace became a place I dreaded, an overwhelming fear embraced my whole being every time I entered the building ~ not knowing who would abuse me that day ~ or what callous acts thrown at me by my supervisor I would be forced to endure. I am happy to have the opportunity to share what happened to me. I researched what I was going through ~ Workplace Mobbing ~ a happening not uncommon in the work field, but one I would never wish on any human being. I even purchased a book with the same name & gifted it to the principal who gave me the final word on an accumulation of abuse stringing over my final months of work. His retirement coincided with my last days in the buidling ~ so he really had nothing to lose by puppeting out the requests of his “higher ups.” 😦
    Thank you, David, for this opportunity to speak here.

  3. One thing I have learned is it’s really easy to have courage when they take everything from you. I will never stop telling my story.

  4. In 2008-09 I was struggling to save my job in higher education. Some of my colleagues had made the recommendation that I should not be granted tenure and promotion and – in making their case – they used the wrong criteria to evaluate my file and my professional accomplishments. At some point during that awful year I read an article about academic mobbing in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. It was a life-changer because it put a name to the craziness that was going on around me. Being able to label the behavior I had witnessed over many years was extraordinarily powerful for me.

  5. Pingback: Why 80 days is so important to holding workplace bullies accountable | Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill

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