“Can we help you with the problems we caused?” The ironies of employee assistance and wellness initiatives

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and employee wellness programs are among the features of many contemporary workplaces, especially larger organizations that are in a position to devote time and money to extended human resources operations. They can serve useful roles in creating healthier, more productive workplaces and in helping workers with personal problems and challenges. Many are staffed by dedicated, trained EAP and wellness practitioners.

In less-than-wonderful workplaces, however, EAPs and wellness initiatives can play an ironic role: They exist in part to deal with the dysfunctional and unhealthy aspects of the organization itself.

Briefly explained…

EAPs are designed to help workers deal with personal problems that may impact their job performance and health. They may include providing advice and consultation, short-term counseling, and referrals to other care providers.

Common employee wellness initiatives may include anti-smoking counseling, exercise classes, weight control assistance, and mindfulness programs.

But what if…

So here’s the rub: What if the problems and challenges that lead workers to contact an EAP or partake in a wellness program are triggered by work-related stress or even mistreatment?

I’m not talking about the everyday stress that is part of many jobs. Rather, I’m referring to acute situations that can be attributed, at least in significant part, to bad management, interpersonal abuse (such as sexual harassment or workplace bullying), and unhealthy organizational cultures.

For example, what if a worker is contacting the EAP because she’s being sexually harassed by her boss? What if a worker enrolls in a smoking cessation program because undue stress created by a dysfunctional work situation has fueled a nicotine habit?

“It’s all about you”

These scenarios highlight the limits of EAPs and wellness programs: The focus is typically on the individual. However well meaning and helpful at times, they often are constrained in addressing systemic problems that may prompt someone to seek help.

To draw on the examples above: What will an EAP director do if an alleged serial sexual harasser is the same person who hired her? If participants in a smoking cessation program repeatedly complain about work-related stress, will the program coordinator be able to raise concerns about an unhealthy organizational culture?

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of EAPs and wellness programs because of these inherent limitations; quite the contrary. However, I am very curious to know how many dysfunctional, unhealthy organizations look like pure gold on paper because they offer these useful benefits, without addressing some of the internal, core reasons for why their workers access them.

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Midlife correlates with an increased risk of being bullied at work, suggest the results of a Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll released earlier this month.

The instant poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Dr. Gary Namie explained the rationale for conducting the instant poll:

For the 16 years of WBI operations, we have noticed that telephone callers seeking help with their workplace bullying problems are rarely young. They tend to be veteran workers with long careers. For a variety of reasons documented by other WBI studies older workers make ideal vulnerable targets. An earlier WBI study found the average age to be 41.

Triple jeopardy: Bullied and job seeking

It telling that so much of WBI’s contact base and website traffic comes from older workers who have taken the time to research and learn about what is happening to them. The implications of the bullying/middle age correlation are significant and daunting.

We have long known that job loss is the most common result of unresolved workplace bullying situations. The target either “chooses” to leave in order to avoid further abuse or is pushed out as the final step of a long course of mistreatment.

In addition, in this era of the Great Recession, older workers who lose their jobs face significant challenges obtaining comparable employment. Statistical data and anecdotal accounts relating to unemployment at middle age refute any assertion of a genuine economic “recovery.”

It follows that middle-aged bullying targets who lose their jobs often face a triple whammy:

First, even after leaving their jobs, many must confront the mental and physical health impacts of being treated abusively.

Second, they re-enter a job market increasingly hostile to older workers, while carrying the baggage of that terrible experience.

Third, these challenges often have a significant impact on their personal finances, requiring them to draw heavily upon savings and retirement accounts to stay afloat.

A good number of faithful readers of this blog fall into this general description. Their accounts pepper the comments to many posts.

Although “middle aged” is a term that few in their 40s and 50s are eager to embrace, this phase of life typically is marked by high levels of personal and occupational achievement and productivity. The specter of workplace bullying during the ongoing economic crisis, however, tells a very different story.


You can read the full WBI instant poll report by Gary Namie here.

Related posts

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

Working Notes: Co-workers as government spies (heh), legality of employer surveillance tactics, and password protection advice

There’s a spy/surveillance/privacy theme running through these offerings:

WSJ Marketwatch on workers as government spies (just kidding)

In a delightfully tongue-in-cheek piece for the Wall Street Journal‘s MarketWatch column, Brett Arends quotes from disruptive tactics specified in a World War II-era U.S. intelligence manual for agents to identify 10 signs that your co-worker may be a government spy, with a mission to destroy productivity. For example:

  • “They love committee meetings.”
  • “They nitpick.”
  • “They delay everything with endless worries.”
  • “Mismanage.”

For each of the 10 signs, Arends quotes directly from the intelligence manual! It’s hilarious stuff, and the quotes really nail it. Hence Arends’s serious point: There is no justification for the maddening, crazy-making behaviors that undermine morale and productivity at work.

Workplace Fairness on surveillance at work

Recently Workplace Fairness updated its Q&A page on the legality of various potential surveillance practices at work, including monitoring of phone calls and e-mails and on-site videotaping. Here are some of the questions addressed:

  • “Can my employer videotape me?”
  • “Can my employer monitor my telephone calls?”
  • “Can my employer monitor my computer and e-mail activities?”

There are 11 questions in all. To access the page, you may have to click a quick online legal disclaimer.

Next Avenue on password protection

Here’s one for the do as I say, not as I do department: Betsy Mikel, blogging for Next Avenue, provides a very useful, detailed advice column on creating and storing secure online passwords. Here’s a piece of it:

There are some guidelines for creating a strong password as well as ways to remember all your new (or old) passwords. Online passwords should:

    • Contain at least eight characters, preferably more.
    • Be composed of a combination of letters, numbers and symbols (like * or $ or #).
    • Include a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters.
    • Not be an actual word.
    • Not use your real name, username or personal information, like your birthday, license plate number or address.

Not too long ago, I wouldn’t have considered this a work-related concern. But even for online information sources related to my work, the number of password-protected sites has grown exponentially. I’m sure I’m not alone in this regard.

Workplace bullying: Addressing the annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies


Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a speech on workplace bullying at the 62nd annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss this topic with some 200 of the most accomplished labor relations commissioners, attorneys, and officials in North America.

The ALRA describes itself as “an association of impartial government agencies in the United States and Canada responsible for administering labor-management relations laws or services.” It promotes interagency cooperation, “high professional standards,” “public interest in labor relations,” “improved employer-employee relationships,” and “peaceful resolution of employment and labor disputes.” The annual conference provides its members with continuing education on labor relations topics and opportunities to network and share information.

My remarks

I was part of “Advocates Day” (agenda here), a component of every ALRA conference that invites people outside of the organization to discuss developing labor relations issues. I started with a basic overview about workplace bullying and its effects on workers and organizations, went into a quick summary of U.S. and Canadian legal developments, and closed with a cluster of personal observations about workplace bullying.

The speech was very well received. Despite that my talk came at the end of a long day of distinguished panelists and speakers, the delegates were engaged and attentive, and our conversations spilled over to the reception that followed.

I was pleased about the response at another level, too: This is one more sign that workplace bullying is entering the mainstream of North American labor and employee relations. Ten years ago, this speaking invitation would not have transpired.

The conference

At a time when, at least in the U.S., the very concept of collective bargaining is being challenged by extremist forces, how refreshing it was to be part of a conference that embraces a commitment to healthy labor relations. Multiple speakers shared stories and perspectives about how management and labor can work together toward common interests and attempt to resolve differences in peaceful ways.

In my judgment, the Canadian perspective cannot be overlooked, and it’s good for we Americans to be exposed to it. My Canadian colleagues will be quick to admit that labor relations up north fall short of utopia, but they do manage to practice their craft with fewer sharp elbows than in the U.S.

Many thanks

I’d like to give a special shout out to the Program Committee, with affiliations noted to show the breadth of agencies that are part of the ALRA: Co-Chairs Scott Blake (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, U.S.) and Jennifer Webster (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Canada), and members Ernie DuBester (Federal Labor Relations Authority), Gary Shinners (National Labor Relations Board), Pat Sims (National Mediation Board), Catherine Gilbert (Ontario Labor Relations Board), Jennifer Abruzzo (National Labor Relations Board) and Danielle Carne (Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission).

I had not traveled within the circles of the ALRA before this. Thus, it was a leap of faith for them to give me a generous one-hour time slot. (Put it this way: If your sole speaker for a featured, 60-minute slot is a dud, you’ll be hearing about it!) This enabled me to give a talk with real substance, while leaving time for a lively Q&A segment. It was an honor to be a part of the day.

Nurses and workplace bullying

If asked to identify an occupational group that has been pro-active in addressing workplace bullying and related behaviors, nurses would quickly come to mind.

Over the years I’ve had many interactions with nurses of different certification levels and with organizations that represent their interests, ranging from participation in workshops and conferences to individual exchanges. Here in Massachusetts, for example, I’ve spoken at programs on bullying at work sponsored by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the Massachusetts Association of Registered Nurses, and the latter has endorsed the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Uniquely situated

Nurses are uniquely situated to address workplace bullying for several reasons:

First, bullying is common in the healthcare workplace, and nurses are on the receiving end of it from doctors and other nurses. This is no small matter to them.

Second, nurses are at the heart of healthcare workplaces. They see a lot and they know a lot, and they are in a position to understand how organizational dots connect.

Third, many nurses are unionized. This provides them with a structure for raising concerns about mistreatment at work through advocacy, member education, and collective bargaining.

Finally, nurses are part of a professional structure that includes health care associations and colleges of nursing. These entities can play a key role in education, prevention, and response.

Lots of blog posts!

I’ve written many posts about nurses, workplace bullying, and related topics on this blog. Here is a good sampling:

Nurse can proceed with age discrimination claim against employer seeking “rising stars,” federal court holds (2013)

Why we need psychologically healthy workplaces in the healthcare sector (2012)

U of Cincinnati conference examines workplace violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare (2012)

Cheryl Dellasega’s When Nurses Hurt Nurses (2011)

Nurse writes about bullying by doctors, other doctors respond (2011)

Nursing as a Calling: Aspirations and Realities (2010)

Workplace bullying in healthcare IV: Nurses bullied and responding (2009)

Organizational insularity is politically color-blind

Tunnel vision. Circling the wagons. Willful ignorance. The terms have different meanings, but they represent prongs of a core problem: Organizational insularity.

On Sunday, Robert Reich — former U.S. Secretary of Labor and now a professor (UC-Berkeley) and public affairs commentator — posted this on his Facebook page:

I’m a fan of the President’s, but I worry about the insularity and distrust of outsiders that seems to pervade the White House — not unlike the insularity and paranoia that gripped the Nixon White House. The Obama administration’s obsession with leaks has led to more than twice as many prosecutions as there were in all previous administrations combined. Its relentlessness has extended to demanding that reporters provide the names of their sources, wiretapping, and aggressively pursuing all leakers. And like Nixon, Obama relies on a close-knit group of advisers; most of his Cabinet is invisible, and there’s little or no access by or outreach to others. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting Obama shares Nixon’s beliefs or personality failings. But the parallels are striking, and they frankly worry me. A democracy requires a vigilant press, an informed public, and a president who continually reaches outward for new perspectives and constructive criticism.

I’m not quoting Reich to spur a dialogue on the current Administration. Rather, I think his words capture how organizational insularity and paranoia are not determined by political leanings. And ported over to workplaces generally, it’s why these qualities are present in the business, non-profit, and public sectors alike.

Of course, the opposite is when organizational leaders are so indecisive that they listen to everyone and go in multiple, sometimes inconsistent directions at once.

Both extremes are indicative of insecurity and a lack of direction.

Organizations and leaders should aim for that elusive sweet spot, balancing confidence in their agenda with inclusivity and a willingness to listen to critics. On some matters, you’ll know your stuff well enough to have a position, idea, or program that you’re committed to for the long haul, even in the face of contrary opinions. On other occasions, it may be helpful to cast a wider net. In any event, if you start pursuing your perceived critics and opponents obsessively, then it’s time to pull back and reset.

Inspiration in Amsterdam

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam (photo: DY)

I just returned from the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I found myself inspired and informed by a global assemblage of professors, lawyers, judges, mental health providers, graduate students, and others who are committed to using law and public policy to advance mental health.

I went to a lot of panels, as the conference was the focal point of trip. However, I did accompany one of my friends to the Anne Frank House, the one “must see” item on my list for this first-ever visit to Amsterdam.

The photo above doesn’t do the site justice. It is the interior, which has been recreated to show us how Anne and seven others lived in hiding for some two years, that is so compelling. I realize that I am among countless others to say it, but it was a very moving experience to stand in the same cramped spaces of the “Secret Annex” where they lived before they were discovered and arrested.

For me, the most chilling part of the tour was walking up the long, narrow stairwell to the Annex, located behind the moving bookcase that covered the entrance. It was the same walk their captors took to arrest them.

You can take your own virtual guided tour of the Annex here.

University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Law building

University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Law building (photo: DY)

As I’ve written before, my participation in this conference is tied to my affiliation with the therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) movement, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. The conference included an ongoing series of 20 or so panels expressly related to TJ, stretching across the week.

In addition, the opening session — held at the University of Amsterdam’s law building shown above — had a special TJ connection. It featured the presentation of the Bruce Winick Award to Michael Perlin, by David Wexler.

These three individuals have played a critically important role in the development of therapeutic jurisprudence: Bruce Winick, who passed away in late 2010, taught at the University of Miami law school and co-founded the TJ movement with David Wexler, now at the University of Puerto Rico law school after many years at the University of Arizona. Awardee Michael Perlin, who teaches at the New York Law School in Manhattan, is among the world’s leading authorities on mental disability law.

One of Amsterdam's beautiful canals, early evening

One of Amsterdam’s beautiful canals, early Sunday evening (photo: DY)

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one photo capturing the beauty of Amsterdam. I opted for a quieter Sunday evening view of one of the canals, a contrast to the younger, louder, anything goes atmosphere that pervades this part of the city. I’m not much of a party animal — I joked to my friends that the free wheeling recreational choices of Amsterdam were wasted on me! — but being in a historic, old world city does allow for some reflective moments. That certainly was the case here, buoyed by the ideas sparked at the conference.


Previous posts referencing this conference:

The ongoing disconnect: Employment law and worker well-being

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need

The ongoing disconnect: Employment law and worker well-being

A quick perusal of topics at a major international law & mental health conference is all I need to remind me of how employment law is way behind other legal fields in connecting to mental health and psychology.

As I wrote in my last post, I’m at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The program book (pdf here) lists the dozens of panels offered each day during the week-long gathering, and a cursory review yields the dominance of topics concerning criminal justice, health care, family law, juvenile law, substance abuse, and forensics. But there is scant evidence of workplace issues, even in the many sessions related to therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law and legal institutions.

Compare this to the recent “Work, Stress and Health” conference I wrote about last month — another biennial, international gathering — where researchers and practitioners in fields such as industrial/organizational psychology, occupational health psychology, and occupational safety and health are positively immersed in the linkages between public policy and the psychological aspects of worker health.


I get a lot out of this conference even in the absence of many presentations directly addressing employment law & policy. As I’ve noted in previous posts, therapeutic jurisprudence has quickly become a collegial theoretical “home” for my legal interests, in that it makes eminent sense to me that the law should promote, rather than undermine, psychologically healthy outcomes. Accordingly, I find many of the ideas exchanged here to be an easy “port over” to the law of the workplace and the practice of employment law.

For example, earlier this week I listened to a simply wonderful presentation by Erna Haueter, a domestic relations lawyer in Zurich, Switzerland, who explained how she uses stress reduction and relaxation techniques with her clients who are going through emotionally difficult divorce proceedings. Haueter drew upon insights from neuropsychology to explain the effects of stress on her clients, negatively impacting their ability to act in their own best interests.

Of course, her words resonated loudly with me, as I have seen countless individuals dealing with similar stress levels due to bullying and other forms of mistreatment at work. I thought to myself how great it would be if plaintiffs’ employment lawyers were taught how to use these relaxation techniques with their clients.

A challenge

My belief in the need to strengthen linkages between employment law and mental health was reaffirmed during the course of a conversation I had with an Israeli lawyer and doctoral student who is planning to do her thesis on some aspect of therapeutic jurisprudence and employment law. She expressed surprise over the paucity of work linking these two areas, suggesting that they were a natural fit together. We discussed the many relevant psychological aspects of employment law that could form the basis of a very promising thesis topic.

Those of us who understand these linkages need to do a better job of persuading fellow employment and labor law scholars to incorporate these perspectives in their work. The two dominant frames for examining employment law & policy, namely, economics (leaning right) and civil & labor rights (leaning left), yield important insights. But mental health and emotional well-being are equally important and deserve a place at the roundtable of this discussion.


Go here to download a copy of my 201o law review essay, “Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace.”

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need

University of Amsterdam (photo: DY)

University of Amsterdam (photo: DY)

In the summer of 2013, I traveled to the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I presented a couple of short papers and attended various panels and presentations. It was a very educational conference for me, not to mention an especially good opportunity to reconnect with other law professors, lawyers, judges, and graduate students associated with therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the psychologically healthy and unhealthy properties of law and legal systems. The week-long conference draws participants from all over the world and serves as a useful indicator of topics that are getting a lot of attention in the realm of law and psychology.

I used my speaking opportunities to take a broader focus, extending beyond my more subject-specific work on workers’  rights and employee relations topics. I first presented on intellectual activism, the term I use to represent the ongoing process of using scholarship and research to inform law reform, social change, and public education efforts on compelling issues of the day. Later in the week, I presented on how the basic tenets of therapeutic jurisprudence can inform a healthier, more meaningful culture of legal scholarship. It marked the first time I’ve presented at a conference an article I wrote in 2010, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (link to free pdf, here).

Jensen and Hedges on progressive intellectuals

These presentations happened to coincide with a lot of thought I’d been devoting to the role of scholars and scholarship in shaping public opinion and positive change. Here are two writers whose ideas sparked some of that thinking:

Robert Jensen, a University of Texas journalism professor, author, and activist, believes that intellectuals have a responsibility to question the status quo and to challenge abuses of wealth and power. In the introduction to his short book, We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2013), he writes:

One of the jobs of intellectuals is to identify the issues to which we should be paying attention, even when — especially when — people would prefer to ignore problems. Intellectuals today should be apocalyptic, focusing attention — and a lot of our attention — on the hard-to-face realities of an unjust and unsustainable world. Today, the distribution of wealth and power around the world fails to meet even minimal moral standards. . . .

In his book and in a shorter piece adapted from it posted to Alternet, Jensen makes some broader points about the role of intellectuals in our society. He believes that intellectuals should question and shed light on how power and wealth are distributed in our society. Those in advantaged positions, such as professors who have the privileges and protections of tenure, are specially obliged to engage in such questioning. Jensen is especially critical of liberal intellectuals who don’t challenge the status quo because it would hurt their professional and social standing.

In another piece posted to Alternet earlier this year, progressive political writer Chris Hedges, whose early opposition to the Iraq war cost him dearly in terms of professional standing, issued an even sharper critique of liberal intellectuals:

The power elite, especially the liberal elite, has always been willing to sacrifice integrity and truth for power, personal advancement, foundation grants, awards, tenured professorships, columns, book contracts, television appearances, generous lecture fees and social status. They know what they need to say. They know which ideology they have to serve. They know what lies must be told—the biggest being that they take moral stances on issues that aren’t safe and anodyne. They have been at this game a long time. And they will, should their careers require it, happily sell us out again.

My thoughts

We face many serious, even urgent social, economic, and environmental challenges right now. Those who are privileged with the protections of tenure and academic freedom should embrace a social responsibility to be researching, understanding, and speaking out on matters of importance.

Of course, there will be disagreements on facts, figures, analysis, and solutions. Indeed, although I generally agree with Mssrs. Jensen and Hedges on the public role of intellectuals, I’m sure we have points of contention on specific political, policy, and cultural issues. I also believe that academe should represent a wide variety of viewpoints on social, political, and economic issues. Institutions of higher learning should not be uniform, and this includes making room for those of more pronounced political, social, and religious leanings with which I happen to disagree.

But the main point holds: Intellectuals should help to lead, not merely react and respond. In both of my talks at this conference, I suggested that scholars should be “responsibly bold” about investigating reality and fashioning solutions to our problems. I also urged us to be “restlessly patient,” understanding that positive change can take time, while continually seeking opportunities to effect that change sooner than later. Such qualities of purposeful, long-term thinking and action should inure to the benefit of society.

In addition, those blessed with the protections of tenure should be willing to engage in smart risk-taking and sacrifice of privilege in order to speak truth to power. I have often remarked that many tenured professors are too timid to take advantage of the academic freedom accorded to them by virtue of their more protected status. In making these points, I am not calling for reckless bombast and bloviating. Rather, tenured professors should be open to taking principled stands on matters within their areas of understanding and expertise, grounded in research, analysis, and wisdom.


Editor’s Note: I slightly revised this piece in January 2017. For additional commentary, my 2016 law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), builds considerably on the ideas and opinions expressed here and shares many of my personal experiences in doing social justice work. It also provides an annotated bibliography of books broadly related to intellectual activism. Click here to access a pdf copy without charge.

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying?


(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Among the more popular posts on this blog is a December 2012 piece titled “Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic.” It starts this way:

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated.  Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting,” defined in Wikipedia as:

…a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. It may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

Recently, spurred by an article summarized below, individuals active in the workplace anti-bullying movement have been discussing via social media whether gaslighting is related to gender. I think it’s a question worth raising here.

Gaslighting and gender

2012 piece posted to the Good Men Project site suggests that gaslighting may be a gendered phenomenon — in other words, it posits that women are disproportionately subjected to gaslighting behaviors, including in the workplace. In “Why Women Aren’t Crazy,” author Yashar Ali writes:

You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive. You’re overreacting. Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out! You’re crazy! I was just joking, don’t you have a sense of humor? You’re so dramatic. Just get over it already!

Sound familiar?

If you’re a woman, it probably does.

Do you ever hear any of these comments from your spouse, partner, boss, friends, colleagues, or relatives after you have expressed frustration, sadness, or anger about something they have done or said?

…And this is the sort of emotional manipulation that feeds an epidemic in our country, an epidemic that defines women as crazy, irrational, overly sensitive, unhinged.

…I want to introduce a helpful term to identify these reactions: gaslighting.

There are a lot of built-in assumptions behind Ali’s article about male and female behavior and gender differences, and I haven’t sorted through their many implications. The piece certainly stirred the social media when it was published. Witness the 900+ comments left to the article (many of which are quite thoughtful), as well as a responsive piece from Mark Greene.

Tied to workplace bullying?

The topic certainly is relevant to workplace bullying, where issues of gender are complex and multifaceted. Ali’s lede paragraph invokes phrases used by many skilled workplace bullies. And no doubt they have been used in domestic abuse and sexual harassment situations as well, where women are the common targets.

This is not to say that men aren’t on the receiving end, in ways that have their own gendered message: Being tagged as oversensitive or emotional may be intended and/or perceived as a challenge to one’s masculinity.

But I’ll place a heavy bet that these lines are directed at a lot more women than men, including in the workplace. They are meant to plant seeds of self-doubt that add to the crazy-making dynamics of being bullied, at times with a big dose of discriminatory intent. The e-mail chain you were left off of…the meeting you weren’t included in…the lunch at the club you weren’t invited to…You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive. You’re overreacting.

Of course, this is just the comparatively minor stuff. If you’ve seen more harrowing, malicious forms of gaslighting related to work — sabotage, stalking, electronic harassment, and so forth — you know what I mean. This can be among the most vicious of bullying tactics.

%d bloggers like this: