Notes on the workplace anti-bullying movement

(image courtesy of clipart

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you’ve figured out that workplace bullying and related issues of human dignity at work have become focal points of my career. During the past 15 years, I have witnessed, and closely participated in, the forging of a grassroots U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement. I’ve also become part of a global network of educators, researchers, and practitioners who are responding to workplace bullying and mobbing through research, public education, advocacy, and applied best practices.

These experiences have been defining ones, personally and professionally. They have also taught me a lot about the challenges of organizing a movement and building public support for it. I’d like to step back for a brief moment to share some of those insights and observations, centering on the types of people who have been drawn to be a part of this. Concededly, these are fairly broad generalizations, and I apologize in advance to anyone who believes I’m overstating my points. But here goes:


The workplace anti-bullying movement is mature in its composition. It is comprised disproportionately of individuals who have been around the block, mostly in their 30s and beyond, extending through traditional retirement years. Almost all have experienced, witnessed, or otherwise dealt with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, and as a result they tend to possess an instinctive level of understanding about the workplace and forms of mistreatment within it.

However, they often lack some of the youthful energies of, say, a group of twentysomethings who are ready to take the world by storm. Life gets busy and more complicated. Folks who are busy with work, families, and other obligations are less likely to be running up the steps of a state capitol building or picketing a bad employer on a regular basis.

Bruises and (sometimes) scars

As I and others have written over and again, severe, sustained workplace abuse can be destructive to personal health, livelihoods, and social relationships. The psychological injuries that sometimes result, such as depression and PTSD, are very real. The damage can spill into one’s home life, and adversely affect the well-being of family and friends.

For some bullying targets, getting involved in anti-bullying advocacy and public education work can be empowering. For others, it hits too close to home; the personal baggage is too raw. There is no reason for anyone in this position to apologize for that. The important thing is for each person to make self-care their highest priority.

Politically (somewhat) varied

On the political spectrum, it appears that the bulk of anti-bullying activists range from the center to the left. But there are plenty who regard themselves as conservatives or libertarians, and many others who do not identify with political labels. The diversity of political views and perspectives makes this, very honestly, a cross-partisan movement.

Many associated with this movement have learned the skills of public education and advocacy by trial and error. A good number of effective advocates had never considered themselves “activist types” before joining this movement.

When it comes to organizational support for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), we see clearer political lines being drawn. Labor unions, worker advocacy groups, and civil rights organizations constitute the overwhelming share of institutional endorsers of the HWB. Management-side trade associations tied to business and conservative interests are most likely to oppose it, sometimes vigorously.

Grassroots orientation

The movement has a grounded, grassroots quality to it. It is not heavily populated by financial, political, or academic elites.

Even the leading North American educational and advocacy organization, the Workplace Bullying Institute, is a small operation led by a handful of core individuals. This is in stark contrast to other causes supported by large, well-funded centers and think tanks.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, it is telling that much of the academic research concerning workplace bullying is produced by professors at regional and state colleges and universities, not the Ivy League or its equivalents. Many of these professors have had a fair amount of work experience before becoming full-time academics, and they are producing relevant, accessible research and scholarship. Practitioners in fields such as psychology, business management, and labor relations have brought their practical experience to the table in adding important findings and commentary to our understanding of these workplace dynamics and their effects on individuals.

I say with all fondness that we make for a ragtag bunch! It means, however, that the doors to boardrooms, executive suites, and halls of government do not automatically open for us. Nudging or pushing them open remains the ongoing challenge for this mature, bruised, cross-partisan, and grassroots movement.

Fifteen years ago, a form of workplace mistreatment that affected so many didn’t even have a label, at least here in the U.S. We’ve made a lot of progress since then. Stay tuned, there’s a lot more to come.


This post was slightly revised in January 2018.

6 responses

  1. You are right there, David, there is a lot more to come. What impresses me is how far we have come. What strikes me is the broad spectrum of backgrounds our activists and helpers come from. Each of us approaches the issue from our own professional and personal perspectives. This gives a richness to the movement and the information that is produced about workplace bullying. When I look back to when I first read Andrea Adams’ piece from the UK and think how relatively little time has passed; I am proud to be part of our increasing group. Each time I prepare to teach a bullying class, there is exponentially more research available. All of this work adds to our understanding of this most important issue. My hope for the future is that we succeed in dealing effectively with it and no more workers are injured or commit suicide because of workplace bullying.

  2. Thanks for taking the time and energy to share a hawk’s level perspective of the movement. Not sure where else I would have found it.

  3. Thank you, David. I found your notes to be a good overview of the progression of the movement. There was some information, as well, that I think is important. We shouldn’t assume that everyone knows that PTSD, and Depression are conditions that “just go away when you get away from the origin of those diagnoses”. If I hear “just let it go” (often with a “just get over it attitude), I just want to give up. Don’t the people who say these things think that IF I COULD, I WOULD, instead of struggling on a daily basis with the reruns in my head, the things that trigger me, and the battle to get through those times when I am really done. I’ve been forced out….had to take early retirement, and I’m grieving a job which brought me so much joy and purpose….until 3 years ago….after 35 years…and I’ve become invisible.

    I’m grateful for the movement…..without it, things would just get worse and worse. Thanks again.

  4. I appreciate these comments. On occasion I think it’s useful to put things in perspective, and gaining an understanding of this movement and the fine people in it is a part of that!

  5. Me Too! I’m very grateful for the efforts of the advocates out there to advance our cause. But most of all, the few true professionals who dedicate themselves to keep this issue alive. As Lainey A describes, the reruns, that have never left me even though I have left the source of them, the lack of focus and completion of important tasks. Then there is this time element thing that one of the advocates had mentioned before. It’s about how much time has gone by since it all started, in my case 1997. It wasn’t until 2003 when I had that aha moment about the realization of being targeted that came into the clear. Over the entire span, from 1997 to the day I left the toxic work environment in 2012 due to workplace stress related issues, there has always been a void, a sort of a time vacuum right up to present time. So many years have lapsed, but it still feels like a fresh wound, still painful as all hell! In the fight or flight response system that is constantly engaged, an emotional breakdown is inevitable. It is there that you become frozen in fear of what is happening to you, hopeless and helpless feelings overwhelms you. Something so powerful that you can’t muster up the physical or mental strength to do the basic fundamentals of life. Especially if you have never heard of workplace bullying and mobbing. With these never ending thoughts of the experience of workplace bullying, I have virtually written a book in my head. I have boxes of paperwork that documents the ordeal of lost pay, lost FMLA time, lost pride, lost confidence, lost joy, you know the rest! Many letters to people I thought could help that fell upon deaf ears. But when I sit down with all this information to compile it in some form of case testimony, I tense up, get enthralled with diving back into the past and then bam. I need a break I have to set it down and come back to it, and then the same thing happens. My story is long, egregious indeed, Not afraid at all to tell it, it is doing so that is the hard part. Workplace Bullying and mobbing are weapons of mass destruction.

    • @TP Thanks for your sharing something of your experience. I just be at a similar place in the journey as your reflections, point by point, remind me so much of my own. Take care and please continue to share as you become able. I will do the same. ~D

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