In my last post, I reported on the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s very successful symposium on workplace bullying last Friday, which attracted over 500 staff, faculty, and administrators. The event marked the public launch of a multi-year initiative to address workplace bullying on campus.
It appears that four factors contributed to the unexpectedly large turnout: First, a very effective and committed cross-campus Committee on Workplace Climate and Bullying has been working on this issue for three years, and the pieces finally came together for them to do something significant. Second, the symposium, and the initiative generally, have had the strong support of a new Chancellor, whose office encouraged people to attend.
Third, the various UMass unions reached out to their members, urging them to participate. On a campus where most of the workforce is unionized, this organizing and outreach made a huge difference. Many of the organizing committee members are active in their unions, and their connections helped to spread the word.
Unions can do a lot to address workplace bullying, but they are not necessarily a panacea. Over the years, I’ve heard from many people who felt abandoned by their unions when pressing complaints about bullying behaviors. Furthermore, when union members are accused of bullying others, unions are legally obliged to represent their interests. In situations where both the purported target and alleged aggressor are union members, this can be a sticky situation. And let’s acknowledge that the culture within some unions can be very, well, bullying.
Nevertheless, unions can be among the lead players in stopping and preventing workplace bullying. At UMass, a campus of some 7,000 employees with a deeply embedded hierarchical structure, an active union presence provides invaluable networks for workers to communicate across, and occasionally even transcend, occupational categories. This was evident last Friday.
Indeed, as the UMass auditorium swelled with people participating in the symposium, one union leader remarked to me that he had never before been at an event — other than a UMass basketball game — where so many staff, faculty, and administrators were together in the same room.
Finally, a critically important, overarching fourth factor contributed to success: The committee, union members, and UMass leadership worked together to develop and promote this event. I would not be so naive as to call these collaborative efforts the norm at UMass or any other place of work, but this instance gave me real hope that last Friday’s symposium was the start of a very meaningful, impact-making initiative within the university.