Some who doubt the severity and prevalence of workplace bullying suggest that those who report being treated abusively at work are somehow “weak” or “oversensitive” and thus are prone to exaggerate their situations. Oftentimes, these sentiments are buttressed by an unspoken belief that self-proclaimed targets of bullying simply lack the requisite toughness to deal with the ups and downs of the workplace. In other words, those who can’t handle it should either toughen up or go away.
It’s a faulty belief system that we need to keep responding to and rebutting.
First, let’s understand that bullying is often contextual; it is shaped by expectations and norms. Some vocations are rougher around the edges than others, and anyone entering a new field should be aware of that.
But let’s also acknowledge that bullying is about abuse. Forget “rough and tumble” or “competition.” Workplace bullying involves intentional mistreatment. It’s typically repeated behavior, and it has a malicious edge, regardless of whether the bully role is played by a single aggressor or a full-blown mob.
Targets of workplace bullying run the gamut. They may be strong, average, or marginal performers. They may be team players or critics, insiders or outsiders. Women are targeted more than men, but not by an overwhelming proportion.
In terms of emotional makeup, even people we would characterize as tough and resilient can be targeted and pay a heavy price in terms of health and well being. Military personnel, police officers, and football players are among those who may suffer from workplace bullying. Weak? Hardly. They have survived the harsh rigors of basic training, the police academy, and pre-season training camps, respectively.
Some people are more emotionally vulnerable than others. Maybe they were treated abusively in a family or social situation, or perhaps they had a traumatic experience that has weakened their resilience. In such cases, it is possible that they may be more perceptive to how they’re being treated, or perhaps more likely to experience stress reactions in the face of bullying behaviors.
Nevertheless, does this justify treating them abusively? One of the more disturbing and common characteristics of our culture is a dismissiveness or even contempt toward those we deem weak or vulnerable — even though virtually any of us could find ourselves in such a position. When we inhabit that state of mind, we are sapped of our empathy. And for some, perceiving another’s vulnerability may be the “green light” to go after them. This is especially the case when individuals with psychopathic tendencies pursue their prey.
So when should the law step in to say enough is enough?
On this question, we can learn a lot from the history of sexual harassment law. To illustrate: It’s possible that someone may take deep offense to a mildly obnoxious sexual joke, perhaps even to the point where it makes her uncomfortable. However, most of us would agree that such an occurrence shouldn’t be the basis of a hostile work environment claim for sexual harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed, interpreting our Civil Rights Act through the eyes of the “reasonable person” when examining sexual harassment lawsuits. That said, the Court also has made clear that when the harassment reaches the point of being abusive and disruptive of one’s ability to work, a violation should be found.
Similarly, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill uses the “reasonable person” standard to determine what constitutes an abusive work environment. In drafting the HWB, I realized that using a baseline, objective standard was necessary in terms of setting a legal threshold.
As Dr. Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute has aptly noted, workplace bullying shatters our assumptions about how people expect to be treated at work. We expect that in return for a good day’s work, we’ll be treated fairly. When the experience of work becomes abusive, those expectations crumble.
Perhaps it is a sad reflection of the contemporary workplace to suggest that schooling and preparation for a vocation or profession should include a dose of resilience training, but it may make sense. Becoming aware of what may await us, and receiving some coping tools in the event it occurs, may help to reduce the emotional blow of being severely bullied. It may even help someone address a bullying-type situation pro-actively, before it becomes acute and disabling.
Dignity at work
But if we’re going to do resilience training, let’s also encourage and train people to treat each other with dignity and to stand up for others whose dignity is being violated. And while we’re at it, let’s do our best to hire and support leaders who are committed to affirming individual dignity as a core piece of every organization’s mission.