Workplace bullying in the educational sectors: First-person accounts

Given the frequency and severity of workplace bullying in the educational sectors — from primary through post-secondary — I wanted to share two items of possible interest:

Higher education

First, The Guardian, my favorite British newspaper, has run a first-person piece on the experience of being bullied in higher education. Here’s the lede:

Bullying is rife in academia – and it is tolerated to an extent that wouldn’t be acceptable in other areas. I’ve seen careers wasted in academia just by bad management and bad practice. My story is an illustration of what can go wrong.

The story intertwines the writer’s difficult personal circumstances and bullying at work, a not-uncommon combination, and it shows the deeper contexts in which these behaviors arise.

For those interested, The Guardian also is sponsoring an anonymous survey on bullying in higher ed that can be accessed from the article, the results of which will be used in the newspaper’s research study on the topic.

K-12 education

Torii Bottomley, an educator in the Greater Boston area, has shared her story of workplace bullying in a short video produced by the Moral Courage Channel:

This is one of many accounts I’ve heard over the years about bullying of teachers at the K-12 levels. It’s a terribly serious problem, and the most horrific stories are like something out of a dystopian novel.


Related posts

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (revised 2014)

Educator finds renewal after being bullied at work (2014)

Deb Caldieri, supporter of school bullying victim Phoebe Prince, faces severe challenges today (2013)

UMass Amherst launches campus-wide anti-bullying initiative (2013)

Legal and public policy challenges facing public schoolteachers: A brief report from Memphis (2012)

Maryland teachers sue for bullying and harassment (2012)


Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying

(Image courtesy of clipart

Especially in the work context, the definition of gossip can be hard to corral. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gossip as “information about the behavior and personal lives of other people.” In the workplace, however, these shared tidbits can also include details and rumors about salaries, working relationships, and working conditions.

In many instances, this is the stuff of everyday conversations at work. However, the presence of frequent and intense workplace gossip may signal deeper dysfunctions about an organization’s culture. It may manifest itself in offsite social media exchanges. In more severe instances, what might appear to be casual gossip is really part of a targeted campaign of defamation or bullying.

Earlier this month, Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal wrote about dealing with gossip at work:

Office gossip can be a welcome distraction. It just can be hard to know what to do when you become the focal point. Overreacting or saying the wrong thing may fan the flames, but ignoring some kinds of gossip can damage your reputation or even career.

The full article (subscription necessary from this link) contains advice on what to do if you are the subject of workplace gossip and includes video and radio clips. (Editor’s note: To access the article online, I Googled “Shellenbarger” and “gossip” and got a clean link.)

Healthier gossip

Shellenbarger aptly notes that gossip can have its beneficial qualities:

Not all gossip is bad. Some workplace talk can help ease stress or frustration over perceived injustices, research shows. . . . Knowing and sharing gossip are ways for employees who lack power to gain informal influence among their peers.

American workplaces, especially, are more likely to be built around a top-down, command-and-control organizational and communications structure. When employers do not provide healthy avenues for exchange and feedback, informal conversations may be the only way to share important information. Sometimes there’s a fine line between gossip and useful intelligence gathering.

In addition, what some employers might label as gossip may actually be, under certain circumstances, forms of legally protected speech, such as sharing concerns about discrimination or sexual harassment, or engaging in discussions about working conditions. Employment discrimination laws, occupational safety and health laws, labor and collective bargaining laws, and assorted whistle blower provisions may be sources of protection for certain types of worker speech.

Gossip as a bullying or mobbing tactic

A graphic accompanying Shellenbarger’s article recommends that when a “rumor is false and threatening your reputation,” confronting the source(s) of the gossip is the appropriate response. On this point, I strongly urge caution and remind us that universal recommended responses may fail to account for critical nuances and can have bad consequences. On balance: Confronting a subordinate is less risky; confronting a peer (or peers) is somewhat riskier; and confronting a supervisor or superior is a very different situation and can be fraught with risk.

If gossip is for the purpose of maliciously trashing someone’s reputation and pushing them out of the workplace, then the situation may be part of a bullying or mobbing campaign. This is a far cry from casual or even reckless rumor mongering. We’re now talking about orchestrated, deliberate behaviors.

Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….


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Creating an intellectual framework for human dignity


As I’ve written here on numerous occasions, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) is a global network of scholars, activists, practitioners, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity in our society. In this blog post, I’d like to put a more complete frame around HumanDHS’s activities and highlight three of its emerging initiatives.

The founding president of HumanDHS is Evelin Lindner, a physician, psychologist, prolific author, and self-styled global citizen. The director of HumanDHS is Linda Hartling, a psychologist and leading authority on relational-cultural theory whose spot-on assessment of workplace cultures is cited often in this blog. With a group of colleagues from around the world, they are stoking the flames for individual and social change.

I am affiliated with HumanDHS as a member of its Global Advisory Board, and I have become a regular participant at the annual New York workshop (see below). This is one of my most treasured connections.

Emerging HumanDHS initiatives

In addition to sponsoring workshops, conferences, and other gatherings on a global scale, here are three HumanDHS initiatives that are getting off the ground and offering a lot of promise for the future.

World Dignity University

HumanDHS is creating the World Dignity University, a flexible, globally networked initiative that fosters higher learning on dignity-related subjects and themes. Here’s part of WDU’s mission statement:

We have come to believe that a “World University” — a human-to-human network of networks — is a powerful and highly practical approach to realizing an inclusive and creative model of learning. We invite educators, scholars, practitioners, activists, learners, and people from all walks of life, from all corners of the earth, to share responsibility for leading the world toward greater cooperation by joining us in founding the first World Dignity University.

With your participation, the World Dignity University will become a global role model of excellence in scholarship. dignifying dialogue, and intellectual cooperation that ensures the survival of humankind and the planet.

Dignity Press

In 2012, HumanDHS launched the Dignity Press, which publishes professionally edited and designed books that examine human dignity and humiliation from a global perspective. Since its founding, the Dignity Press has published some 15 titles.

Journal of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies

HumanDHS is publishing the Journal of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, an “online, peer-reviewed scholarly publication…designed to advance the study of dynamics of dignity and humiliation, the antecedents and consequences of humiliating behaviors, and interventions to break cycles of humiliation and restore human dignity.”

More than academic-speak: Why a new university, book press, and academic journal?

Earlier this year, I issued a critique of traditional institutions of higher learning:

Suffice it to say that American higher education, as a general proposition, is embracing the values of the New Gilded Age. A growing number of American colleges and universities are degenerating into career training centers, touting unpaid internships while charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.

These trends are disturbing in and of themselves. Moreover, they raise a challenging question: If universities are heading in this direction, what institutions, structures, and networks will help us to blend research, theory, and service toward creating a better society? And how do we create decent, paying, sustainable jobs to support this work?

To achieve this, we need to create new institutions that show promise of filling some of that growing void. Between the World Dignity University, Dignity Press, and Journal of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, HumanDHS is creating an intellectual infrastructure around the concept of human dignity that transcends national boundaries and institutional lines. To be sure, HumanDHS must expand its breadth in order to have a wider degree of influence.  It also must find ways to support sustainable intellectual work. These initiatives are a start. They have the potential to advance that core change, and it will be exciting to take part in their development.


December event in New York City

During December 4th and 5th, I’ll be participating in HumanDHS’s annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, hosted by Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. The theme of this year’s workshop is “Work that Dignifies the Lives of All People.” I will be a featured speaker at the Workshop’s free public event on Thursday, December 4, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., discussing how we can advance dignity at work. If you’re in the NYC area and free that evening, please consider joining us!

Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week: Sampling an all-star team of experts and advocates


This is Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week (Oct. 19-25), an annual observance championed by the Workplace Bullying Institute. You can go to WBI’s Freedom Week page, which includes a video welcome from Dr. Gary Namie and various resources.

Among the many positive developments of the past year was the creation of the U.S. Academy on Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse, a team of leading authorities and advocates on workplace bullying and related subjects, jointly sponsored by WBI and the New Workplace Institute. Take a look at the roster of founding Academy Fellows. In addition, here’s a short sampling of activities of some of the Fellows during the past year:

  • David Ballard, founding director of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, helped to facilitate the creation and launch of the Center’s resource page on workplace bullying, featuring an animated educational video and a rich list of resources. I was pleased to work with the Center on the development of this project, including the script for the video:



  • Jackie Gilbert, state coordinator of the Tennessee Healthy Workplace Advocates, was part of a working group that consulted with Tennessee legislators toward the enactment of a law directing a state commission to develop a model workplace bullying policy for public employers within the state. Her advocacy work was featured in this Shelbyville Times-Gazette article.
  • Andrew Mitchell continued his important public education work as the host of the Stop Workplace Bullies Now! website and his accompanying online aggregator newspaper about workplace bullying.
  • Mike Schlicht and Tom Witt are co-directors of the New York Healthy Workplace Advocates. During the 2013-14 New York legislative session, their group secured 20 state senators and 86 state assembly members as sponsors and co-sponsors of the Healthy Workplace Bill. They also secured some 30 Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week Proclamations from New York cities, boroughs, towns, villages, and counties (Pinterest link here).


  • Greg Sorozan, NAGE union president and state co-coordinator of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates, was featured in this Boston Globe article about efforts to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill in the Bay State. He also was interviewed at length about his anti-bullying work in a blog post.



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The courage of Monica Lewinsky

For some 16 years, Monica Lewinsky has been paying a dear price for youthful mistakes that she happened to make with the President of the United States. Her affair with President Bill Clinton while serving as a White House intern became public in 1998, and it almost toppled Clinton’s Presidency. While Clinton managed to save his Administration and has since become one of the most popular and respected ex-Presidents in memory, Lewinsky has forever been associated with the events of her relative youth.

In “Shame and Survival,” a piece that she authored for the June issue of Vanity Fair, Lewinsky, now 41, writes for the first time about what the ensuing years have been like. She describes the cruelties, ridicule, and humiliation, frankly but without excessive self-pity. She recognizes that she was “possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.” Few others have such a lived understanding of how digital society can preserve our wrong turns and savage a reputation. Lewinsky writes about her experiences with heart, insight, and thoughtful restraint.

In an effort to escape and take stock, Lewinsky decamped from the U.S. to attend the London School of Economics, where her classmates and professors “were welcoming and respectful.” But her subsequent efforts to gain employment were undermined by her continuing notoriety:

I moved between London, Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, Oregon, interviewing for a variety of jobs that fell under the umbrella of “creative communication” and “branding,” with an emphasis on charity campaigns. Yet, because of what potential employers so tactfully referred to as my “history,” I was never “quite right” for the position. In some cases, I was right for all the wrong reasons, as in “Of course, your job would require you to attend our events.” And, of course, these would be events at which press would be in attendance.

Character and resilience

When one’s actions early in life become such a publicly fixed snapshot in history, it’s awfully hard to change that image. I must admit that I, too, had regarded Ms. Lewinsky as frozen in time and reputation.

That is, until I read her article a few days ago. I had skipped it earlier because of the way it was being spun by the media. But make no mistake: This is a wise, brave, and intelligent writing. Monica Lewinsky circa 1998 may have been an immature young woman who made some bad choices — not much different than many of us in our 20s. Today, however, her voice is one of character and resilience. With this piece, I believe that she has shed her shame and humiliation. She can now engage the world on her own terms, and it’s our problem if we can’t deal with that.

But I hope that her article has had the same effect on others as it had on me. Do-overs may be impossible in this Internet Age, but remakes should be available nonetheless. May the world offer her that opportunity.


Update (Oct. 22): I’ve embedded above a speech that Monica Lewinsky gave on October 20, linking her experiences to cyberbullying. She has become an anti-bullying advocate, stressing her concerns about suicidal ideation in the face of bullying behaviors. It’s a very, very good, heartfelt, smart speech, worth 26 minutes of your time.

Roundup: On legacy work, transitions, and the march of time

(image courtesy of clipart

Dear readers, I’ve brought together some past articles that highlight themes of legacy work, personal transitions, and the benefits and challenges of growing older. Many of these pieces discuss books that may be of value to those who want to drill deeper into the subjects. I’ve included snippets from the original posts to give you a sense of each, and you can click on the titles to read the full articles. Especially for those of you who are both reflecting on the past and contemplating changes for the future, I hope they will be of interest!

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?) (2011)

What is your legacy work? In other words, how do you want to make your mark on the world? This potentially life-changing inquiry is a core idea of a book I’ve recommended in recent posts . . . , Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010). . . . Guillebeau poses two simple questions: “What do you really want to get out of life?” “What can you offer the world that no one else can?” . . . In addition, I highly recommend Brooks Palmer’s Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009) . . .. Palmer nails the psychology of how our material clutter frustrates our ability to live in the present and for the future.

What is a “Ulyssean adult,” and how can you become one? (2012)

What kind of life do you want to live? And as age creeps up on you, how do you want to spend the rest of your life? . . . I recently discovered an intriguing book about adult development, The Ulyssean Adult: Creativity in the Middle & Later Years (1976), by the late John A.B. McLeish, a Canadian education professor. . . . Judging from The Ulyssean Adult, McLeish was not a warm and fuzzy self-help writer. His observations can be sharp-edged and may cause discomfort, as he was not one to pull punches.

Does life begin at 46? (2010)

Conventional wisdom about life’s journey, suggests The Economist magazine, is that our path is “a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death.” If so, then why is the cover of the magazine’s year-end issue headlined “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)” . . . Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age.

What will be your body of work? (2009)

We often hear “body of work” invoked when assessing an individual’s creative, artistic, or athletic endeavors, as in looking at the career of a great musician, writer, or baseball player. . . . But I’ve come to realize that we all produce our own body of work, even if we are not famous artists or athletes. It may include work we are paid for, but it also may capture our contributions as parents, friends, caregivers, volunteers, and members of the community.

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life” (2011)

Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising a family, helping those in need, contributing to the community, or inventing or creating or making or fixing something? As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having “lived a balanced life”?

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

A lot of people who find their way to this blog are in transitional stages of their work lives, often because of bad experiences at a current or previous job. Some are contemplating a change of employers or even vocations. What’s next? Concrete stuff like finances and living expenses obviously come into play, and the practical challenges of paying the bills may compete with attempts to engage in big picture thinking about one’s life. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t avoid looking inward, in some cases digging deep to turn a setback into an opportunity to consider and create options. For those in this position, William Bridges’s Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (rev. ed., 2004) may be very useful.

The lessons of nostalgia (2011)

Charles D. Hayes, is a retired, largely self-educated writer and practical philosopher whose books and essays on finding meaning in life remain hidden classics. He recently posted to his September University blog a superb essay, “Nostalgia: Why the Past Matters” . . . , in which he makes the case for returning to and understanding our past in constructive ways, rather than with mere soggy sentiment. . . .  As one enters middle age, it’s natural to resist any mental associations with aging — and that resistance may extend to reading reflective advice for “older folks.” However, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years is to welcome the wisdom of those who have been on this planet a little longer than me. Charles Hayes writes mainly for those we might call “seniors,” but his potentially larger audience includes anyone who wants to pursue a life of meaning and authenticity.


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Is your organization a “can do” or “can’t do” kind of workplace?

In assessing what makes for a good place to work, the contrast between a “can do” and a “can’t do” organizational culture is a major distinguishing factor.

The “can do” organization empowers and enables its workers to create, innovate, and initiate. While recognizing that resources aren’t limitless and that every new idea isn’t necessarily a good one, it nonetheless nurtures an ethic of support and encouragement. The “can do” organization can be an exciting, engaging place to work.

The “can’t do” organization, by contrast, makes it hard for even the best of projects to succeed and for new ideas to get off the ground. It sets up layers of bureaucracy, promotes people programmed to say “no,” and plants hedgerows at every stage of approval and implementation. It saps the morale and energy of some of its best people.

And then there’s a maddening hybrid variety, the dysfunctional, balkanized organization that readily supports ideas (good or bad, it doesn’t matter) coming from its inner core group, while instinctively blocking initiatives proposed by those it keeps on the outside.

I suggest that you’ll find a heavy concentration of “can’t do” and hybrid organizations in the lower ranks of their respective fields or vocations. This may seem self-evident, but obviously it isn’t so to a large cross-section of institutional leaders. Meanwhile, their more inclusive, secure peers at successful organizations are reaping the rewards of a culture that embraces innovation and quality.


Related post

Great organizational leaders enable and empower others (2011)

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No (2011)


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Our economic systems, psychopathy, and bullying at work

Psychology professor Paul Verhaeghe (U. Ghent, Belgium), writing for The Guardian newspaper, suggests that three decades of “neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatization” have transformed behaviors and norms in ways that reward psychopathic personality traits:

There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.

It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can…. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.

On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces.

Verhaeghe admits that he’s taking this description to extremes, but he notes that it draws from the “psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.”

More on psychology and economics

I’m fascinated by how psychologists are linking individual behaviors and our economic systems. In another example, at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network held in 2011, psychologist Michael Britton described our current economic condition in terms of psychological illness.

Our economic system has taken on “bipolar” qualities, said Britton. Using terms and phrases such as “excited,” “frantic,” “crash and burn,” “disregard for reality,” and “disregard for empathy,” he described an economy grounded in constant consumption and concentrations of power.

Britton said that instead of worshipping at the altar of national GDP and high unemployment, we should “reduce resource stripping” and emphasize how everyone can contribute to society and live a “materially decent life.”

Psychopathy and workplace bullying

Prof. Verhaeghe further links the psychopathic dynamics of the economic system to workplace bullying:

Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.

I think Verhaeghe is right about “the impotent venting their frustration on the weak” when it comes to, say, a stressed-out, mid-level manager bullying and cracking the whip on his subordinates.

In addition, we must not forget that economic systems are man-made, so at the core of the problem are individuals who likely score high on Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist. We are paying a very heavy price for senior executives, managers, and board chairs who are perfect matches for the personality profile described by Verhaeghe.


Related posts

Is our psychologically ill economy being driven by psychologically ill business leaders? (2011)

Understanding the executive psychopath (2010)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning”

Until recently, I regarded Wayne Dyer as an inspirational speaker who is frequently trotted out by PBS during its fundraising drives to give an extended talk on personal growth, interspersed with program hosts pitching for contributions. Well, that is true — Wayne Dyer remains a PBS fundraising favorite. But I started looking at his work much more closely after viewing “The Shift — Ambition to Meaning” (2009), a full-length movie with Dyer and an ensemble of actors including Michael Marasco, Portia de Rossi, Michael DeLuise, Shannon Sturges, Ethan Lipton, and others.

The movie features a cluster of interweaving stories of people who find themselves at an oceanside hotel/retreat center, built around Dyer’s core message that many individuals shift from pursuing ambitions to seeking meaning in their lives. This shift typically occurs a bit later in life; hence the movie opens with Dyer quoting psychologist Carl Jung about how life philosophies that drive our earlier years may not be right for us during the second half of our lives.

I am mindful of the fact that people find this blog for different reasons, and some may not be in a place to watch anything deemed “inspirational” in a spiritual sort of way. So my recommendation of this movie is a qualified one: If you’re in a transitional stage in your life, and you’re open to messages and ideas about this transition that contain a spiritual theme, then you may get a lot out of this. Those who are exploring work and career transitions on a deeply personal level may find it especially meaningful.

Finally, a bit of clarification: The movie has been marketed under separate titles “The Shift” and “Ambition to Meaning.” In any event, it’s a two hour movie, and you can watch it by clicking the image embedded above or by going to YouTube. It’s also available commercially.

Good heavens: Bullying behaviors at Manhattan seminary

Goings on at the General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal seminary, illustrate how bullying behaviors can occur at virtually any type of workplace.

Sharon Otterman reports for the New York Times on a developing situation involving the fate of eight Seminary faculty members who were dismissed after protesting the behaviors of the school’s new dean and president, Kurt H. Dunkle:

A year after [Dunkle’s] arrival, however, the seminary has fallen into turmoil. Eight of its 10 full-time faculty members walked off the job on Friday to protest what they described in letters to the school’s board of trustees as Mr. Dunkle’s overly controlling management style, his habit of making vulgar and offensive remarks, and his frequent threats to demote or fire those who disagreed with him.

The work stoppage, faculty members said, was intended to force a dialogue with the board and, ideally, to lead to the firing of Mr. Dunkle. Instead, the tactic backfired. On Monday, the board dismissed the eight faculty members, leaving the seminary’s roughly 140 students, a month into their term, without professors to teach them.

Otterman’s article goes into considerable detail, and the story will be familiar to those who have experienced or witnessed bullying behaviors in the non-profit and educational sectors.


Related posts

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (rev. 2014)

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)


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