Advocacy and anger in the workplace anti-bullying movement

Recently, one “Hope Springs” posted a commentary to the Facebook page of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates, urging supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill to take a rhetorical high road in advocating for law reform, without referring to specific aggressors in angry, overly disparaging ways. With Hope’s permission, I’m sharing it here in its entirety:

Hello, supporters of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill.

I’d like to bring up the issue of “message discipline” and the importance of “acting politically” in promoting this important bill and winning reluctant parties to our side.

Occasionally, I have come across a post on this forum and others in which a victim of workplace bullying uses disparaging language and abusive names in calling out specific perpetrators. Some of this language has involved cursing and the bitter celebration of a perpetrator’s downfall, which -given the terroristic actions of workplace bullies- is perfectly understandable.

But, I think we have to be careful to maintain the high road at all times.

It seems important to carefully and strategically “name” the behavioral patterns of workplace bullies in a measured way and to persistently equate those patterns with adverse economic outcomes for organizations and for society at large. We have to continue to make a persuasive argument and not allow opposing forces to discredit targets of workplace bullying as “angry”, “bitter”, “difficult”, “mean”, “victim-mentality”, “adversarial” and other such epithets.

Name-calling and expressing personal bitterness towards perpetrators makes it easy for opponents to suggest that personal rivalry was involved in these situations (rather than the REALITY that victims were intentionally targeted with malicious intent by a perpetrator).

While recent research has suggested the widespread prevalence of workplace bullying (or “social violence” in the workplace as a colleague of mine puts it), people are reluctant to sign on mostly for economic reasons. Who wants to put their name on a movement that demands accountability and legal liability for managers, bosses, and politically powerful co-employees? Not too many.

So, I think we need to step back every so often and examine the messages we are sending. More and more people are getting behind this movement, because it’s based on a shared reality for a great many people. But, the momentum can easily be stopped if the general public perceives the chief proponents of this bill to be vindictive, disgruntled ex-employees with an axe to grind.

I hope that posting my concerns in this forum has not alienated people. I sincerely want this movement to succeed, and I believe as many do, that it’s only a matter of time.

But, unfortunately, it’s up to us to maintain the discipline of not resorting to the same mean-spirited tactics of those who routinely harm others in pursuit of their own egocentric need for triumph.

Yes, those of us who have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying have the right to be angry, bitter, depressed and hungry for triumph over evil. But, it might be more helpful to form support groups where we can explore these natural feelings so that they can be healed, transformed, and processed.

With the freedom that comes from the private act of processing the evil done to us -and by seeking support for our healing- we can roll up our sleeves and remember to act politically in the public sphere.

If we win, the nation wins.

Difficult stuff

Workplace bullying is a severe denial of one’s dignity, an offense that tramples over livelihood and personhood. The impulse or temptation to publicly accuse, and rage at, the perpetrators can be powerful. Furthermore, based on what we know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a condition dubbed Post Traumatic Embitterment Disorder, many of these feelings are natural responses to severe mistreatment and injustice.

Lawmakers and policy makers need to understand that we are talking about a form of interpersonal abuse. I believe that message is coming through, and usually not via “vindictive, disgruntled ex-employees with an axe to grind” described by Hope, but rather by individuals who are more likely to have turned their suffering inward and are now summoning the strength to share their stories and experiences for the sake of the greater good.

In any event, I understand where Hope is coming from on this. A movement associated primarily with emotions of anger and bitterness faces an uphill battle, even if those feelings are entirely justifiable. In addition, we want to avoid fueling cycles of anger and abuse. The world offers too many reminders of this dynamic, in numerous settings and on all scales.

I wish that we didn’t have to face these issues. But we live in a society that discounts or dismisses those who have been tagged as embittered or angry, sometimes to the point of giving a free pass to those who committed the wrongful actions in the first place. Against this reality, we must hone our message at times, concededly not without some struggle.

10 responses

  1. Yes we live in a society that judges all feelings except happy. Actually I think most societies that I am familiar with are like that and it is extremely unhealthy. All feelings have equal value to me whether they are anger, fear, happy or sad and I find it refreshing when people are “real” and are able to communicate all of those feelings in appropriate ways. Nothing worse than a person faking happy and then acting out in passive ways. As to writing about the horrific acts of bullying I personally think it’s important to express the profound sadness a person feels when their life has been shattered and altered for life due to a nasty bully. People who hire bully’s and then continue to keep them on staff after one employee after the other reports them as bullys need to have their heads examined especially after they haved been sued and paid out large amounts in settlements. These people need to know and understand the damage done by these cruel hateful people and unless we express all feelings they won’t understand the full extent of our damages. I’ve come to realize that unless you have been profoundly hurt by a bully you don’t have a clue as to what it is like to be bullied and most CEO’s and HR people don’t have a clue. It’s like you have to walk through the fire to really understand the suffering. So yes, I think you need to be professional when you write about your anger and pain but I think it is also important to paint a very clear picture of what happens internally to a person who is severely emotionally abused at work. Making light of something that disables some people for life is not the way to go. Strong words and strong descriptions are needed to be expressed. Unfortunately not all people are strong at writing and all people express themselves differently.

  2. Well said Anna, and thank you David for presenting both sides of the argument. I agree with Anna, why can’t the targets experience their emotions in response to pain? People should know how all-encompassing the negative effects of bullying are. Personally I would be glad to get to anger… I am so very sad at what people have done to me, the choices of the enablers around them, and the fact that no one listened to me or helped me through years of abuse. Bullying, or in my case mobbing, attacks the fundamental human need to be accepted and included by society and rejection like that damages your soul. I still want to weep every time I even think of some of the bullying and ostracism I have experienced. I was treated like I had the plague. Targets are human and humans have emotions, even if it makes for uncomfortable reading for those safely on their office chairs.

  3. Ps, in order to also present a balanced viewpoint, many people in my immediate circle continue to support and love me. And there have been a few brave people who have opted out of abusive behaviour towards me at cost to them. I will never forget these brave people and I guess I should focus on their courage and kindness.

  4. Thank you for these comments. I want to underscore that no one here is denying the importance and the right of targets to experience emotions. Indeed, the target statements I’ve read that are most likely to make people feel what I might call thoughtful discomfort are those that communicate the experience of being mistreated in this way and how it feels. By contrast, statements that engage in angry name calling, epithets, and swearing — however understandable in view of the circumstances — are likely to be discounted. They shouldn’t be discounted, but in a society that often doesn’t know how to process and understand raw anger, they often are.

  5. And of course, on the other hand, you have Stanford Professor Robert Sutton’s decision to go for greater impact in the title of his Harvard Business Review essay and his book, The No Asshole Rule, which I immediately purchased when it came out. It was refreshing to me that someone could be straight-forward and tell it like it is, call a spade a spade. It won the Quill Award for best business book in 2007.

    We want to be heard–I want to be heard! It’s extremely frustrating that there are no practical civil venues in which we can civilly tell our stories. Our legislators are years behind most other advanced nations that have labor tribunals and causes of action and judicial revues geared to assisting bullied employees with the destruction to their lives caused by those who were hired contrary to Sutton’s Rule.

    Maybe Sutton could also write a tell-it-like-is book about our legislators, who are oh-so polite and politic and incrementalist about abusive workplace behavior that destroys livelihoods and careers and drives some to suicide and others to homicide.

    Living “in a society that discounts or dismisses those who have been tagged as embittered or angry, sometimes to the point of giving a free pass to those who committed the wrongful actions in the first place,”
    yeah, that sounds about right for what’s been going on for far too long in this country. And it is right that Blacks and other minorities and the LBGT communities, etc., got really angry and acted up and in essence rescinded those free passes given to human rights abusers and their enablers and apologists.

    We simply need a venue where we will be heard. New Rule–No more legislator bully-enablers or bully-apologists!

  6. Here’s an example that might be helpful. As a clinician for a mental health service, I was trusted to be able to accurately assess and detail clients’ difficulties, but not found capable of accurately describing my own experience. This did not strike the employer, or the union, or the government officials I spoke to as dissonant. At no time was there any suggestion that I was not capable of doing my job, but I was not credible on the subject of myself. I can only surmise that it was my lack of objectivity that struck them.

  7. You are right Kachina, about the objectivity issue getting involved. And with that you now have the capitalistic, technically and cronyistically elitist, full-employment guarantee for the legal-psychological industrial complex system. And woe to the pro per who has him or herself for a client. How can they possibly be objective? Why listen to THEM as opposed to a psychologist who interviews them for an hour and collects their expert fee?

    Better they be denied any fairness/justice at all if they haven’t won the lottery and can’t afford all the depositions and expert testimony required for “objectivity”, than require magistrates to just be wise and open to hearing their story and evidence. All this bought and paid-for penultimate legal procedure, so-called “objectivity”, certainly hasn’t been enough to prevent hundreds of innocents from spending time in prison, heh?.

    Enough with preventing the little-guy employee from having any workplace fairness/justice available to them. The best judges are those who know, KNOW, how to provide justice in spite of the law. I’ve talked with several lawyers and retired judges and Grand Jury members about my issues, and none of them have questioned my veracity. Why would they cynically and close-mindedly do that? It’s just that within the elitist, legal-psychological industrial complex there’s nothing they can do except maybe help me find a new job or career.

    In my frustration with not having a venue in which I WILL be heard abut my workplace bulling/mobbing issues, I helped establish local community mediation, attended Restorative Justice orientations and circle groups, and have experimented with a couple of bullying victims support groups. How about a restorative Justice session with you and the bully (ies) subpoenaed into a community volunteers led circle session? There have been Restorative Justice sessions involved with workplace issues, you know.

    How about contemplating the definition of MAGISTRATE: “a civil officer or lay judge who administers the law, especially one who conducts a court that deals with minor offenses and holds preliminary hearings for more serious ones.”

    To me, this sounds perfect for workplace bullying cases: official or lay judges holding preliminary hearings to address issues like objectivity and evidence, etc., etc., in a not too extremely technical manner, in an attempt to do some bit of fairness for average Jill or Joe workplace bullying/mobbing victims. How about it, retired bar? Is this too much to ask?

  8. Legislators (or anyone) who tune out or turn off those who show anger about their work abuse experiences do so purely for convenience or conditioned ignorance. If you understand even a little about work abuse, but don’t want to deal with someone’s anger, it’s just easier to judge and move (quickly) on. If you have little to no real clue about work abuse, our authoritative, hierarchical work cultures have conditioned us to believe those in authority “know better” and tell the truth (more so than their subordinates). “Hope Springs” is reminding us to try to be less of a target to those whose support is, in fact, needed to make changes in policy. It is what it is at this time.

    We know what it is like to want someone to understand the lack of justice and to have to eventually come to terms (the best we can) with the fact that no justice can be had. And we certainly can understand the emotions, including the outrage.

    We must work to understand our own actions and the actions of others. It’s a play smarter not harder kind of thing.

  9. Here’s another way to think about this. We are storytellers. We need to consider our audience and make informed decisions about how to engage them. Some people are easier to reach through their their minds than their hearts. What does it take to become a lawmaker? Those are the characteristics we can expect to encounter in a legislative forum.

  10. We also need to remember that on the legislative front, we are competing for attention with lots of other worthy bills designed to help people. Yes, the politics and money and power make our task harder — you’ve got the Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management saying that debilitating work abuse should be legal — but also there’s the sheer volume of bills in any given state legislative session. And everyone thinks that their cause is the one that merits attention. We’re talking about a term — “workplace bullying” — that many steady readers of this blog hadn’t even heard of a decade ago.

    We saw some progress last year with the new California and Tennessee laws. They are far from ideal. The California law merely obliges larger employers to cover workplace bullying in their management training and education programs. The Tennessee law, while well intentioned by its sponsor, allow public employers to escape liability for bullying-related claims simply by adopting an anti-bullying policy, with no obligation to actually follow it. For more, go here:

    But at least we’re now at a point where legislatures are seriously considering and actually passing workplace bullying laws, however limited or flawed. Believe me, when I started talking up this possibility some 15 years ago, very few regarded this as a serious possibility. We’re making progress because the message is starting to get through, over strong, well-monied opposition.

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