The obsessive filter of workplace bullying

One of the most debilitating effects of workplace bullying is how it may prompt a target to use bullying as a primary filter through which so many other work and life experiences are screened, interpreted, and understood.

On occasion, I see it on this blog. I will post an article on some aspect of work that does not explicitly mention bullying or even imply anything about it, and a reader will post a comment to the blog or to my Facebook page that relates it to bullying behaviors.

I do not offer this observation as a criticism. Rather, it is unfortunate evidence of how deeply this form of mistreatment can impact its targets.

Dealing with the experience and aftermath of work abuse can become an obsession. As I’ve written before, targets may excessively ruminate about their experiences. The slightest situational trigger may cause them to evaluate information or a social interaction through the lens of bullying. From a clinical standpoint, this may relate to a fight-or-flight response and various post-traumatic reactions.

True, understanding the dynamics of workplace bullying can actually be an insightful tool for comprehending the workplace in general. Several years ago, Ståle Einarsen, University of Bergen psychology professor and a leading authority on workplace bullying, gave a conference keynote address in which he said, in effect, that rather than using our knowledge of employment relations to help us understand workplace bullying, perhaps we should use our knowledge of workplace bullying to help us understand employment relations.

However, when that filter becomes embedded in one’s emotional being, the results can significantly undermine that person’s quality of life. Here is where we greatly need the modalities of therapy, counseling, and coaching to help people get to better places in their lives.


Related posts

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

When dealing with abusive work environments, the terrible “ifs” may accumulate (2015)

Workplace bullying: The challenges of moving from recognition to renewal (2014)


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At age 25, Americans with Disabilities Act offers only limited relief to workplace bullying targets

The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 25 this year. This landmark federal law mandates, among other things, that employees and job applicants cannot be discriminated against because of a recognized disability and that disabled workers must be provided with reasonable accommodations in their places of employment.

In the late 1990s, when I first began researching potential legal protections for targets of workplace bullying, I hoped to discover that the ADA and its state equivalents were providing some relief for those whose work experiences had triggered or exacerbated mental conditions such as depression or various types of stress disorders. However, I soon found that mental health law expert Susan Stefan had examined the application of the ADA to abusive work environments and found that litigants were “losing their ADA cases because stress and abuse are seen as simply intrinsic to employment, as invisible and inseparable to conditions of employment as sexual harassment was twenty years ago.”

I included Stefan’s findings in my 2000 law article, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), the first law review article to comprehensively examine the legal and policy implications of workplace bullying under American employment law. That article planted the seeds for my drafting the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Since then, the ADA has undergone some changes, including a major package of amendments in 2008 and a set of disability law regulations issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These developments were widely understood to strengthen protections for disabled workers.

However, the ADA and similar laws at the state level remain rather elusive legal tools for those whose mental disabilities are connected to workplace bullying. Simply put, although workplace bullying is among the most frequent forms of interpersonal abuse on the job, there has been no apparent groundswell of bullying-related disability discrimination claims. Although such claims may not be easy to bring successfully even under the recent changes to the ADA, I believe this approach remains underutilized by employment lawyers seeking to help bullied workers.

In any event, the limitations of disability discrimination protections further underscore the need for comprehensive workplace anti-bullying laws, and that’s yet another reason why I continue to advocate for passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

One separate but related public benefit is relevant here, and that is Social Security Disability. Although hard numbers are unavailable, more than a few severely bullied workers have obtained SSD benefits because they have been unable to return to work. Securing these benefits is not easy. It is not uncommon for initial applications to be rejected, necessitating an appeals process. However, many appeals are successful — perseverance definitely counts in this context — so rejected applicants should not take an initial denial of benefits as the last word on the matter.

A screening question for our next American President

For this guy, the answer is "yes"

For this guy, the answer was “yes”

As I was reading statements from one of the announced U.S. Presidential candidates this morning, I realized that this is one of the most important questions for me in casting a vote: Does this person have empathy for those who are facing tough times or trying to recover from a setback?

It’s not the only question, mind you. For any elected office, I want a leader with the right experience, intelligence, imagination, judgment, and, when necessary, courage. I want someone I trust. And although it’s easy to take potshots at our elected officials at times, I think we have a lot of good people in public service.

But all of these other, important characteristics don’t matter to me if their heart is cold. Furthermore, given the very human decisions a President must make, having someone in office without that core capacity scares me for what it says about our country. We need someone with genuine heart quality.

Healthy Workplace Bill: Courage prevails at Massachusetts State House hearing

Massachusetts State House (photo: DY)

Massachusetts State House (photo: DY)

Supporters of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) gathered yesterday at the Massachusetts State House for a legislative hearing to voice our support for this badly needed legislation. While the immediate fate of the HWB in Massachusetts (designated as House Bill 1771 in the current session) remains a work in progress, those who shared their stories with legislators and who appeared at the State House to offer support were the clear winners of the day. When this bill becomes law, their courage will be among the primary reasons for that success.

Legislative hearing

The occasion for this testimony was a legislative hearing hosted by the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, the committee to which the HWB has been assigned. Our goal is to persuade the Committee to give the HWB a favorable report, a critically important step toward eventual floor votes in the House of Representatives and Senate and, then, presentation of the bill to the Governor.

I testified on a panel with Greg Sorozan, co-director of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates and a local president for the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE), and Torii Bottomley, a public school teacher who experienced horrific, ongoing retaliatory bullying and lost her job as a final result. Torii, who has gone public with her story, shared her account of how an outstanding, dedicated educator can be targeted for extinction because she stood up for the best interests of her students.

Many other individuals also testified, and they shared similar stories of terrible workplace abuse that often drove them out of their workplaces and sometimes their careers. I’ve opted not to share their names here because, unlike Torii, they have not gone as public with their stories, but let me attest that each one of them exhibited great courage in coming forth to ask the legislators to pass this law.

In addition, others who have experienced workplace bullying joined us to provide moral support. Their presence made a big difference.

I do not use the term courage lightly here. To share one’s story of abusive treatment in a public setting, and then to sit and listen to similar stories over and again, is an act of bravery. Even for those who didn’t testify, being present to lend support required a lot of fortitude.

Ready to play ball

My part in this hearing was a comparatively minor one. As the author of the HWB, I reiterated to Committee members our desire to answer questions, criticisms, and concerns about the legislation, and to work with them in any way we can.

This is the third full session in which we have filed the bill, and as long-time readers know, we have amassed growing support for it inside the State HouseLegislative advocacy is a game for the restlessly patient, and for me, the restless side is manifesting itself. Most major legislation requires several sessions before it becomes viable. We’re at the point now, and I want to see some results.


Our wonderful, long-time lead sponsor, Rep. Ellen Story, testified on behalf of the HWB, and her chief assistant Brad Dye spent several hours talking to and offering advice to those who were there on behalf of the bill.

Members of the Committee who sat through a very long hearing day that stretched into the early evening deserve our thanks. Co-Chairs Sen. Daniel Wolf and Rep. John Scibak showed great attention, patience, and respect to those who testified on all the bills before the Committee, including ours. I also appreciated words of support from Representative and committee member Danielle Gregoire, who several moons ago was one of my students at Suffolk University Law School while she worked as a legislative staffer.

Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates

To learn more about advocacy efforts in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts, go to the campaign’s website or Facebook page.

For more about the national campaign to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill, go here

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Mind control: Taking over the houses of research and learning

Main Building, University of Vienna (photo: DY, 2015)

Main Building, University of Vienna (photo: DY, 2015)

If you want to control the minds of the citizenry and the ideas to which they are exposed, then make sure you take over their institutions of higher education.

That’s one of the lessons of a fascinating exhibit, “The Vienna Circle: Exact Thinking in Demented Times,” now showing at the University of Vienna’s Main Building. The Vienna Circle was a group of renowned philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists active during the early decades of the last century, and the University was their home. But when the threat posed by the Nazis became ever more pronounced in the 1930s, many leading scholars who did not see eye-to-eye with the German leadership took flight.

The Nazi Party leader of Vienna inspects the University of Vienna after the German absorption of Austria.

The Nazi Party leader of Vienna inspects the University of Vienna after the German absorption of Austria (the Anschluss) in 1938

Any commitment to academic freedom was swept aside. The University and its denizens would conduct themselves accordingly, with periodic reminders issued by Nazi leaders to stay in line.

A newly-installed senior university official dresses for the part

A newly-installed senior university official goes with the new dress code

University officials dressed the part. So much for a proper suit or a cap & gown. The photo above shows the new University Rector addressing colleagues in a lecture hall.

The faculty, having been properly cleansed, is left with the true believers

Showing support for the new regime

Of course, the remaining faculty got into the act, too. Those who stayed were the true believers, as well as those who wanted to convey that impression out of an instinct to survive. The stakes included your freedom (such as it was), safety, and livelihood.

In short, we see what happens when virulent political and economic forces deny academic freedom and responsible speech in our universities. The example of 1930s Europe may seem extreme, but it doesn’t take much to start going down that slippery slope.


Note: The photos are snapshots of exhibit displays curated by Karl Sigmund and Friedrich Stadler, taken on June 18.

What the 1971 Stanford prison experiment teaches us about workplace bullying


In August 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a famous experiment featuring a mock prison setting whose results are cited time and again as evidence of how everyday human beings can be easily transformed into heartless tyrants. In a recent article for the New Yorker, however, psychology and science writer Maria Konnikova revisits the conditions for that experiment and comes up with a different lesson, one that carries great significance for those trying to understand the nature of workplace bullying and abusive work environments. The Stanford Prison Experiment recruited a group of middle-class college students and then randomly divided them into two groups, guards and prisoners. Konnikova describes the commonly accepted version of what happened next:

According to the lore that’s grown up around the experiment, the guards, with little to no instruction, began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners within twenty-four hours of the study’s start. The prisoners, in turn, became submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest. The behavior of all involved was so extreme that the experiment, which was meant to last two weeks, was terminated after six days.

Interpretations of the experiment followed in step: Ordinary people, when given too much power and the right nudge, can become tyrannical and abusive. Today, writes Konnikova, “(t)he Stanford Prison Experiment is cited as evidence of the atavistic impulses that lurk within us all . . . .” But hold on, let’s not jump to conclusions about the inner demon that lies within us. Konnikova points out that the guards were instructed to process the prisoners in ways that demeaned and humiliated them, including being stripped, searched, deloused, and given a numbered gown that served as a prison uniform. In addition, Dr. Zimbardo himself played the role of prison superintendent, tacitly approving of the guards’ behavior. Even the ad soliciting participants, which expressly referred to an experiment on the psychology of prison life, may have planted seeds of expected role behavior. Konnikova summarizes what she believes is the genuine lesson of the experiment:

While it’s true that some guards and prisoners behaved in alarming ways, it’s also the case that their environment was designed to encourage—and, in some cases, to require—those behaviors.


The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them.

Applied to workplace bullying

Many of you can probably guess where I’m going with this.

There’s a lot more to Konnikova’s thought-provoking and informative article, but the main message carries great significance for our understanding of the dynamics of workplace bullying: Organizational culture counts. Leadership counts. Management practices count.

In fact, when I read Konnikova’s piece, I was reminded of a post from last summer in which I wrote about philosopher Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

Much more often than not, when workplace bullying occurs, it is supported, conducted, enabled, validated, and/or defended by senior leadership. Furthermore, in the modern workplace, a “successful” campaign of targeted abuse often requires the willing cooperation and assistance of multiple underlings.

Conflating abuse and incivility in the academic workplace

In a piece titled “Coping with Verbal Abuse” appearing recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert J. Sternberg offers advice for those who have experienced this form of mistreatment in the academic workplace.

Sternberg, a former university administrator and past president of the American Psychological Association and now a professor of human development at Cornell University, offers his short list of common types of verbal abuse in academe:

That abuse comes in many different forms: book reviews, referee reports on journal submissions, evaluations of grant proposals, questions and comments during presentations, offhand comments by less-than-collegial colleagues, and on and on.

Rather than simply giving it back and “telling off your abuser” (a potential “career-ender”), Sternberg recommends that one adopt approaches more likely to “pay off in the long run,” such as:

  • “Ignore the abuse and, if possible, the abuser.”
  • “It’s not always personal; sometimes it’s strictly business.”
  • “View occasional abuse as just a cost of doing business.”
  • “Consider verbal abuse as a sign you are being creative and doing your job right.”
  • “Look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you are guilty of the same bad behavior.”
  • “Use the incident as a teachable moment to show the abuser a better way to handle anger.”

Abuse vs. incivility

Last month I wrote a lengthy post about the importance of distinguishing between targeted, abusive, bullying behaviors and rude, abrasive incivility. Reading Sternberg’s advice column, I can only underscore that broader point. He appears to have placed incivility and genuine abuse into one big category and offered a list of suggestions for coping with them.

Those closely familiar with workplace bullying and mobbing know better. When I associate the term “verbal abuse” with workplace behaviors, it is usually in the context of targeted, career-threatening, health-impairing mistreatment.

I regard Sternberg’s article as containing a lot of sound advice for dealing with the seemingly inevitable incivilities that one encounters in academic life. There are a lot of socially inept, jerk-like, and mean spirited behaviors in higher education, and it behooves all of us to grow a thicker skin so we can better roll with the jabs. We also should encourage ourselves not to engage in the same.

But heaven help those who blithely confuse targeted abuse with bad manners, indelicate prose, or an irritating personality. By the time they realize what is happening, it can be too late to undo the damage inflicted upon them.


Related post

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

Additional commentaries

Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor

Workplace has just published an issue on “Academic Bullying and Mobbing.” You can access the issue here.

The Guardian

The Guardian newspaper has published a collection of articles on “Bullying in universities in focus.” You can access these pieces here.

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