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.

A view from Vienna: New wine and new bottles for the practice and substance of law

It seems that every time you turn a corner in Old Vienna, you see sights like this one. (photo: DY, 2015)

Location indeed: It seems that every time you turn a corner in Old Vienna, you see sights like this one. (photo: DY, 2015)

Yup, as the real estate folks might say, sometimes it’s all about location, location, location.

As I wrote over the weekend, I’m in Vienna, Austria, for the International Congress of Law and Mental Health. Among other things, this biennial gathering allows me to reconnect with people and ideas associated with therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), the pioneering school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law, legal processes, and legal practice.

It struck me how absolutely cool it is to be at this particular conference in a city where matters of the mind have such deep historical roots. It is both inspiring and instructive to exchange ideas with scholars, practitioners, judges, and students who embrace no less than a transformative commitment to creating laws and legal systems that advance psychological well-being.

Professor David Wexler, a co-founder of therapeutic jurisprudence, is fond of invoking a “new wine” and “new bottles” analogy for describing TJ’s role. In a 2014 law review article about the criminal justice system, David suggests that we “think of TJ professional practices and techniques as ‘liquid’ or ‘wine,’ and . . . think of the governing legal rules and legal procedures—the pertinent legal landscape—as ‘bottles.'”

In other words, the “wine” of the law is how lawyers and other legal stakeholders go about doing their work. This may include essential lawyering tasks such as interviewing clients, negotiating settlements, and conducting litigation. The “bottles” of the law are the substantive rules that define legal rights, responsibilities, and relationships and the procedural structures and mechanisms by which we attempt to resolve legal matters.

I like the wine and bottles analogy, and it certainly applies to my realm of employment and labor law and policy. A TJ-inspired “wine” for employment law practice involves acting preventively concerning employment disputes, trying to mend work relationships rather than to further fracture them, and engaging in smart, sensitive client counseling.

A TJ-inspired “bottle” for employment law includes drafting and advocating for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, the very topic that attracted me to therapeutic jurisprudence in the first place. Properly constructed workplace bullying legislation creates incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively towards bullying behaviors and provides targets with a legal claim for damages.

I realize that some readers may pass over articles in which I toss around this unwieldy sounding term. “Therapeutic jurisprudence” is a mouthful, yes? But let’s think about it: How much better would our laws and legal systems be if they were designed mainly to encourage psychologically healthy outcomes? If you understand the significance of this question, then you now comprehend the essence of therapeutic jurisprudence and why it’s so important.

Learning about law and mental health in Vienna

St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, a top attraction (photo: DY, 2015)

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, a top attraction for visitors (photo: DY, 2015)

I’m in Vienna, Austria, for the International Congress of Law and Mental Health. This is a biennial, large-scale event, with roughly 1,000 registrants and multiple panels running concurrently throughout the five-day period. The Vienna gathering is appropriately being held at Sigmund Freud University.

For me, the Congress is an opportunity to learn about important intersections between law, public policy, psychology, and mental health on a global scale. It’s also a chance to connect with friends and colleagues within the therapeutic jurisprudence community. Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), as I’ve written here before, is a school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law, legal processes, and legal practice. I originally became associated with the TJ community through my work on workplace bullying and the law. Now the TJ lens substantially frames my perspectives on the law.

With so many participants descending upon a big city (the last three Congresses were held in Amsterdam, Berlin, and New York), this can easily become the type of event where one feels lost in the crowd. However, the International Network on Therapeutic Jurisprudence has organized a “conference within a conference,” a series of panels on various aspects of therapeutic jurisprudence, held over the entire course of the event. While even those who are strongly connected to the TJ community often present at and attend other panels, the dedicated array of TJ-related panels serves as a sort of home base. People become more familiar with names and faces and thus are more likely to forge connections that would be more difficult to make without this ongoing series of panels.

The importance of this global perspective cannot be overemphasized. Compared to many other nations, the U.S. is often somewhat resistant toward integrating psychological perspectives into its laws and legal procedures. American law students discover this right at the beginning of their studies, when they learn how legal doctrines such as criminal law and tort (personal injury) law struggle to find a place for psychology and mental health in assessing key questions such as intent and emotional distress.

It’s also a treat to be able to spend some time exploring Vienna. I have not been here since 1981, when I followed a semester abroad in England with a quick tour through parts of western Europe. There is so much culture and history in this city, starting with the tumultuous 20th century and going way, way back. Of course, Freud and Carl Jung also made their imprints here, so I’m bound to pick up some lessons in psychology as well beyond what I learn at the conference.


Why this unpaid internship stuff should matter to everyone

As I wrote last week, a federal appeals court ruling in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., reversing a lower federal court decision holding that two unpaid interns hired by Fox Searchlight Pictures were entitled to back pay under minimum wage laws and certifying a class action on behalf of other interns hired by the company, was a setback for a growing intern rights movement.

In practical terms, the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit invites private employers and universities to collaborate on schemes that (1) create unpaid internships; and (2) charge students tuition for the “privilege” of doing unpaid work. The ruling also makes it harder for unpaid interns to band together to challenge unpaid internships via class action lawsuits.

Basically, the “intern economy” that has been growing by leaps and bounds during the past three decades got a big judicial stamp of approval last week. It may be only temporary, but the Second Circuit’s ruling sends a bigger message that the label of “intern” is now being accorded its own legal meaning, one with a lesser status than that of a regular old “employee.” By slapping the intern label on what otherwise would be deemed an entry-level job, employers can potentially be exempt from paying even the minimum wage.

“Primary beneficiary” test

The Second Circuit adopted a “primary beneficiary” test to determine whether interns should be exempt from minimum wage laws. In other words, if someone is labeled an intern by an employer, we will now engage in a balancing test to determine who gets the better of the deal, the intern or the employer, taking into account a laundry list of “intangibles” such as training, networking opportunities, and so forth. It’s noteworthy that the Court said a lot less about the intangible benefits of interns to employers, such as training, mentoring, and evaluating the next generation of new people into a profession, in addition to the tangible work contributions that many interns provide.

Furthermore, it’s clear that these hedgerows to a paycheck are being created only for those trying to get their careers off the ground. Although many new high-level managers and professionals also go through training periods and enjoy networking opportunities, they will not be subject to this legal test.

Why this matters to all of us

This litigation, and the many other pending and settled lawsuits concerning unpaid internships, obviously are of direct importance to students and recent graduates. However, we all should be paying attention to this, because these cases are raising the fundamental question of whether people have a legal right to be paid for their work.

We are going down that slippery slope. Whereas internships were once largely confined to graduate-level professional programs, they now have become staples for undergraduates as well. Even more alarming is the expansion of unpaid internships into the post-graduate stage, sometimes dressed up under the label of “non-stipendiary fellowships.”

The work-for-free creep has already entered certain vocations with a vengeance. Last year I wrote about how so many writers, journalists, and other creative folks are struggling to find gigs that pay them for their labor. I quoted an extended editorial essay titled “The Free and the Antifree: On payment for writers,” in which the editors of N+1 magazine examined the challenges of economic and technological systems conspiring to make it difficult for capable writers, journalists, editors, and other wordsmiths to get paid for their work and to earn a living. (The N+1 piece favorably cited Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation (2011) — touted on several occasions in this blog — as one of the first books to come out of the “antifree movement.”)

So…for anyone who thinks this unpaid intern stuff is someone else’s problem, please think again. This is all about the dignity of being paid for one’s labor, and the resolution of these lawsuits will help to determine if the door has been opened or closed to more and more unpaid work.


Media Coverage

I was quoted in this piece by Susan Adams on the Court of Appeals ruling:

Agrees Suffolk University law professor David Yamada, who wrote the first law review article on unpaid internships back in 2002, “All the factors they drew up were really without legal authority.” In fact the judges cite no case law for their checklist. “They apparently decided to invent something new here, which is surprising at the appellate level,” says Yamada.

Bloomberg Law

I appeared on June Grasso’s radio program for a 20-minute segment, along with entertainment law professor Jay Dougherty. It was a lively, collegial exchange that allowed for some substantive give-and-take about internships and compensation. You may access the link here.

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