On occasion I receive inquiries that go something like this: I’ve been a target of workplace bullying. I’ve learned a lot from this experience and want to help make sure that others don’t go through what I did. In fact, I’d like to do some work in this area. How can I go about this?
Typically such inquiries come from folks who would like to be more deeply involved in public education, consulting and coaching, and advocacy work about workplace bullying. They run the gamut of professional backgrounds and age ranges. Although I’ve written about how people can respond to workplace bullying as individual activists, I haven’t fully explored this question for those who want to pursue a vocation or serious avocation in this realm. For purposes of discussing possible roles, I will use the term “subject matter expert” (SME), the specifics of which, of course, will vary with individual circumstances and interests.
The transition from workplace bullying target to SME is a challenging one. Some who want to make this transition proceed under two misconceptions. First, they overgeneralize from their experience, sometimes to the point of regarding themselves as an expert on workplace bullying because of what they endured. The experience of being bullied at work may yield many valuable (albeit very difficult) lessons that can benefit others. But one’s own experience of work abuse is not necessarily universal or even representative. Variations on bullying are seemingly endless. Thus, I wince when I read or hear bullying targets offering what I believe is questionable advice, drawn largely from their own experiences.
Please don’t get me wrong: Experience can be a great teacher, and many people who are doing research on workplace bullying and who are taking active roles in the workplace anti-bullying movement were informed and inspired to move in those directions by personal experiences. However, workplace bullying is a complex and complicated topic, and gaining both a depth and breadth of understanding about it requires time and effort. (Indeed, even after some 15 years of being immersed in this general subject area, I’m still learning.)
Second, some targets seeking to transition into SME roles may enter the fray when their own bullying experiences are still too raw. Emotionally, they aren’t ready. Perhaps they will never be, and there is no shame in that. Some are empowered by becoming change agents regarding bullying at work; others are re-traumatized. My observation is that those who use their experiences as their primary “texts” for understanding bullying at work and who dive into various SME roles before they’re ready may give bad guidance and advice to others, may overlook evidence-based findings about workplace bullying, and may embroil themselves in an emotional stew that consumes them from the inside.
With that said, here are two general clusters of advice for people exploring these possibilities:
1. Get schooled
Above all, a serious course of study — independent or formal — is necessary. For starters, and with a slight nod to American readers, I’d recommend:
- Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (rev. ed., 2009);
- Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (2011);
- Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing (2014);
- Stale Einarsen, et al., eds., Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace (2nd ed., 2011); and,
- Sheila M. Keegan, The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015).
Additional resources abound. The Workplace Bullying Institute website includes an invaluable research portal. WBI’s Workplace Bullying University is an intense, interactive, and content-rich three-day seminar facilitated by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie. The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence has created a webpage of resources on workplace bullying, especially for employers. (I worked with the APA in developing this page.)
Some may benefit from or need more formal training and education, including the possibility of an advanced degree or certification in fields such as psychology (clinical, social, or industrial/organizational), social work, coaching, business management, human resources, labor studies, or law.
2. Get ready
As I’ve suggested above, you need to be able to step out of the emotions of your own experience. That’s not easy. Workplace bullying can seep into the bones. All too often, I’ve seen people jump into this arena, only to discover that they’re still too close to their own experiences. Especially if a counselor or therapist recommends that you’re not ready, it would be wise to heed that advice.
Also, you need to identify where you can make your contribution. Those who seek an avocational role may want to engage in activism and advocacy, social media outreach, and public education work. Many who support the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill are involved in these ways. For those who seek a more vocational focus — in other words, to earn a living addressing these behaviors — it usually will be necessary to pursue work in a given profession. Formal, advanced training in one of the fields suggested above may be appropriate.
“I want to help stop workplace bullying” (2014) — “Periodically I get e-mails and voice mails from people who would like to get involved in addressing bullying at work. More often than not, they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying firsthand, and now they’d like to do something on a broader scale to prevent bullying and help others who have been targeted. Here are my thoughts on this topic….”
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