Workplace bullying: A quick view from Baltimore


I’m writing from Baltimore, where this evening I had the privilege of serving as the guest speaker at the monthly dinner meeting of the Maryland chapter of the Labor and Employment Relations Association. LERA is a non-partisan, non-profit organization devoted to public education and research about work and workplaces. My topic was “How to Respond to Workplace Bullying,” and it gave me a chance to share some of my work and to engage in a very thoughtful Q&A with those who attended.

Most of the attendees are practitioners in this field, including attorneys, arbitrators, mediators, and labor relations specialists for companies, government agencies, and unions. What struck me during the various questions, comments, and side chats is that this topic continues to become mainstreamed among employee relations stakeholders. The turnout for this event was very strong, and the information I shared appeared to resonate with the attendees.

I enjoyed meeting such a sharp group of fellow employee relations colleagues. Many thanks to Maryland arbitrator Ezio Borchini, president of the state’s LERA chapter, for issuing this invitation and for being such a welcoming host. Oh, I should add that the Maryland LERA meetings are held at a wonderful restaurant in Baltimore’s Little Italy, La Tavola, so we all got a fine meal as part of the deal.

Displays (literally) of progress for the workplace anti-bullying movement

Deb Falzoi and Torii Bottomley holding sign near the MA State House

Deb Falzoi and Torii Bottomley holding sign outside the MA State House (photo: MA Healthy Workplace Advocates)

Hey, it’s about time that we made a big display about ending workplace bullying!

Recently I wrote about Massachusetts: Face Workplace Bullying, an artistic photo display designed to raise public awareness about workplace bullying and to voice support for the Healthy Workplace Bill (House No. 1771, currently before the MA legislature). The display features photographs of 14 individuals who have been targets of workplace bullying, along with their names and statements about the circumstances surrounding their experiences. It made its official debut on the 4th floor of the Massachusetts State House.

Last Friday, advocates met at the State House to commemorate the display’s two-week run and to take it down, packing it for its next port of call. Later that afternoon, Torii Bottomley and Deb Falzoi, staunch supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill and participants in the Face Workplace Bullying project, took to the street outside the State House to display their homebrewed sign “End Workplace Bullying.”

The photo display in the State House and the big sign outside are just what we need to shine a public light on workplace bullying and the damage it causes. In order for the Healthy Workplace Bill to become law, we need more advocates to be out front with this messaging.

I have been privy to communications between the individuals who allowed their images and stories to be included in the Face Workplace Bullying display, and they have invoked terms such as healing and empowering to describe how they feel being a part of it. I think their brave actions are making a huge statement: Enough of the silence and shame surrounding this form of interpersonal abuse. We need our legislators to pass the Healthy Workplace Bill. Let’s get on with it.

Interviews and documentary footage in the State House

Media interest and documentary footage in the State House (photo: MA Healthy Workplace Advocates)

News of the day: How much do we need to know?

It starts to pile up!

Among my staples

How closely do we need to follow the news of the day? How much and what types of news should we be tracking in order to be informed citizens? How does general awareness of current events relate to our effectiveness in performing certain jobs?

Folks, I confess that I ponder these questions more often than the average bear.

As an academician and lifelong learning junkie, I read/review/skim a lot of news and commentary. The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Economist, and Guardian get a lot of my attention. I like The Week for a quick flyover, AlterNet for progressive politics, and Business Week and Yahoo! Finance for business news. WBUR, the Boston NPR station, wakes me up in the morning. I also like a variety of general and specialized periodicals, with a nod to the Atlantic.

I still have plenty of print subscriptions, but like many I increasingly rely on the Internet. (I have many online subscriptions and make donations to favorite non-profit news sites, as I believe that good journalism and commentary should be compensated.)

As for television news, I largely skip it. The typical 11 p.m. local news show doesn’t do much for me. I have scant use for most cable news coverage as well. While many readers can probably guess that I’m not a fan of Fox News, I rarely watch the more liberal MSNBC, either.

In any event, with all these subscriptions and online bookmarks, I am not a master of the universe when it comes to current events. My understanding of domestic politics is far better than my grasp of international relations. With the latter, I’m much keener on making big picture historical connections than on being able to recite the latest goings on in the world’s hot spots.

Furthermore, I wrestle with a broader philosophical point: Knowledge is not wisdom. While ignorance is not wisdom, either, one can easily load up on facts and be short on understanding. Being able to tick off the day’s major news events does not substitute for that deeper comprehension.

On the whole, we Americans, especially, would benefit by having deeper knowledge and wisdom about history and current events. Our civic IQ is not very high, and our nation and world would be better places if we could improve it.

Weighing the exit option for a toxic job


In “10 things I realized after I quit my job without a plan” (Business Insider), life coach and consultant Anna Lundberg shares her experience of walking away from a job and creating her own business:

In September 2013, I walked out of my office and into the unknown. . . . I emptied my apartment of seven years, put my boxes into storage, and moved into my parents’ guest room as I thought about my next move.

My intention since the start had been to create a more independent and flexible lifestyle.

. . . So far, so good! This time last year, I officially incorporated my own consulting business and I’ve been busy on great projects ever since, working with big-name clients, making new connections, and sharpening my skill set.

Drawing upon hindsight, she then offers ten points reflecting upon her experience:

1. “Life on the other side is not as scary as you think.”

2. “You have to stick to your guns.”

3. “There are more options than you ever thought possible.”

4. “You can easily live on less money than you think.”

5. “New opportunities will appear from nowhere.”

6. “It doesn’t have to be perfect from day one.”

7. “Nothing is forever.”

8. “You are not alone.”

9. “You’ll never have all the answers.”

10. “Not all who wander are lost.”

Lindbergh offers explanations for each statement, and it’s worth checking out her full piece to read them. She may inspire some folks to consider their own options and futures.

The escape route

Many people discover this blog because of their experiences with workplace bullying and abuse. Long-time readers know, however, that I resist touting one-size-fits-all fixes. Each work situation has its own individual dynamics, rendering easy advice dangerous, especially when issued from an online perch. That said, for some the exit option is the most viable one. It should be weighed carefully.

Back in 2011, I wrote about the “Should I stay or should I go?” question for folks in bad work environments:

When should you hang in there, and when should you pursue an exit strategy? This question confronts a lot of people who feel stuck in frustrating or even toxic work situations. And given the realities of a tough job market, the dilemma of what to do becomes even more pronounced.

In that post (link here), I offered insights inspired by entrepreneur Seth Godin and the rock band The Clash, as well as more concrete suggestions about thinking through one’s options. To these points, I add this one: One of the most recurring regrets that I hear from targets of severe workplace bullying is that they didn’t remove themselves quickly enough from bad work situations, even as the abusive behaviors kept mounting. Among the costs was that it became much harder to pick up the pieces afterward, including developing options for moving forward with their livelihoods and careers.

It doesn’t appear that Anna Lundberg walked away from a toxic job. Her decision seems to have been grounded in a desire to change the direction of her life in a more positive way. Thus, the more optimistic tone of her piece understandably may not resonate with someone who is feeling trapped in a terrible workplace. After all, it’s pretty damn hard to be sunny about your future when you’re being emotionally pummeled. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that walking away from one job for any reason will lead to something better.

But until more employers start to take abuse at work seriously and the law steps in to create stronger legal protections, leaving a bad job — voluntarily or otherwise — will remain the most common “resolution” of severe workplace bullying. Whenever possible, those who are experiencing toxic jobs should try to get ahead of the situation. It is not an easy thing to do — at first glance, it may feel downright impossible — but it’s much better than waiting for others to impose the choices.

Potential intermediate steps

But before making a final decision to leave a toxic job, there may be some intermediate steps worth considering. They include measures to take stock and assess options related to employment, health, legal rights, etc., while being physically removed from the unhealthy work environment:

  • Taking any earned/accumulated leave time (vacation, sick, personal days);
  • Taking advantage of any family and medical leave rights, which in some states and countries may include paid leave; and/or
  • Requesting a formal leave of absence, consistent with any employer-provided benefits.

Obviously financial considerations often figure heavily into such options and decisions. At this juncture, I will only say that it may be worth a short-term money squeeze in order to buy time to process your situation.

Additional resources

Those considering their exit options may want to review the Need Help page of this blog, which, among other things, collects a variety of blog posts that can help to clarify the decision making process.


This post was revised in December 2019.

Non-conformists as change agents


ProPublica, the non-profit public interest news organization, recently did a neat little feature on Dr. Adam Grant’s (U.Penn/Wharton) new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016). Here’s the lede by Cynthia Gordy:

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers and groundbreaking ideas. Throughout Originals, the Wharton School of Business professor shares stories from the fields of business, politics and sports, and his chapter exploring the psychology of speaking truth to power – whether it be federal whistleblowers, or a middle-level employee with an innovative idea – holds several lessons for investigative journalists and the people on which they report.

The feature includes a podcast with Dr. Grant interviewed by ProPublica reporter David Epstein. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On lower-level workers facing backlash for making suggestions: “People often confuse power and status, but power is about being able to influence others. . . . You see a really strong backlash when people try to assert their authority when they haven’t yet earned respect.”
  • On whistleblowers using internal channels: “We need much better internal channels that make it safe for people to blow the whistle. One of the most important steps that you can take is to model openness to that kind of information, and I think that means whistleblowers sometimes need to be called out and recognized for having the courage to speak even if they end up being wrong.”
  • On advocating for change internally vs. externally: “This is a tightrope walk. If you refuse to conform at all and you don’t buy into the system, it’s really hard to get taken seriously. . . . On the other hand, if you adapt too much to the world, then you never change it.”


Okay folks, it’s impossible for me to be objective on this topic. I naturally identify with the role of non-conformist and have done so for as long as I can remember. In years past, this role was all too often accompanied by attitudinal rebelliousness. I am not completely free from such instincts, but I think I am much more constructive and mature about it than I was before.

Grant’s characterization of the “tightrope walk” specially resonates with me. It overlaps with the idea of what author and coach Judi Neal calls the “edgewalker,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way.

Of course, it’s not all about starry-eyed idealism. As Grant’s work suggests, non-conformists can pay a price for being out front, with ridicule, pushback, and retaliation being among the costs. For this reason and others, I’m looking forward to spending some time with his book. I hope it will yield some lessons on how to be an “Original” as smartly, safely, and effectively as possible.


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Courageous, artistic workplace anti-bullying advocacy at MA State House

Photo from the Inside Out Project

(photo courtesy of Massachusetts: Face Workplace Bullying)

Massachusetts: Face Workplace Bullying is an artistic photo display spearheaded by educator and workplace bullying target Torii Bottomley to raise public awareness about workplace bullying and to voice support for the Healthy Workplace Bill (House No. 1771, currently before the MA legislature). It is making its official debut on the 4th floor of the Massachusetts State House, and it will be up throughout the week until Friday, April 22.

The display features photographs of 14 individuals who have been targets of workplace bullying, along with their names and statements about the circumstances surrounding their experiences.

Here is the project statement:

Work shouldn’t hurt! Research shows bully bosses target the MOST SUCCESSFUL employees out of envy for their skills and ethics. This abuse comes at a proven cost to every state’s economy. We call on the great state of Massachusetts, with a history of “firsts” in progressive legislature, to FACE WORKPLACE BULLYING. By passing the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill, the abusers, not the state, will be economically responsible for their actions!

Above all, this is what moral courage is all about. Fourteen individuals have stepped forward to put very human faces on this movement. Not happy, smiley faces either. Rather, stern, serious, angry, and pained faces of people who are calling for change. They’re trying to tell us something, yes? I am proud to acknowledge and salute them.

(photo courtesy of the INSIDE OUT Project)

(photo courtesy of Massachusetts: Face Workplace Bullying )


More to come: The experience of everyday wealth differences


A guest contributor to The Guardian‘s “What I’m really thinking” column — apparently a female student — writes about the awkwardness of making social plans with friends who have a lot more money than she does:

“I’ll meet you there,” I say. “I’ve got something to do first.” That’s a lie. I just don’t want to take an hour-long taxi with you; the fare for that is outrageous. No, better to take public transport and spend an extra hour and half to save the money.

. . . Make no mistake, I am by no means poor, but by your standards I might as well be. When we go out for dinner, I scream inside at the cost. Often I don’t eat, saying I’ve had something already or I’m not hungry. Some people ask if I’m anorexic, because they never see me eat a proper meal outside school.

Iceberg ahead…and we’re steaming into it, full throttle

Of course, the socially awkward dilemmas confronting a younger person with less disposable cash than her friends are one thing, while deep inequalities in income and wealth are quite another. At least here in the U.S., I believe those inequalities have been, and continue to be, intentionally baked into our economic and political infrastructure. And they are becoming evident across the generations.

For example, here’s a piece of writer Sarah Kendzior’s insightful take on the “post-employment economy” that confronts many recent graduates:

A lawyer. A computer scientist. A military analyst. A teacher.

What do these people have in common? They are trained professionals who cannot find full-time jobs. Since 2008, they have been tenuously employed – working one-year contracts, consulting on the side, hustling to survive. They spent thousands on undergraduate and graduate training to avoid that hustle. They eschewed dreams – journalism, art, entertainment – for safer bets, only to discover that the safest bet is that your job will be contingent and disposable.

On the other end of the generational spectrum, you have late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a cohort that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — hurdling into middle age and beyond with scant retirement savings. For example, a 2015 study by the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security concluded, among other things:

The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households. Furthermore, 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

My prediction? Without significant changes, we are going to see more and more instances of everyday inequality staring us straight in the face. For some, this will mean quietly bowing out of pricier social activities due to a money crunch. For others, it will mean trying to maintain appearances of “middle class” status while opting for a dinner of macaroni & cheese from a box. And these will be among the folks who actually have “choices.”

I haven’t yet said a word here about climate change.

Saving ourselves from a dystopian future

Yes, I know I’m sounding overwrought. But too many indicators are suggesting that (1) we have yet to pay the full price for our inequalities and excesses, especially during the past thirty-five or so years; and (2) we have not come to a reckoning about the mess we’ve made.

For those who can afford it, there are things that can be done on an individual level: Be generous. Give to good charities. Pick up the check. Leave a nice tip. To help someone dear who is in a financial bind, give, don’t loan, and do it without fanfare. Instead, be grateful that you can afford it. (I try to hold myself to these standards, while confessing that I sometimes fall short.)

More broadly, all of us, regardless of financial status, must grasp how our economic, political, and social systems have stoked massive inequality, nationally and globally, and then help to do something about it. 

I’m not sure of all the answers, but I believe they will be a combination of changing how we live, building a more robust yet inclusive economy, and repairing our social safety net. We will have to be smarter and kinder in creating a society that places greater value on human dignity and the common good.

“Barnum and bully”: America’s gaslighting expert


Gaslighting is a form of interpersonal manipulation and abuse intended to screw with our heads. It’s meant to disorient us and to have us question our perceptions of reality. As I’ve written in one of this blog’s most popular posts, it’s a favorite tactic of workplace bullies.

Enter Donald Trump. Again. (He’s becoming a regular topic of discussion on this blog.) U.S. News contributing editor Nicole Hemmer writes an insightful piece about how The Donald is gaslighting America with his campaign tactics, behaviors, and rhetoric:

Trump is a toxic blend of Barnum and bully. If you’re a good mark, he’s your best friend. But if you catch on to the con, then he starts to gaslight. Ask him a question and he’ll lie without batting an eye. Call him a liar and he’ll declare himself “truthful to a fault.” Confront him with contradictory evidence and he’ll shrug and repeat the fib. Maybe he’ll change the subject. But he’ll never change the lie.

She cites as an example the experience of Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields:

While covering a Trump rally last Tuesday, Fields was grabbed and pulled toward the ground. Ben Terris of the Washington Post reports seeing Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski do it. Fields has bruises on her forearm and there was audio of the event. Lewandowski himself reportedly told a Breitbart editor he grabbed Fields.

So what happened next?

Lewandowski said Fields was crazy. “Totally delusional,” he tweeted. Trump suggested she made the whole thing up.

Hemmer quotes a colleague who likened this response to the common practice of discrediting sexual assault victims by calling them crazy and delusional. The local police, thank goodness, have taken this more seriously. As reported by the Associated Press and many other news outlets, campaign manager Lewandowski has now been charged with simple battery.

In fact, the Fields incident apparently is among the reasons why National Public Radio is sending its campaign correspondents to what the Washington Post has dubbed “Trump Training,” a tutorial in how to deal with hostile environments:

Donald Trump’s campaign events have apparently become such a minefield for reporters that one major news organization has taken the extraordinary step of offering its correspondents a version of training for dealing with real minefields.

NPR has sent its political reporters to 90-minute hostile-environment awareness training, which in its typical form lasts a few days and prepares journalists for covering war zones or regions where terrorists are active.

…In this case, NPR’s scaled-down sessions might be called Trump Training.

As this coarse, disturbing, and sometimes vulgar Presidential campaign plods along, we are witnessing behaviors that could make for a how-to textbook on workplace bullying, many of them thanks to Trump. Gaslighting, I’m afraid, now has its own chapter.


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High on the workplace dysfunction meter: An active, fear-based rumor mill

(image courtesy of

(image courtesy of

If fearful, dramatic rumors continually run through a workplace — some turning out to be true, others not — then I’m willing to bet that its organizational leadership does a poor job of communicating with its stakeholders and that the organizational culture lacks a core value of trust. If these rumors become increasingly wild, with some still proving to be correct, then the workplace dysfunction meter is stuck clearly in the red zone.

Content-wise, these rumors usually center on concerns that are important to just about anyone: Job security, compensation, benefits, leadership and ownership changes, organizational conflicts, work rules, and the like. A meeting, a cryptic memo, or even a casual conversation or e-mail can stoke the rumor mill and fuel a modern version of the “telephone” game, whereby speculation creates a narrative built upon tiny bits of fact.

The smart prognosticators are like expert military intelligence experts. They can take small pieces of information and be remarkably accurate at assessing a situation and forecasting coming events. Others may be not be so wise. As they feed the rumor mill, it starts to go bonkers. Most people fall somewhere between those extremes.

Responses and impacts

Individual responses to fearful rumors are often physiological. As I wrote earlier this year:

Mediator and facilitator Diane Musho Hamilton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, delves into brain science in describing what happens when we feel threatened:

We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.”

Ultimately, from an organizational standpoint, morale, loyalty, and productivity are the major casualties.


It may be tempting to blame rank-and-file workers for engaging in such communications. And certainly there are workers who revel in spreading rumors of any sort. Once a rumor mill goes active, it’s hard to stop.

For the most part, however, if a rumor mill operates to the point of distraction, then poor leadership is typically a major culprit. After all, when boards and senior executives pay only lip service to communication, transparency, and honesty, then what is likely to fill the information void?

A journalist writes about being savagely cybersmeared


Folks who work in the public eye — writers, creative types, media personalities, public officials, etc. — face the special risk of bullying, mobbing, harassment, defamation, violence, and stalking from members of the public, who may include readers, customers, and others affected by their work.

If you’d like to understand more about the impact of these behaviors, then journalist Dune Lawrence’s (Bloomberg Businessweek) bracing first-person account is worth your while. Lawrence experienced a two-year ordeal of defamatory trolling at the hands of a man named Benjamin Wey, who currently awaits trial on federal securities fraud charges. Here is Lawrence’s lede:

I saw the photo first, me in a bloody wash of red with “RACIST” pulsing over my face. A couple of clicks brought me to this:

“In the darkest shadow of Bloomberg’s glossy office building in Manhattan, you may find a woman by the name of Dune Lawrence—a ‘journalist’ who has built a career on writing salacious articles about China.”

Lawrence had interviewed Wey on his business dealings for pieces she wrote for the magazine, and when her coverage raised uncomfortable questions, he retaliated by attempting to destroy her reputation via online means.

We often think of cyberbullying and related behaviors in the context of school kids, but they are hardly limited to such settings. Furthermore, they are often very destructive. As I wrote in 2012:

A new study of British university employees concludes that targets of workplace cyberbullying often fare worse than those who experience traditional bullying. Victoria Revay reports for Global News…:

In three separate surveys, 320 British university employees were asked to document their experiences with cyberbullying. The study results showed that victims of cyberbullying tended to have “higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction” as compared to traditional bullying.

According to Revay, human resources professor Aaron Schat of McMaster University in Canada, interpreted the results this way:

He says the challenge with cyberbullying in the workplace may be that it lacks a so-called safe haven, or a physical area where the victim can take refuge to avoid the bully. He says this may also be the reason why victims feel more emotionally distressed.

I have kept my summary of Lawrence’s experiences to a minimum, because her story should be read in its entirety in order to be fully grasped. This is a frightening tale of one person’s extraordinary efforts to use the Internet for spreading baseless lies and rumors about another, in ways that created significant difficulties and embarrassment for the target of his behavior. 


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