Are ethical employees more likely to be workplace bullying targets?

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

Over the past few months, I’ve had several conversations and exchanges related to this question: Are ethical employees more likely to be workplace bullying targets? 

My instinct has always been to answer “yes.” The works of Gary & Ruth Namie, Kenneth Westhues, and others have long reinforced for me that targets of bullying, mobbing, and abuse tend to be ethical individuals, and my own interactions with hundreds of self-identified bullying targets have underscored that belief.

But I think the question demands more than a simple yes or no answer. Like so many other topics concerning abuse at work, there are layers to it. Based on my fifteen years of working in this realm, I feel confident in making these observations:

First, whistleblowers are often bullied as a form of retaliation. This is the proverbial no-brainer. Challenging the legality and ethics of decisions and actions made in a less-than-wonderful organization can quickly place a target on one’s back.

This short piece cannot do justice to all of the relevant guidance that whistleblowers should consider in view of these risks, but suffice it to say that a decision to engage in such reporting activity should be made carefully, not impulsively, and with the fullest possible understanding of options and potential ramifications.

Second, people with a highly developed sense of ethics may stick out. Those who are perceived this way in an organization with a low ethical baseline will be more vulnerable to bullying and mobbing actions.

This observation yields potential lessons: If you find yourself in an unsavory organization, then it may be advisable to pick your battles carefully. Be wary of the risks of being perceived as an ethical crusader in a less-than-ethical workplace, and avoid gratuitous actions prompted by feelings of self-righteousness.

Third, very rare is the self-identified target of bullying or mobbing at work who struck me as being unethical or, as some might put it, “sketchy.”

There’s more to this seemingly milquetoast point than meets the eye. Consider the logical flip side question: Are ethically challenged folks actually at lower risk of being bullied at work?

There are exceptions, of course. For example, an employee who does something harmful or damaging could be on the receiving end of mobbing behaviors by resentful co-workers. Nevertheless, I would hypothesize that many potential workplace aggressors have the good sense not to mess around with their, umm, “peers”!

Okay folks, this is concededly more of a weekend meandering than a scientific investigation. I should add that before writing up this piece, I did a quick check to see if any research studies had delved into this topic. While predictably I found a lot about workplace bullying and organizational ethics generally, I didn’t find much specifically exploring the ethical profiles of the target population. This doesn’t surprise me, as it would be a challenge to assemble a representative cross-section of bullying targets on this particular scale to complete a survey instrument.

I hope this has been useful food for thought nonetheless.

12 responses

  1. So very true: “If you find yourself in an unsavory organization, then it may be advisable to pick your battles carefully. Be wary of the risks of being perceived as an ethical crusader in a less-than-ethical workplace … ”

    I tried really, really hard to follow this advice. Really, really hard. But eventually it became impossible and resigning was not a viable option. My department went from occasionally fabricating the minutes of faculty meeting to address department and college political matters to wantonly fabricating minutes regularly. I would leave if I could.

  2. “Peers” will mess with you when you are more qualified, a worker bee, and ethically motivated to do the right thing. I see it in healthcare many times.

  3. I definitely experienced workplace bullying and mobbing after reporting many violations to the employee personnel handbook and policies, including my coworker regularly consuming wine at her desk and the manager allowing it. Because I depended upon her on work projects and deadlines, it became very frustrating to deal with an verbally abusive and wine drinking hostile queen bee and a very weak verbally abusive manager doing absolutely nothing about it but allowing it over the many times it was reported. I then took it one more step higher and asked for a meeting with an oversight committee and informed them however, it only got worse! They also did nothing to hold these employees accountable for their misconduct and wanted me out for reporting it. And this behavior went on for years! (The personnel policy manual stated that an employee would be terminated for 1st offense of consuming alcohol). Nothing happened! They both became extremely angry that I had reported them and made my work day miserable by calling me into their offices and screaming at me, fabricating lies, flinging insults and abusive comments, and had others in the office also contributing to the abuse. It turned out that many on the oversight committee were also drinking buddies and friends and they supported this entire unethical, unprofessional, toxic and dysfunctional working group and environment. This went on in a management company that oversaw operations for a retirement community of over 1,500 residents. Lack of ethical leadership, nepotism, cronyism, flagrant lack of respect and adherence to the company’s personnel policy handbook and rules breed absolute chaos and the worse working environment I have ever experienced in my life. Have since moved on but one day plan to write a book describing every detail of the hostile abuse I experienced and received at this horrible place where hostile coworkers, a bad manager and unethical committee are all in the same rotten toxic barrel.

  4. Yes! My personal experience with my former employer, and some co-workers’, verifies this. In fact, I was let go after complaining that my supervisor is a bully; and it took me three years to bring it up.

  5. I agree with David that workers who act ethically often become targets for bullying or mobbing. I think that one reason is that in most places rules are not always followed and an informal set of rules that isn’t articulated is substituted. Some practices are not seen by the group as harmful although the rule says they aren’t supposed to happen. Whistleblowers almost always end up with reprisal actions against them and social isolation. Nepotism, and bias interpreting the rules exist frequently in bully cultures in my experience. They’re just one more way in which the target can’t win because the group will lie about what is happening to any third party. Those who are above average performers and who adhere to all the rules are rare. They will often try to get the rules adhered to or work performance improved. That makes the others in the group angry and defensive.

  6. RE PABERRYRN: I agree too. But I was pretty good dealing with antagonistic peers in the places where I have worked, especially newsrooms where bigotry was not unusual. Never a situation like where I teach now, particularly with the mobbing that exists. One reason is the abject disregard of College bylaws and that seems to have been linked to what has been described as the financial disenfranchising of the City University of New York. The de-funding of CUNY and the deterioration of curriculum and standards and traditions like Academic Freedom and Academic Integrity led to rank cronyism and rank nepotism on this campus and especially in my department with boyfriends hiring girlfriends and business partners exerting considerable influence if not dominance in the department. I am describing the tip of the iceberg.

    The disregard of College bylaws led to departments and committees making up the rules that suited their interests. Won’t take up space here describing here what’s it like dealing with committees and individuals with influence who make up their own rules. The grading and grade appeal procedures in my department, for example, have led to scandalous decisions and behavior.

    There was considerable lawlessness on this campus with physical intimidation and physical harassment, especially directed at students, when I first arrived in 1995 and continued for several years. I’ve had more physical altercations on this campus than any workplace I’ve ever been. A strong campus police presence over the years has eliminated the physical harassment that use to take place. But that spirit of lawlessness is still evident, reflected in the management style of the College administration, certain committees and individuals like deans and department heads.

    Jennifer Raab, president of the college, is the most written up CUNY top college administrator in the NY Times. Such as this one:

    • @RainyDayWord, wow. I sometimes wonder if we have impaired the next generations try teaching that bullying is bad and not to do it, only to present the world with the next generation of targets trying to do the right thing.

      • @PABERRYRN Education is about learning to do the right thing. What’s wrong with preparing the next generations with the tools and ideas to do the right thing? Civil Rights Laws and America’s alleged respect for Civil Liberties are about doing the right thing. It took years to inform generations to learn that Jim Crow Laws and Separate But Equal were not the right things.

        I think educators should prepare students for the realities of the workplace and those realities include more than dressing properly for interviews and presenting good resumes and projecting good images. For me ethical and ethical behavior are seriously missing from high school and College curriculum and classes. I believe it’s unethical for example, when not illegal, to mistreat colleagues and co-workers. There are employment laws that state that it’s illegal to discriminate. There are also the spirits of the law regarding discriminating, and discriminating is a synonym for causing harm.

        Imbuing students with knowledge to deal with the realities of the workplace is a plus. The Three R-s should be the Four R-s, with ethics being the newest addition. Preparing students to do the right thing is in the tradition of a free society but students need to know all about it.

  7. Yes, I believe there is a correlation and it’s been going on forever… Just consider what happened to Jesus Christ. He wasn’t exactly rewarded for having high ethical standards.

  8. Hi David, I agree with your comments 100% and as you say, there is so much more to be said. As a coach/therapist working with many different targets (all genders, all professions), I have observed a very clear consistency within the thousands I have seen over the years – they do have strong ethics. This is a true strength they need to be proud of this. Unfortunately it means they may be a minority and become targeted. This may repeat in their personal and work lives. This doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with them – as many do ask that. It means they need support and education around this, and it helps to explore their own personal story around ethics, their reactions and actions, resources, and tools. They might find that a few personal adjustments can keep them both authentic, yet safer. One would be as David said, picking battles. I would add – how to battle (or take steps), with better clarity, knowledge, resource, confidence and timing. I recommend seeing a professional who is trained and experienced to assist them through this very stressful experience i.e.; validation, reality checks, guidance/education, developing a strategic plan, including the use of timing. The first moment your gut says “this isn’t right” and your head says “but I’m not sure I’m right” or “something needs to be done”, reach out for this support. It could save weeks, months, years of agony. Linda Crockett

    • Linda, thanks so much for adding your insights and experiences. How many times have I heard a story along these lines and thought, “oh, I wish they would’ve done [fill in blank] or said [fill in blank],” not in terms of substance, but rather strategy and, at times, nuance and restraint. I have had those hindsight regrets about instances in my own life when I’ve raised ethical or legal concerns, but maybe could’ve done so with a bit more of a plan and emotional control. But the other reality is that people in these situations, as you suggest, are often isolated and don’t have allies. Strength in numbers — not necessarily a majority, but at least having a critical mass on your side — makes a difference.

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