Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching

At the just-concluded International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Prague, I presented a short paper, “Addressing Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Higher Education: The Roles of Law, Cultures, Codes, and Coaching,” as part of a panel discussion on legal issues in higher education. In assembling this talk, I drew heavily upon sources discussed in past blog entries, as I have long been interested in bullying behaviors in academe. Here’s a slightly edited version of my outline for the talk:

I. Introduction

  1. Short definitions
  • Workplace bullying – Intentional, often repeated, and health harming mistreatment of an employee by one of more other employees, using verbal and non-verbal means.
  • Workplace mobbing – An intentional “ganging up” on an employee by multiple employees, using bullying-type behaviors.
  • Workplace incivility – Behavior that violates conventional norms of workplace conduct.

2. Impacts

  • Reduced employee productivity, attentiveness, and employee morale, increased attrition and absenteeism;
  • Increased employee benefit costs and liability exposure;
  • For workplace bullying and mobbing, significant mental and physical health effects, including clinical depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation.

II. Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Academe

  1. Are they problems in academic institutions?

Yes, books and studies have documented this. See my blog post, “Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in Academe: The Hell of Heaven?” (rev. 2014).

In the United States, political controversies in the aftermath of the 2016 election have fueled bullying, mobbing, and incivility on campuses.

2. Bullying, Mobbing, Incivility: Common Status Combinations

  • Board > administrator(s)/faculty
  • Administrator(s) > administrator(s)/faculty/staff
  • Tenured faculty > non-tenured faculty
  • Tenured faculty > tenured faculty
  • Faculty > mid-level administrator(s)/staff/graduate students
  • Staff > staff

3. My Pet Theory: “Dilbert in Tweed”

Academicians are adept at intellectual analysis, manipulation, and argumentation.  When applied to the tasks of teaching, scholarship, and service, these skills reinforce the most socially useful aspects of the academy.  But many of us who have worked in academe have seen what happens when they are applied in hurtful or even malicious ways.

Of course, exquisitely rationalized actions and explanations occur in many organizations, but in dysfunctional academic settings, they often rise to an art form.  After repeated such bludgeonings, we may become accustomed to, and sometimes all too indifferent towards, intellectual dishonesty and rhetorical “mal-manipulation.”  Call it Dilbert in Tweed.

Because this kind of mental facility often is at the heart of both perpetrating and defending bullying, academe becomes a natural petri dish for such behaviors, especially the covert varieties.  After all, so many decisions in the academy are based upon very subjective judgments.  This can create a particularly attractive setting for the passive-aggressive bully and the quiet-but-deadly mob.

(Passage adapted from David C. Yamada “The Role of the Law in Combating Workplace Mobbing and Bullying,” which appears in Kenneth Westhues’s edited volume, Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004).)

III.       Relational vs. Non-Relational Organizational Cultures

Drs. Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, “Relational-Cultural Practice: Working in a Nonrelational World” (2002), paper published by the Wellesley Centers for Women:

A “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

By contrast, the authors identify three types of “non-relational cultures” that hurt morale and productivity:

  • “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
  • “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
  • brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.

IV. A Suggested Therapeutic Jurisprudence-Informed Approach

  1. Build a relational work culture
  • Nurture civility and responsible speech, i.e., the Golden Rule
  • Manage incivility with non/less-punitive interventions (coaching, counseling)
  • Avoid civility codes

2. Prohibit Abuse

  • Anti-bullying provisions in employee policies
  • Progressive discipline
  • Avoid long, drawn-out, multi-layered disciplinary procedures
  • Incorporate legal liabilities and obligations: Especially discrimination & harassment laws (most nations); whistleblower & anti-retaliation protections (most nations); anti-bullying & mobbing laws (some nations).

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