After Nike Inc. ousted a handful of male executives for behavior issues over the past few months, some media reports tied the departures to the #MeToo movement and its revelations of sexual harassment and assault. Interviews with more than a dozen former Nike employees, including senior executives, however, paint a picture of a workplace contaminated by a different behavior: corporate bullying. The workers say the sneaker giant could be a bruising place for both men and women, and that females did bullying, too.
I was interviewed for the piece and suggested that maybe some companies are starting to get it:
“Some companies are realizing that a bullying boss isn’t the best way to manage a company,” says David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston who’s authored antibullying legislation. “Maybe we’re starting to see a tipping point.”
Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute “says one reason some companies have long tolerated or even encouraged such behavior is that many American managers believe the workplace is by nature rough around the edges.” This assumption pits worker against worker in a “‘zero-sum, competitive work environment where people feel they need to obliterate their competitors.'”
Workplace bullying and sexual harassment
The emergence of the #MeToo movement has drawn long overdue attention to sexual harassment and assault. I pointed out the ongoing links between sexual harassment and workplace bullying:
When executives feel entitled or untouchable, that often leads to bullying and then to other inappropriate behavior, Yamada says. In many of the workplace environments that resulted in some of the high-profile #MeToo moments, such as that at Weinstein Co., an “undercurrent” of bullying created a belief that mistreatment would go unpunished, he says. “It’s that bullying atmosphere that helps to enable and empower sexual harassment.”
These connections have been made repeatedly during the nascent history of the #MeToo movement. In an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, media professor David Lieberman stated that if we want to end sexual harassment, then we need to end workplace bullying:
But legislators can do more to address the problem. They can make workplace bullying illegal. Too many corporate leaders find it expedient to look the other way when bosses — especially ones they deem indispensable — systematically intimidate and humiliate underlings. Bullies who believe that their whims matter more than other people’s dignity often don’t see why their sexual impulses shouldn’t be just as indulged.
Here in Boston, noted public radio personality Tom Ashbrook was terminated from his job after initial complaints about sexual harassment led to a deeper inquiry about bullying behaviors. In a February post, I wrote:
Workplace bullying, not sexual harassment, prompted this week’s termination of popular Boston public radio program host Tom Ashbrook by his employer, Boston University, which owns the WBUR-FM radio station.
. . . In December, sexual harassment allegations against Ashbrook surfaced publicly, and soon it became evident that bullying-type behaviors were also part of the alleged misconduct.
Absence of legal protections
The Bloomberg article devotes considerable attention to the absence of legal protections for bullied workers, and, correspondingly, the lack of legal incentives for employers to address these behaviors:
One reason few companies have specific antibullying policies is that there aren’t federal or state laws in the U.S. outlawing the behavior, which makes America a laggard when compared with Western Europe, Canada, and Australia.
A lack of legal protections greatly reduces the possibility of liability for employers. It’s difficult to bring a lawsuit based on bullying, and businesses have worked to keep it that way. . . . If there were antibullying laws, companies would be liable and do more to deter the practice, according to Namie. “It’s the only form of abuse that hasn’t been addressed by law,” he says.
Nevertheless, as Townsend and Deprez point out, Nike is among the companies that have an anti-harassment policy covering bullying behaviors. It’s a stark reminder that policies alone are not enough. Without legal protections and organizational commitments to workplaces that embrace worker dignity as a core value and practice, bullying, mobbing, and abuse at work will continue to flourish.