Twenty years ago, the U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement was born in Oakland

I’m a nostalgic sort of person by nature, and the imposed solitude of the current public health crisis has opened up memories as I spend some of this time sorting through personal and professional papers and mementoes. Among the work-related materials unearthed were these items from 2000 pictured above, a January 2000 certificate of appreciation from Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, co-founders of the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (which would evolve into the Workplace Bullying Institute), and a print copy of my first law review article on the legal implications of workplace bullying.

The certificate is from “Workplace Bullying 2000,” the first-ever U.S. conference on workplace bullying that Gary and Ruth organized and hosted in Oakland, California. It was my first opportunity to meet pioneering workplace researchers, educators, and advocates from around the world. Many remain dear friends and valued colleagues to this day. It was also where I first discussed the need for stronger legal protections against workplace bullying.

Although the Namies had done groundbreaking work by launching their Campaign in 1997, I consider their 2000 conference to be the true birth of a broader workplace anti-bullying movement in the U.S. Prior to this conference, many of us had been doing our work in relative isolation, with the Namies serving as points of contact in a sort of hub-of-the-wheel-spokes fashion. The conference enabled us to create connections with one another, which would lead to many future collaborations and partnerships.

The article is “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” published in the Georgetown Law Journal in the spring of 2000. (Go here to freely download a pdf.) In the piece, I explored potential existing legal protections against severe workplace bullying and concluded that they were wholly inadequate to provide relief to abused employees and to incentivize preventive and responsive measures by employers. I then went on to propose the basic framework of what eventually would become the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB). A full draft of the HWB would come later, but all the seeds were planted in this article.

***

Fast forwarding to today, we have made considerable progress. Spurred by the Namies early (and still continuing) work, workplace bullying has become mainstreamed as a term in American employment relations. Accounts of bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors are regularly reported in the media. Academic and professional conferences in fields such as organizational psychology, business management and human resources, and labor relations often feature panels on abuse at work. And as I wrote last November, we are nearing the day when the Healthy Workplace Bill starts to become law in various states.

The current public health crisis has put some of this work on hold, or at least on a slowdown. Among other things, state legislatures deliberating on the Healthy Workplace Bill are understandably preoccupied with policy responses to the coronavirus. This may well be the case through the current legislative sessions.

Nevertheless, this time provides us with opportunities to engage in thinking, planning, and strategizing for the future. Bullying and mobbing behaviors won’t suddenly disappear from the workplace after we regain some sense of normalcy, so the need for our public education and advocacy efforts will remain as vital as ever.

That said, I do find myself asking: When we re-open the heart of our economic and civic society, will the frequency of workplace bullying and mobbing increase, decrease, or remain roughly the same? Folks hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer and companies practicing price gouging for life-saving supplies suggest that the dog-eat-dog dynamic of many workplaces isn’t going away. On the other hand, we are witnessing extraordinary acts of courage, generosity, and grace during this crisis, including employers who are stretching their capacities to support their workers. I dearly hope that this shared experience will bring out more of the best of us, and that this will translate into how we treat one another at work for years to come.

3 responses

  1. Thank you for the article. I truly believe it will decrease. Hopefully businesses take this time to reflect and incorporate processes that lead to the decrease in bullying

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