School anti-bullying researcher questions whether “workplace bullying” is a real phenomenon

On occasion, I am left deeply dismayed by a commentary concerning workplace bullying. Such was my reaction to Elizabeth Englander’s “Is Workplace Bullying a Genuine Phenomenon?,” just published in The Atlantic (link here).

Dr. Englander is a psychologist who directs a center at Bridgewater State University that primarily addresses school bullying. Building on news stories of well-publicized toxic work situations, she questions the reality of workplace bullying. Here’s a snippet:

Whenever powerful people wage a campaign of misery against someone with less agency, it can be harmful. Victims of bullying are typically less productive, less happy, and less likely to be positive contributors to society. They’re more likely to use dangerous drugs, to be violent, and to break laws.

Bullying doesn’t refer to just any type of social cruelty, however; it’s specifically when an individual or group repeatedly and deliberately attacks a less powerful person.

…Just calling something bullying doesn’t make it so, of course, and identifying bullying among adults can be difficult. In schools, we can clearly distinguish between a child who makes a random mean comment about a haircut and a child who goes after a target every single day on a playground or on social media. Only the latter is waging a repetitive campaign of cruelty. In a workplace, a nasty comment that might seem like a single incident could actually be a repetitive behavior—or not. For example, if your boss berates and belittles you one day in a meeting, you may wonder if that’s how she talks about you to management. Could that explain why you weren’t promoted? Or maybe your boss was just having a bad day and she took her anger out on you—not great, but not bullying.

Englander is right on in saying that “identifying bullying among adults can be difficult” and that bullying, in its essence, is an abuse of power. She’s also right that workplace bullying is not about a “boss just having a bad day.” I personally agree with a definition of bullying that includes intent on the part of the aggressor. In fact, I have written the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill to include intent as a required element towards proving a legally actionable claim. (Not all anti-bullying advocates agree with me, but after considerable pondering I have held firm on this point.)

Despite this apparent common ground, Englander concludes:

Ultimately, the word bullying may be simply a distraction. Whether a workplace problem fits the definition of bullying is secondary. What’s more important is promoting professional behavior and workplaces that improve the lot of employees.

It appears that Englander is practicing the unfortunate academic game of defining a term restrictively (here, bullying), then questioning that which doesn’t fit easily within it, and finally (and somewhat paradoxically) claiming at the end that definitional distinctions are secondary distractions. Ultimately, by reserving the mantle of “bullying” mainly for applications to children, her commentary overlooks decades of research, public education, clinical, and advocacy work on an international scale about workplace bullying and mobbing. Perhaps had she done a deeper dive into that abundant body of work, rather than build her piece around individual instances of bad bossism, the published result would’ve been different.

Why not seek common ground instead?

Ms. Englander’s primary domain is bullying among children. Mine is workplace bullying. I respect that, at times, the dynamics of school bullying and workplace bullying are different. Indeed, I and many others have likened workplace bullying more to domestic abuse than to school bullying in terms of core relational dynamics. But I have increasingly regarded these differences as being less important than the similarities.

Thus, I am mystified as to what triggered Englander’s commentary. The heart of the movement to address workplace bullying and mobbing has always been in steadfast support of efforts to respond to other forms of interpersonal abuse, such as school bullying, cyberbullying, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment. We’ve also learned that it’s unproductive to get overly hung up on labels and vocabulary, especially when it comes to the risks of creating turf battles.

In sum, it’s unfortunate that Englander (and The Atlantic) would invest in an article that misses the mark so unnecessarily. The more constructive common ground is to comprehend that bullying behaviors exist at every life stage and to share many related insights for our mutual benefit.

7 responses

  1. I hope you are in touch with Englander and I hope that The Atlantic publishes one of your articles on bullying in the workplace.

  2. Perhaps Englander would benefit from a conversation with a survivor? Validation from others outside the toxic environment is what we deserve especially after years of abuse. CPTSD is debilitating enough but to know that others don’t understand or try to educate themselves about the impact it has on both the target and those that fear retaliation if they support their colleagues. Covert narcissistic bosses do exist and I know because was targeted. The institution failed to protect me because there was no language or labeling that they had to be held accountable for. Worse case scenario you save a person from self destructing and irreparable damage.

  3. David, is there research on bullying of subordinates in the workplace? It’s common where I live, but often missed in work policies. It’s like the hierarchy is inverted. Thanks,

    • Lee-Ann, I’m guessing that you’re referring to bullying *by* subordinates, yes? While I don’t have citations handy, some have studied that phenomenon. It’s the least common form of bullying at work, especially in the U.S. where the predominant rule of at-will employment allows employers to terminate a worker without cause, but it certainly occurs.

  4. Thank you for sharing and addressing the article. Reading it gave me a much better appreciation for the issues you are raising. There are a few things in the article that were disturbing. I, too, wonder what prompted her to write the article. Perhaps she has been in a situation (as a supervisor) where she has taken some actions/used some behaviors that she does not want to acknowledge (consciously or subconsciously) as workplace bullying. That is pure speculation, but not impossible or unrealistic.

    On a related note, you mentioned that you believe ‘intent’ is necessary. My initial thought was to wonder if all bullies consciously understand that what they are doing is harmful. I’m not so sure all do.
    Not unlike abuse in families and how it can be passed from one generation to the next, people do what they know. Unfortunately, it is their ‘norm.’ Can’t employees also be impacted similarly? I will search your blog, hoping you have addressed the ‘intent’ qualifier. I am interested in how you reached this conclusion.

    Thank you for all you do.

    • Hi Dawn, thank you for your comment. I agree that questions of intent are very complex. When it comes to legal liability, some attempt at line drawing does have to take place. I’ve chosen to follow the main theories of federal employment discrimination law, most of which require showings that intent that can inferred from an individual’s actions. I’ve also found persuasive articles such as this one by Dr. Teresa Daniel, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on this topic. Here’s a summary of her findings: https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/0609daniel.aspx. Best, David

  5. Thanks, as always David, for your insightful article and comments. Elizabeth Englander’s commentary was triggering, having been on the receiving end of unhealthy workplace cultures and their associated behaviours. One of the most frightening things is that this woman’s a psychologist.

    This statement has left me absolutely dumbfounded and sad!!: “Victims of bullying are typically less productive, less happy, and less likely to be positive contributors to society. They’re more likely to use dangerous drugs, to be violent, and to break laws.” From my experience, people who are targets of bullying are in most cases very dedicated, hardworking, and loyal employees.

    And yes, I agree with CWagnerz’s comment that I hope The Atlantic publishes one of your articles. Thanks David for all of the incredible work you do and the “voice” you lend to such an important topic. It does not go unnoticed. Heartfelt thanks.

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