WBI survey: Workplace bullying zoomed online during pandemic

From WBI, workplacebullying.org

Workplace bullying didn’t disappear during the pandemic. Rather, much of this behavior simply went online, mainly via virtual meetings rather than by email.

This is among the key findings of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s latest scientific survey on workplace bullying in the U.S., done in partnership with Zogby Analytics, a leading global polling firm. The survey was conducted in January 2021 and collected data from a nationally representative sample of over 1,200 adults. (Click here for a summary and access to the full report by Dr. Gary Namie, WBI’s co-founder.)

Some 43 percent of respondents reported being subjected to bullying behaviors online either currently or previously, in contrast to a 30 percent prevalence rate overall. By a wide margin, virtual meetings were more likely than email to be the sources of bullying. (Click here for the survey report chapter examining remote bullying.)

This finding helps to answer questions I have raised earlier about how the coronavirus pandemic might affect the frequency and nature of bullying and mobbing behaviors at work. Last May, I was more optimistic that the challenges posed by the pandemic might help to bring out our best behaviors at work. But I did add:

However, some of the bad behavior, as I mentioned, will simply port over to an online setting. After all, less-than-wonderful co-workers can be jerks on Zoom and scheme and manipulate in the digital fog. This could give rise to more covert forms of bullying, sabotaging, and undermining of others.

I will be sharing more highlights from the WBI survey in future posts. The survey is a rich treasure trove of data on the state of work during these difficult times.

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Disclosure: I have been affiliated with WBI on a pro bono basis since 1998, and I made a contribution to a crowdfunding campaign to fund this survey.

Workplace bullying, the Healthy Workplace Bill, and the “poster case”

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

On many occasions during my years of drafting and advocating for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, I’ve been asked, so, what’s your poster case?, or something along those lines.

This is an important topic, even if the term is somewhat coarse.

First, a bit of vocabulary: “Poster case” is a modification of the term “poster child,” the latter defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a child who has a disease and is pictured in posters to solicit funds for combating the disease.” Merriam-Webster then offers a secondary definition closer to what we’re talking about in this context: “a person having a public image that is identified with something (such as a cause).”

The substitution of the word “case” clarifies that we’re talking about a legal or legislative setting. Accordingly, a poster case instance of workplace bullying and mobbing is one that neatly and compactly captures the essential dynamics of severe work abuse and clearly shows the need for stronger legal protections in the form of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Phoebe Prince

A decade ago, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life. This tragedy galvanized public attention to school bullying, and it played an influential role in reviving a school anti-bullying bill that had been languishing in the state legislature. The bill suddenly picked up great momentum and was enacted into law.

Over the years, legislative staffers and others close to the policymaking process have quietly told us that passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill would be hastened if we had a “poster case” like that of Phoebe Prince — in other words, a deeply sympathetic individual who died by suicide associated with bullying at work.

In addition…

Those of us who have been advocating for law reform are acutely aware of suicides associated with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. Surviving family and friends of these bullying targets are among the readers of this blog. Their stories are heartbreaking and outrageous, and they are sometimes invoked in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill. For various reasons, no single instance has captured public attention sufficient to push the bill over the top, in the way that Phoebe Prince’s story gave decisive impetus to the school bullying law.

In any event, we must continue to broaden our focus, to include, but go beyond, these tragic suicide narratives. Countless numbers of bullied and mobbed workers are living with their experiences every day. Their experiences must always be given voice as well.

Here in Massachusetts, the Healthy Workplace Bill is once again before the state legislature, filed by Senator Paul Feeney for the 2021-22 session. Please go here to see the bill, currently designated as Senate Docket No. 2426. And if you live in Massachusetts and are so inclined, please contact your state senator and state representative (link here) and ask them to co-sponsor the bill.

Anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill reintroduced for 2021-22 session of Massachusetts Legislature

Here in the Bay State, State Senator Paul Feeney (D-Bristol & Norfolk) has just reintroduced workplace anti-bullying legislation known as the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) for the 2021-22 session of the Massachusetts Legislature (link here). The HWB permits targets of severe workplace bullying to seek damages in court and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively towards bullying behaviors at work. The bill is currently designated as Senate docket no. 2426; a bill number will be assigned later.

The HWB has been steadily gaining support in the Massachusetts Legislature. During the 2019-20 session, over half of the elected state senators and representatives signed on as co-sponsors. Although the coronavirus pandemic put the HWB on hold for much of the remainder of that session, the strong support for the bill within the State House anticipates the day that this bill will eventually become law.

As the author of the core language of this legislation, I can attest that it fills a large gap in our current employment protections, while treating employers fairly. The bill filed by Senator Feeney is the latest full version of the HWB, which adds an express statement that online workplace abuse is covered — making explicit what was previously implicit in previous filings.

If you’re a Massachusetts resident and would like to see the HWB enacted into law, please contact your state senator and state representative and ask them to sign on as co-sponsors. You may go here for contact information.

2012-2020: When gaslighting went mainstream

I first wrote about gaslighting behaviors in connection with workplace bullying in December 2012. Since then, gaslighting has been a recurring topic on this blog. (See below for a list of related pieces.) In preparing an essay I’m writing on the nation’s political psyche during the years 2015-20, I was curious about the degree to which gaslighting has become a mainstreamed concept in our public discourse. I did a quick series of Google searches on “gaslighting” by year, starting in 2012 and going through 2020. Here is what I found:

Google search: “Gaslighting”

Year          # “hits”

2012          26,100

2013          29,000

2014          34,500

2015          49,500

  2016          320,000

2017          87,000

 2018          126,000

 2019          155,000

 2020         204,000

Several conclusions and informed speculations become evident:

  • Clearly, the year-to-year pattern in hits indicates that gaslighting has been increasingly invoked in discussions of relationships, work, and civic life.
  • The difference between 2012 and 2020 represents an increase in Google hits by approximately 800 percent.
  • The 2016 spike may well have been fueled by that year’s U.S. presidential election, and possibly the 2020 increase was prompted by that year’s presidential election as well.

I’m glad that this term has taken hold, because it helps many workers understand the crazy making dynamics of their workplaces. That’s an important step toward both healing from abusive work experiences on an individual level and reforming workplaces on an institutional level.

RELATED POSTS

On gaslighting specifically

Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully (2020)

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers (2018)

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect” (2018)

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

Related posts (most mention gaslighting)

Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm (2019)

Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?” (2017)

How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing (2017)

Workplace mobbing: Understanding the maelstrom (2016)

Workplace bullying as crazy making abuse (2014)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (2014)

Targets of workplace bullying: The stress and anxiety of figuring out what the h**l is going on (2014)

Pre-publication posting: “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment”

Frequent readers of this blog may have noticed my periodic references to therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law, policy, and legal institutions. In legal events and transactions, TJ inherently favors outcomes that advance human dignity and psychological well-being. TJ has vitally informed my work on the legal implications of workplace bullying and my design of, and public education about, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

For many years, I have perceived the need for a law review article that comprehensively yet accessibly canvasses the field of TJ. I finally undertook the project myself, and the result is “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment,” slated to appear later this year in the University of Miami Law Review. I have posted a freely downloadable, pre-publication version to my Social Science Research Network page, which you may access here.

If you’re interested in learning more about TJ, then you may also check out the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (link here), a global non-profit dedicated to public education about the field. I helped to organize the ISTJ and served as its first board chair. As recounted in this blog post, we launched the ISTJ in 2017, at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Prague, Czech Republic.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is an important player in the drive toward making the law more embracing of human dignity and everyday human needs. This includes, of course, legal rights and responsibilities concerning the workplace, and so I’ve been very grateful for how insights yielded by TJ have informed my work.

How would you feel if your boss had a betting pool on how many workers would contract COVID-19?

We’re seeing plenty of instances of how the coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best and the worst of us, and here’s another bellringer example of the latter: Last year, seven managers at a Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were fired in the wake of accusations that they created a betting pool on how many of their employees would contract COVID-19. As reported by Sarah Al-Arshani for Business Insider (link here):

Tyson Foods fired seven management employees at a Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant following an independent investigation into allegations that managers bet money on how many workers would catch the virus during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

…The accusations came about after the discovery of an amended court document in the wrongful death lawsuit of Isidro Fernandez, a Tyson meatpacking worker who died of COVID-19 in April.

One of the fired managers defended the betting pool as a “morale boost” for exhausted managers, as reported by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press (link here):

Don Merschbrock, a former night manager at the plant in Waterloo, Iowa, said he was speaking in an attempt to show that the seven fired supervisors are “not the evil people” that Tyson has portrayed.

…The office pool involved roughly $50 cash, which went to the winner who picked the correct percentage of workers testing positive for the virus, Merschbrock said. He added that those involved didn’t believe the pool violated company policy and thought the plant’s positivity rate would be lower than the community rate due to their mitigation efforts.

“It was a group of exhausted supervisors that had worked so hard and so smart to solve many unsolvable problems,” Merschbrock said. “It was simply something fun, kind of a morale boost for having put forth an incredible effort. There was never any malicious intent. It was never meant to disparage anyone.”

The wrongful death lawsuit that outed the betting pool account alleges that Tyson managers had downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and covered up a COVID-19 outbreak so that workers would continue to report for their shifts. As further reported by Sarah Al-Arshani:

According to the lawsuit, some managers were demanding that sick employees come into work, and one employee, who vomited on the production line, was made to return to work the following day. 

The lawsuit also alleged that managers gave out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who worked all of their scheduled shifts for three months, and warned workers not to discuss COVID-19 while at work. 

Of course, the most serious concerns pertain to the actual health and safety of the workers, and it appears the Tyson has a lot to answer for on those points. The allegations reflect narratives as old as the history of wage labor: Pressuring workers to produce under unhealthy and life threatening conditions. They remind us of the muckraking work of journalist Upton Sinclair in the early 1900s, when he exposed horrific working conditions in the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle.

In addition, the betting pool reveals another level of disturbing management dehumanization of its own employees, one that goes beyond the immediate pressures of keeping production going under trying circumstances. To describe the bets as “something fun, kind of a morale boost,” while denying any malicious intent, simply doesn’t add up. It’s quite sick and twisted, and it doesn’t reflect well upon Tyson’s practices for hiring managers.

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Hat-tip to Alayna Cohen for originally flagging this story for me.

“Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace,” 3rd edition

I’m late in mentioning publication of the latest edition of a work that I regard as the best one-volume, international, multi-author survey and analysis of workplace bullying: Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Theory, Research and Practice (3rd ed., 2020), edited by Ståle Valvatne Einarsen, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf, and Cary L. Cooper. It is published by Routledge and can easily be ordered online.

I am not an objective party in recommending the book, as I have contributed a chapter on legal protections against workplace bullying to each edition, the latest being “Bullying and the Law: Gradual Progress on a Global Scale.” That said, the overriding value of this volume is its blend of depth and breadth, with chapter contributions from internationally recognized experts in the field. 

I’m going to take the liberty of simply pasting in the entire table of contents, from the Routledge website:

Part A: The Nature of the Problem. 1. The Concept of Bullying at Work: The European Tradition. 2. By Any Other Name: American Perspective on Workplace Bullying. Part B: Empirical Evidence. 3. Empirical Findings on Bullying at Work. 4. Individual Consequences of Workplace Bullying. 5. The Organizational Cost of Workplace Bullying. 6. The Measurement of Bullying at Work. Part C: Explaining the Problem. 7. Individual Antecedents of Bullying: Victims and Perpetrators. 8. Organizational Causes of Workplace Bullying. 9. The Role of Leadership in Workplace Bullying. 10. Bullying and Conflict Resolution. 11. The Role of Discrimination in Bullying. 12. Harassment in the Digital World: Cyberbullying. 13. Cross-Cultural Issues in Workplace Bullying. Part D: Managing the Problem: Prevention and Treatment of Workplace Bullying. 14. Prevention and Treatment of Workplace Bullying: A Taxonomy and Overview. 15. An Occupational Health Perspective to the Prevention of Workplace Bullying. 16. Managing Workplace Bullying: The Role of Policies. 17. The Role of HRM in Dealing with Bullying. 18. Investigating Bullying Complaints. 19. Bullying and Individual Coping Strategies. 20. Managing Workplace Bullying: The Role of Counselling. 21. Rehabilitation and Treatment of Bullying Victims. 22. Legal Remedies Against Workplace Bullying: An Overview. 23. Strengths and Limitations of Legal Approaches to Bullying.

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While I’m at it, for those seeking an encyclopedic review of research, analysis, and practice concerning workplace bullying and mobbing specifically in the United States, I am happy to tout the two-volume set co-edited by Maureen Duffy and me, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2019), published by Praeger/ABC-CLIO. It includes chapters by over 20 of the leading U.S. authorities on bullying and mobbing at work, including Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

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Folks, these books are expensive, priced for practitioner/academic audiences and for library purchases. Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace lists at $130 (paperback ed.), and Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States lists at $131 (hardcover ed.). For practitioners and scholars specializing in these general subject areas, I believe they are worthy additions to one’s professional library. However, for those on tight budgets who seek authoritative, affordable introductions with a practical focus, I happily recommend:

  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009);
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (2011); and,
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014).

January 6, 2021: Workplace violence of Constitutional proportions in Washington D.C.

Screenshot from the Washington Post

Quite understandably, the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol Building is being framed largely in the context of America’s divisive political dynamics and the final days of the administration of Donald Trump. This was, after all, an unprecedented event, a violent occupation of one of the nation’s most important houses of government, at a time when the Congress was meeting to approve electoral votes for the next President and Vice President. It was preceded by a lengthy rally led by Trump and his minions, spurring members of white supremacist groups and conspiracy cults to storm the building, in an attempt to stop the Constitutional transfer of power inherent in every national election.

This event will rightly prompt a long and deep investigation, and many questions about how this could happen and what parties were responsible remain unanswered for now. True, the loss of life was minimal compared to other signature events threatening national security, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. However, this could’ve been much, much worse, with considerably higher fatality and casualty rates, hostage taking, and an extended occupation, had things transpired even a little differently.

I’d like to add another perspective on the Capitol attack, and that is to see it as a significant act of workplace violence, prompted by leaders who favor bullying and mobbing behaviors as ways of getting what they want. Anyone who is interested in preventing and responding to workplace violence should consider January 6 as a massive leadership, organizational, and systems failure and, quite possibly, corruption. I am confident that once we grasp the enormity of this event, it will become a case study of failed workplace violence prevention and response in public sector workplaces.

We also may eventually learn more about psychological trauma emerging from that day. It is likely that a good number of people who were lawfully in the building will experience post-traumatic symptoms. This includes elected officials, staff members, security personnel, media representatives, and others. Especially for them, working in that building may never again feel safe or secure.

It is no exaggeration that January 6, 2021 will be remembered as one of the most disturbing days in U.S. history. For those of us who study abuse, aggression, and violence in our workplaces, comprehending the events of that day will take on this added dimension.

A welcomed online workshop helps to conclude a challenging year

Every December for over a decade, it has been my custom to hop on an Amtrak train bound for New York City to participate in the Annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies. HDHS is a global, transdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, advocates, artists, and students committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation.

This is a spirit-renewing event for me, largely because of the wonderful company of good people engaged in good works. As I wrote last year in a photo essay about this workshop (link here), many aspects of it have become something of a ritual, starting with the subway trek to Columbia University Teachers College, whose conflict resolution center hosts our gathering.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic interceded and rendered a face-to-face workshop an unwise option. So we decided to do this as an online event, spread over three days. It was a monumental and exhausting planning task, led by HDHS director Linda Hartling and HDHS founder Evelin Lindner, and supported by an ensemble cast of characters. Here’s a screenshot of many members of our planning group:

Photo credit: Anna Strout

You know something, it worked — very well, I might add! At any given time, some 50-60+ participants were online, with folks logging in from as far away as India and New Zealand! Please go here if you’d like to check out the details or watch videos of talks and dialogue sessions.

HDHS has become an increasingly important part of the work I do, and it has fostered many cherished friendships and connections. This community is very dear to me, and I wish that circumstances would’ve permitted us to gather in person. But I must say that the pandemic has brought out a fierce determination within this group to sustain and grow our network in spite of the circumstances. I hope that 2021 will allow us to return to New York, but I also know that we can build this community via online communications. 

Related posts

“A workshop as annual ritual” (2019) (link here)

“Tribes for engaging in positive change” (2015; revised 2019) (link here)

“Conferences as community builders” (2015) (link here)

Exhaling: An election where decency and empathy mattered

Reporting for The Guardian (link here), David Smith’s lede about President-elect Joseph Biden’s Nov. 8 victory speech captured the emotions of the moment for many Americans and friends around the world:

Joe Biden ran jauntily on to the stage, wearing a black face mask but suddenly looking several years younger. Looking, in fact, like millions of Americans felt, with burdens to bear but a spring in his step.

The new US president-elect offered a Saturday night speech that did not brag or name call, did not demonise immigrants and people of colour, did not send TV networks and social media into meltdown and did not murder the English language.

After the mental and moral exhaustion of the past four years, Biden made America sane again in 15 minutes. It was an exorcism of sorts, from American carnage to American renewal.

Two prominent historians have made similar statements during news interviews. Michael Beschloss opined that “American democracy went through a near-death experience” during this time, while Jon Meacham asserted that “Empathy, decency, and democracy were on the ballot this season.”

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, the main reason why I haven’t posted in a month — easily the longest span between postings during the 12-year life of this blog — is that I’ve been processing the results of this Presidential vote, which I consider to be the most important national election of my lifetime. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote a month ago about the incumbent and his Democratic challenger:

No other public figure has ever had such a negative effect on my day-to-day quality of life. I feel like I have been forced to endure an abusive civic relationship. The fact that much of my work as an academic addresses behaviors such as bullying, gaslighting, and abuse of power has sharpened my understanding of what we’ve been enduring.

By contrast, I think well of Joe Biden. He is a decent human being and a capable, street-smart public servant. I have long believed that he is the best candidate to win back the White House from its current occupant. When I put my ballot in the mail a few weeks ago, I was happy to vote for him and Kamala Harris. I pray that I voted for the winning ticket.

While I have shared my political beliefs on this blog from time to time, I have purposefully avoided making it a so-called political blog. However, I believe the span of 2016 to 2020 will be regarded as one of the most momentous and disturbing chapters of this nation’s history. It will take us many years to recover from this time.

I am working on a modest little writing project with a small group of other experts on bullying and mobbing behaviors to frame the 2016-20 period through the lens of abuse and mistreatment. I will share more about it at the top of the new year. In the meantime, I will return to writing about topics that have been the main focus of this blog. As always, I appreciate your readership.

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