Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations

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Can bystander intervention training help us to address workplace bullying and other forms of on-the-job mistreatment?

That was a major question on my mind when I made a quick trip to New York City this past weekend for a bystander intervention training session hosted by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn and facilitated by trainers Kirsten deFur and Julia Martin.

The overall focus of this excellent introductory training was not on bullying per se, but rather on everyday types of harassment and aggressive conflict that we may encounter in various public settings. Many of the scenarios discussed by participants involved harassment on the subways. For we urban dwellers, a public subway system is often the great equalizer, where we’re all randomly tossed into a mix of humanity. It’s hardly surprising that situations often arise in such close-quartered settings.

The training gave us a valuable overall framework for understanding the dynamics of bystander intervention, emphasizing points to think about instead of pretending to have a one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some of the key takeaways for me:

  • “Bystander paralysis” is normal; we freeze up for a variety of reasons and don’t take action. Intervention training is designed to help us get beyond that.
  • In terms of steps, among other things, we have to assess the situation (very challenging at times), decide whether to get involved, and intervene effectively. We typically don’t have much time to go through this process.
  • Specific interventions vary, including the “Four Ds” of direct, distract, delegate, or delay.
  • At times, not getting involved is the right decision.
  • De-escalation of the situation is the ideal process outcome.
  • This is not easy.

I deeply appreciated the grounded quality of the training and dialogue. This was not about preaching against inaction or indifference. Rather, the session assumed we were all there because we cared about this topic, and then implicitly understood that taking action in these situations must be done wisely.

What about the workplace?

So how do I answer the question I posed above? Yes, bystander intervention training may help us to develop approaches for dealing with bullying and abuse at work, but we need to take the discussion deeper than this terrific intro session to reach that point. Indeed, in a short conversation I had with trainer Kirsten deFur after the session, we concurred that bystander intervention in workplace scenarios can be especially complicated.

For those of us interested in bullying in any environment (school, work, community, and so on), bystander reactions and responses have become an increasing point of attention. As I’ve observed many times here, all too often those experiencing bullying also bear witness to bystander abandonment. In the workplace, this can include co-workers who were regarded as friends. For what it’s worth, here are some of my initial observations and caveats concerning bystander intervention at work:

  • Assessing a situation can be especially hard in a work setting. Obvious verbal and physical harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, and other factors is easy to comprehend. But so many other workplace mistreatment scenarios — especially bullying — involve combinations of overt and covert behavior. Claims of covert, indirect mistreatment may be especially challenging to to unpack and understand.
  • Legal protections come into play, too. A bystander intervening in a sexual harassment situation may be protected under anti-retaliation provisions of employment discrimination laws. However, a bystander intervening in a generic bullying situation may be without legal protections, because — at least in the U.S. — we have yet to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying laws.
  • At times it may be wise to get permission of the targeted individual before intervening. Someone may, for example, be willing to tolerate a certain level of mistreatment while quietly seeking a new job to escape the toxic work situation. Perhaps that individual has good reason to know that an intervention, however well-intended, may backfire.
  • Power relationships matter greatly in this context. Let’s say you have a supervisor mistreating a subordinate. That supervisor’s boss could likely intervene without getting into any trouble. But an intervention by another subordinate of that supervisor may simply add another name to the target list. It’s not to say that the subordinate shouldn’t intervene, but the risks of doing so are much greater — and with a much lower likelihood of success.

Yes, this is a pretty sobering assessment. But as the training session in Brooklyn reinforced, bystander intervention, while motivated by some of our best instincts, is not easy stuff. It’s a topic to be embraced with both heart and wisdom.

Ageism in the American workplace (and its continuing relevance to workplace bullying)

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Rita Pyrillis, writing for Workforce, details the ongoing realities of age discrimination as America’s proportion of older workers continues to rise:

The number of older workers is on the rise. As their ranks grow they will play an important role in the U.S. economy, according to the National Council on Aging. By 2019, more than 40 percent of Americans over 55 will be employed, making up more than one-fourth of the U.S. workforce, according to the not-for-profit advocacy group. In 2014, older workers made up 22 percent of the workforce, according to the council.

Today’s mature workers are generally healthier and more active than their predecessors and offer a wealth of experience and knowledge, yet they are far more likely to experience age-related job discrimination than their younger counterparts, according to a 2013 study by the AARP. In fact, age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased dramatically in recent years. Between 1997 and 2007, 16,000 to 19,000 annual complaints were filed, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 filings per year since 2008, according to the EEOC.

Concerns about age discrimination continue to dovetail with this blog’s focus on workplace bullying. Workers who are bullied in middle age and beyond often face difficult odds in securing new jobs after leaving or being pushed out of bad work situations. Along with the common challenges that often confront older workers seeking new jobs, when workplace bullying enters the picture, targeted individuals may experience depression, psychological trauma, and a loss of trust and confidence — among other things.

Last month, I highlighted a Next Avenue blog post and forthcoming book by Elizabeth White about the challenges facing older workers who have lost their jobs. I’ve now had a chance to spend some time with Ms. White’s new book, Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal (2016), and I’m happy to recommend it. Although not specifically about workplace bullying, it will be especially helpful to those 50 and older who are trying to get their practical and emotional bearings in a job market inhospitable to mature workers. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s online description:

You’re in your fifties and sixties and have saved nothing or not nearly enough to retire. . . . Are there actions you can take (or not take) to have a shot at a decent retirement?

Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal culls wisdom from boomers navigating the path ahead. It invites you to join with others to look beyond your immediate surroundings and circumstances to what is possible in the new normal of financial insecurity. . . . 

Containing over 100 online resources, Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal is the book to read to help you navigate the emotional aspects of where you’ve landed. It is where to turn when you want to know what steps you can take to steady yourself enough to go another round.

Also, for more about linkages between ageism and workplace bullying, these earlier posts may be of interest:

Unemployed at midlife, “faking normal”…and sometimes bullied, too (2015)

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife (2013)

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

A talk on advancing dignity in our workplaces

For those of you who would like to contemplate the big picture of why we need to inject the value of human dignity into our workplaces, you’re invited to watch this 40-minute talk that I gave at the 2014 annual workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City. It was part of a public program on “Work That Dignifies the Lives of All People,” [Note: You may have to “rewind” the YouTube video to the beginning, as some for some weird reason, the talk sometimes starts at around the 10 minute mark!]

The talk gave me a chance to discuss many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I then tied them together under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

Next I asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

This morning I was poking around the HumanDHS website and to my surprise found the video! I hadn’t posted it before, but I’m pleased to share it with you now. Introducing me is HumanDHS director Linda Hartling. As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished participating in this year’s HumanDHS workshop, and it once again was a tremendously rewarding experience.

Tolerance and acceptance at work

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Journalist Joanne Richard kindly interviewed me for a Monster Canada piece on tolerance at work, timed to coincide with the United Nations’ International Tolerance Day on November 16. Here are some of my comments:

Workplaces have become more inclusive and tolerant in the past five decades, says Dr. David Yamada, internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and employment discrimination. “More enlightened social attitudes and the messaging roles of employment discrimination laws have contributed to this progress.”

But recent divisive political antics may have set us back: “Survey data from the American Psychological Association indicate that the U.S. presidential election has had a negative effect on workplace conversations and that workers are divided by gender and generation, all to the detriment of overall productivity,” says Yamada, law professor and director of New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

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Incivility, ostracism, bullying, and harassment remain serious problems in less-than-wonderful workplaces, says Yamada. “Of course, external individual events may fuel intolerance in the workplace as well. These range from the seemingly trivial, such as sports rivalries, to the more serious, such as politics, religion, and major public events,” he says.

Bad behaviour takes its toll, including increased interpersonal conflicts, greater stress and anxiety, and drops in individual and organizational productivity, he adds.

I gave these three suggestions for creating more tolerant, inclusive workplaces:

  • “Let’s give each other some room to express our differences, to vent, and to have a bad day.”
  • “Play and work by the Golden Rule.”
  • “Contribute to building organizational cultures of acceptance and individual dignity.”

Tolerance, acceptance, and taking a stand

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the term “tolerance” in these contexts. When I think of the word, it means a sort of grudging, teeth-gritting exercise of breathing deep and keeping your mouth shut when something rubs you the wrong way, a sort of coping in relative silence for some greater good. I should know, as I’ve been there and sometimes go back there!

Acceptance of differences is a much more splendored next level. All things being equal, a live-and-let-live attitude is better for everyone. When I’m in that place, I can practically feel my blood pressure lowering.

However, I know that all things are not equal, which is why a pie-in-the-sky, happily ignorant form of acceptance won’t work for me. Among other things, working toward acceptance does not mean tolerating (or, heaven forbid, accepting) the intolerable or intolerant. Sometimes we must take a stand, hopefully in the most effective way possible.

Here in the U.S., we’re struggling with this in the aftermath of the presidential election. This struggle is manifesting itself in our workplaces, communities, and circles of friends and family. I have a feeling we’re in for a very bumpy ride, and the ways in which we relate to one another individually will make a big difference.

 

“Erasure” and organizations: Updating Orwell

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Parul Sehgal, in a piece for the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, examines how practices of “erasure” operate to ignore or marginalize people or groups:

‘‘Erasure’’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘‘diversity’’ and ‘‘representation,’’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘‘erasure’’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?

Although Sehgal’s piece addresses erasure primarily in the context of diversity and difference, it has broader applications to any individuals or cohorts who find themselves marginalized or forgotten. In this way, it relates strongly to the Orwellian concept of “unpersons,” i.e., those whose existences have been expunged from institutional memory and records.

Of course, there are differences between individuals and groups being rendered invisible when they are present in a place or time, versus being extinguished from institutional memory. The former is often more of a felt, immediate, in-your-face insult and injury. The latter can be, too, but perhaps less so after a point of separation. The common bond between erasure and the creating of unpersons is that they are potential manifestations of the eliminationist instinct, that facile ability to regard other human beings as objects to be tormented, excised, or forgotten.

Are calls for resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming?

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Last December, literary critic and New York Times editor Parul Sehgal questioned the growing chorus of calls for greater resilience and grit on the part of younger folks. In a piece for the Times Sunday magazine, she wrote:

Resilience is fleet, adaptive, pragmatic — and it has become an obsession among middle-­class parents who want to prepare their children to withstand a world that won’t always go their way. ‘‘Grit,’’ a close cousin of ‘‘resilience,’’ has emerged as education’s magic mantra — a corrective to decades of helicopter parenting.

. . . But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.

Sehgal examines these calls for resilience in the context of younger folks on college campuses, especially when used to counter students’ concerns about racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion. Many critics of these advocacy efforts are suggesting that today’s students are too soft and take offense too easily. Sehgal, however, suggests that “demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.”

This debate is likely to become more intense. Right now, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016) is one of the hottest new non-fiction books. In a recent interview in the Times’ Education Life supplement, she summons her research to argue that grit is the most significant factor in determining someone’s likelihood of success:

My lab has found that [grit] beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.

Duckworth says that once someone identifies an interest or passion, they should then pursue it with determination:

So once you’ve fostered an interest, then, and only then, can you do the kind of difficult, effortful and sometimes frustrating practice that truly makes you better. Another thing is really maintaining a sense of hope or resilience, even when there are setbacks.

Relationship to workplace bullying and incivility

I’m especially interested in this topic because it carries great relevance for the workplace. One of the most common and misdirected responses to concerns about workplace bullying is that many of the targets are weaklings who cannot deal with the normal ups and downs of a job. Furthermore, some confuse abusive bullying with lesser forms of negative workplace behavior, such as incivility and disrespect.

My sense of this?

First, genuine workplace bullying is about abuse, not bad manners or even angry arguments and disagreements. We need to keep reinforcing the point that bullying is not about a bad day at the office or generally lousy management.

Second, treating others abusively is wrong, and that includes workplace settings. It doesn’t matter if the intended target of that abuse is “strong,” “weak,” or somewhere in between.

Third, an abuser isn’t “off the hook” because he happens to target someone who is more vulnerable. In fact, if he goes after someone because he perceives a person’s vulnerability, well, that speaks volumes about the messed up ethics, morality, and psychological make up of the abuser.

Fourth, most of us stand to benefit by being resilient. For all but the rarely blessed, life will deliver its share of setbacks, disappointments, and sometimes hard body blows. The better we can process and deal with these ups and downs, the better our overall lives will be.

Finally, having a greater reserve of resilience and grit can help us to cope with the really bad stuff at work, including bullying, mobbing, and harassment. This reserve is not bottomless, however, as many resilient and gritty individuals have experienced. Just about everyone has a breaking point, and there are countless instances of work abuse that have taken people past it.

Bottom line? Let’s strive for less interpersonal mistreatment and more individual resilience. And let’s take more personal and social responsibility for our actions and the state of the world.

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Insurance coverage for online workplace bullying and harassment?

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When safety risks are such that the insurance industry is addressing them, then you know they are both costly and frequent. And so it is with cyberbullying, with at least one major insurer now moving to cover expenses resulting from electronic bullying and harassment.

Jim Finkle, in a piece for Reuters news service, reports that Chubb, one of the nation’s largest insurance companies, now offers a $70/year rider to its master family protection policy, providing $60,000 of coverage “for expenses resulting from ‘harassment and intimidation’ over personal computers, telephones or mobile devices.” Finkle adds:

Covered costs include psychiatric care, temporary relocation services, education expenses, public relations services and cyber security consulting.

The policy kicks in when cyber bullying results in wrongful termination, false arrest, wrongful discipline at a school or a diagnosis of debilitating shock, mental anguish or mental injury.

Right now, the policy rider is available in only four states — “Colorado, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin” — but the company is taking it nationwide.

Potential coverage for workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

Although it’s likely that school-related bullying has figured most prominently in Chubb’s decision to offer this policy, the inclusion of wrongful termination and diagnoses of mental anguish or injury generally as triggering events indicates that electronic forms of workplace abuse are also covered.

Of course, this may lead to tricky questions under the policy, as bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work often mix face-to-face, behind-the-back, and online behaviors. Insurance companies are not generally known for generous interpretations of their own policies, so I can imagine some disputes arising over eligible and ineligible forms of workplace mistreatment.

Further evidence

This isn’t the first time that the insurance industry has started to grapple with workplace bullying. Five years ago, I reported that insurance companies are starting to include bullying-related legal disputes in their employment practice liability insurance policies for employers. This development was prompted by the likelihood of workplace anti-bullying legislation such as the Healthy Workplace Bill being enacted.

When it comes to understanding risk assessment, the insurance industry is among the leading indicators. This is all further evidence of growing public understanding about bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations.

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