Workplace bullying and mobbing: Resources for HR

Earlier this spring, I promised a post about resources for human resources professionals who want to learn more about workplace bullying and mobbing and how to incorporate that knowledge into their organizational employee relations practices. As I’ve written here often, I am skeptical about HR’s role in preventing and responding to bullying and mobbing behaviors, given how many horrific stories I’ve witnessed and heard about from those who have experienced these forms of mistreatment. Nevertheless, excellent resources are available, and I’m happy to share some of them.

Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie have co-authored The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes From Killing Your Organization (2011), an employer-oriented complement to their groundbreaking, worker-centered The Bully at Work (rev. ed. 2009). The Bully-Free Workplace sets out the Namies’ basic blueprint for employers that want to take workplace bullying seriously. In addition, the Namie’s Workplace Bullying Institute website includes a treasure trove of resources and services for employers.

Drs. Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry have written the most insightful book on workplace mobbing behaviors, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014). Their book is slanted toward employees, but it also includes significant advice for organizations that want to address mobbing behaviors.

Drs. Teresa Daniel and Gary Metcalf have co-authored Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal, & Risk Management Professionals (2nd ed., 2016). Their helpful guidebook is published by the Society for Human Resource Management, and it provides the most insider, management-oriented perspective among the three books recommended here.

Several years ago, I worked with the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence to create a web page of resources for organizations that want learn more about workplace bullying. The page includes links to articles and websites, book lists, and a three-minute educational video (click above) that can be used in training programs.

Gaslighting at work

Gaslighting is a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. Many discussions about gaslighting occur in reference to personal relationships, often in the context of domestic or partner abuse. However, gaslighting can occur in other settings as well, including workplaces. In fact, I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about gaslighting at work during the years to come, and I’d like to survey that waterfront.

Despite growing awareness of the term and its underlying behaviors, the idea of gaslighting is so rooted in pop psychology that there are no “official” definitions from more authoritative psychological sources. Indeed, the best definition that I’ve found comes from Wikipedia, a distinctly non-academic source:

…a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.

Dr. Martha Stout describes the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

Gaslighting steps

In a Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect (2007), offers a list of questions to determine whether someone is dancing what she calls the “Gaslight Tango.” Here are several that are especially relevant to the workplace:

  • “You are constantly second-guessing yourself.”
  • “You ask yourself, ‘Am I too sensitive?’ a dozen times a day.”
  • “You often feel confused and even crazy at work.”
  • “You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.”

“Crazy at work.” Gaslighting can be, and often is, crazy making.

Gaslighting and workplace bullying & mobbing

Gaslighting usually involves a power imbalance grounded in formal hierarchy, interpersonal dynamics, or both. This makes the workplace a prime host for such behaviors, with bullying a frequent variation. As I wrote several years ago in one of this blog’s most popular posts:

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated. Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting”….Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment.

My hypothesis is that a large percentage of the most virulent, targeted bullying and mobbing campaigns involves serious amounts of gaslighting.

Management gaslighting in union organizing campaigns

Gaslighting is often used by employers to oppose labor unions. They use deceptive messaging to get workers to doubt their common sense:

  • “We’re all in this together, so do you really want a union to interfere with that relationship?” — If everyone is truly in this together, then how has the pay gap between high-level executives and rank-and-file workers become so wide and deep over the past few decades? These vast divides exist in most organizations that oppose unions.
  • “If you vote for a union, then you lose your individual voice” — This dubious claim assumes that the individual worker had a meaningful voice to begin with! (Imagine an entry-level administrative assistant or retail store worker approaching their manager with a request to enter into negotiations about their pay and benefits.) On balance, unionized workers have a lot more legal and contract protections for expressing work-related concerns than do non-union workers.
  • “We can’t control what happens if a union is voted in” — This is a classic gambit meant to plant confusion and fear of the unknown about the consequences of a successful union election.

Gaslighting and managerial pronouncements

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant) and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When human resources announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

Intentional, but not necessarily maliciously so

Yes, gaslighting is often employed to intimidate, confuse, frighten and/or diminish its target. In this way it is a significant, malicious, dignity-denying abuse of power.

However, in a smaller share of situations it may be used to fight back against injustice, mistreatment, or abuse, to basically keep the other side guessing. Why a smaller share? Because gaslighting does not come naturally to most of us. “Thinking like a gaslighter” can mean having to think like a psychopath, sociopath, or severe narcissist. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

What gaslighting is not

Of course, now that gaslighting has become a more popular term, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors. Over the years, I’ve read and heard about claims of gaslighting that do not appear to be the case. Gaslighting is generally not synonymous with:

  • An honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • An argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • Individuals being obstinate or stubborn;
  • Erroneous, even confusing, orders and instructions;
  • One side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “White lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • Instances of incivility; or,
  • An incoherent explanation.

Of course, gaslighting could become a part of these interactions, but it is not their equivalent.

A gray area is when people are, well, “messing with each other’s heads.” This can occur in dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. I’ll leave it to readers to make a call on this. (As I see it, the devil rests in the details.)

At the worst end of the spectrum

Like any other form of manipulation, instances of gaslighting are not equal in frequency and severity. The worst cases, however, are truly disabling and debilitating, the products of scary minds capable of inflicting serious psychological abuse. I hope that gaslighting will gain greater attention as we continue to address behaviors in our society worth preventing and stopping.

Workplace bullying: HR to the rescue?

“Never fear, HR is here”??? (Image courtesy of clipartkid.com)

Over the weekend I was talking with a good friend about the roles that human resources offices play in responding to potential workplace bullying situations. We shared the observation that despite our considerable knowledge of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, we could not cite a “poster case” example of HR decisively and effectively coming to the rescue of a severely bullied worker.

This is not meant to be a snarky putdown of HR or the central role it plays in modern organizations. It’s just that stories of HR intervening on behalf of a bullied or mobbed employee, especially when the perpetrators are powerful individuals within the organization, appear to be rare. By contrast, we hear a lot of anguished tales about how “HR was useless,” “HR threw me under the bus,” and “HR protected the bullies.” In the worst instances, HR has actively furthered, supported, and enabled the abuse.

That said, I think it’s important to correct or at least soften this narrative if stories of positive HR intervention are out there, as they must be. After all, successful interventions are more likely to be handled quietly, so these accounts may not become more well known. I invite readers to contribute their stories of being helped and protected by HR in bullying or mobbing situations in the comments.

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In a later post, I’ll list and discuss some helpful resources for organizations that want to empower their HR offices to prevent and respond to workplace abuse situations in proactive and ethical ways.

“Post-truths” at work and management messaging

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Alison Flood reports for The Guardian newspaper that “Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year.” She continues:

Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.

I couldn’t help but think of popular “post-truths” circulated by some employers to their rank-and-file workers:

  • “We’re all in this together.”
  • “Each and every employee matters to us.”
  • “We’d hate for a union to come in and interfere with the direct communications we enjoy with our valued employees.”
  • “We’re absolutely committed to equal opportunity.”
  • “Don’t worry, you can trust the HR office with all of your concerns.”
  • “Think of us as one big family here.”

I’m sure that readers can add their own post-truths to this list.

Of course, at some workplaces, many of these statements actually apply. But in too many places of employment, the more you hear them, the less truth they happen to carry. 

The sociopathic employee handbook

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I once had an opportunity to review provisions of an employee handbook from a large, mostly non-union employer in the non-profit sector. Like many employee handbooks, there were sections devoted to employee rights, obligations, and performance expectations. On the surface, this handbook seemed to provide a good number of safeguards for workers to prevent unfair treatment and evaluations. But then I read the document more closely, and a chill ran up my spine. It was a cleverly, nay, ingeniously worded document that exposed workers to severe remedial measures, substantial discipline, or even termination for relatively minor inadequacies and transgressions. 

Among my reactions was that this read like the work of a sociopathic lawyer! The handbook contained a lot of cool, calm, bureaucratic-sounding language, mixed in with deftly worded provisions that would allow the employer to make mountains of molehills and to quietly knife people in the back — figuratively speaking, of course.

Employee handbooks are legally significant. During recent decades, state courts have consistently held that handbook provisions can be contractually binding upon employers and employees alike. For better or worse, employee handbooks heavily weighted toward management prerogative are pretty much the norm these days.

However, much worse are those handbooks that have a distant appearance of fairness while actually being loaded with details that can be used to roughhouse rank-and-file employees. I think there is a special place in a certain hot spot for those who write and impose such documents on workers. It is, to be sure, a twisted abuse of power.

Did the Great Recession fuel a continuing climate of fear in the workplace?

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" (1893)

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893)

According to economists, the Great Recession is officially over, having “ended” sometime during 2009-2010. However, its negative shock waves continue to impact world economies, labor markets, and the experience of work. Among the most costly and underreported effects is how the Great Recession has enabled some employers to stoke an ongoing climate of fear in the workplace.

British psychologist and consultant Sheila M. Keegan, in her thought-provoking new book The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (KoganPage, 2015), suggests that even though the “recession has eased, . . . its psychological effects may well be with us for some years to come.” In fact, she offers the possibility that “just as the Second World War shaped the attitudes of a generation, so too the recent recession will shape the attitudes, behaviours and fears within organizational life for some decades to come.”

This does not bode well for the current state of our workplaces. In her Preface, Dr. Keegan states:

There is a considerable body of research that points to the rise of fear within organizations and indeed a climate of fear that is widespread and contagious. Employees feel fearful of job loss, of being demoted, bullied, shamed or humiliated. This level of fear can become self-sustaining so that it is difficult to separate the causes of fear; fear at work becomes normalized.

I’ll have more to say about this excellent book in a future post, but for now let’s center on the effects of the recession on psychological health in the workplace. Keegan is spot-on in her assessment: We’ve seen evidence, for example, that bullying-type behaviors tend to be more frequent in recessionary economies. We also know that this recession has led to massive job losses and continuing fears of unemployment. Less humane employers have played on workers’ fears by trying to squeeze every ounce of work out of them, while freezing or cutting their pay and benefits. Intentionally generated stress and anxiety are everyday parts of too many work lives.

Some might say that people simply have to suck it up and deal with it. Tough economic times are just that, right? Generally speaking, personal resilience is a good thing, but especially if the Great Recession has left a long-term psychological imprint on the workplace, then we need to talk about comprehensive responses and changes. Ultimately, we need to prompt a paradigm shift that puts human dignity at the center of our systems and practices of employee relations.

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Related posts

Our economic systems, psychopathy, and bullying at work (2014)

Making human dignity the centerpiece of American employment law and policy (2014)

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013)

For more on the links between recessionary economies and workplace bullying, go herehere, and here.

Five signs of the eliminationist instinct in today’s workplaces

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

We typically hear the term “eliminationist” in association with massacres and genocides. The eliminationist instinct captures a facile ability to regard other human beings as objects to be tormented, excised, or forgotten. When this form of dehumanization surfaces on a mass scale, it fuels some the worst outrages in human history.

In addition, manifestations of the eliminationist instinct are hardly limited to large-scale horrors. They may appear in the workplace as well. True, the perpetrators are not mass killers, but their actions embody an easy ability to dehumanize others. Lacking empathy for their targets, they ply their trade with words and bureaucratic actions, rather than with weapons or instruments of physical torture.

Here are five ways in which I see the eliminationist instinct manifesting itself in our worst contemporary workplaces:

1. Workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is motivated by a desire to cause distress or harm to a target. In its most virulent forms, it can have a destructive impact on a target’s health and livelihood. Here is where the eliminationist instinct may be specially present, with a huge capacity for dehumanization. The target is regarded as something that can and should be rubbed out.

2. Whistleblower retaliation

Whistleblowers may cause the eliminationist instinct to go on overdrive. In ethically challenged organizations, whistleblowers are regarded as the ultimate traitors. Having turned themselves into disloyal Others, they now deserve retaliation, and if it results in the end of their employment and (not infrequently) their careers, then so be it.

3. Mass layoffs

Not all large-scale layoffs are driven by an eliminationist instinct, but some definitely are so. Take, for instance, a large company that closes a store after the workers have voted to unionize. Fueled by a determination to keep wages low and not be subject to workers’ collective bargaining efforts, the company shuts it down, hoping to send a message to employees at other locations about the fate that awaits them if they try the same thing.

4. Same-day termination protocols

The so-called “exit parade” is an inhumane HR practice in which a worker is called into an office, informed of her termination, and escorted out of the building, sometimes by a security guard. This is a degradation ceremony that instantly transforms a loyal employee into a threat to be removed. It also sends a terrible message to those who remain about their worth to the employer once it is “done” with them.

5. Creating “unpersons”

For some bosses and organizations, it’s not enough simply to get rid of someone. They also must turn the departed worker into an “unperson.” Many years ago, George Orwell referred to “unpersons” as those whose existence would be expunged from records and memories by repressive governments. Today, in all sectors, the creation of unpersons is as easy as removing any reference to them from the organization’s website and minimizing future mentions of them and their contributions.

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