Workplace bullying 2.0: When targets become change agents

Here’s an often underrated indicator of how a social movement gains momentum and legitimacy: More and more victims of abuse and mistreatment begin to speak out publicly, sharing their experiences and calling for change.

It’s happening with the workplace anti-bullying movement right now, and I realized that many of us (myself included) have taken this shift for granted. Put simply, greater numbers of people who have experienced (or closely witnessed) workplace bullying are making their voices heard. They are doing so through legislative testimony, letters to the editor and website comments, blogs and articles, media interviews, radio and television appearances, and posted videos.

Not long ago

Believe me, it hasn’t always been this way.

When this movement was in its infancy roughly a decade ago, it was unusual to find bullying targets willing to go public with their stories. Public understanding of workplace bullying was at such a low level that most targets didn’t even know what to call their ordeals. Many who did were embarrassed and reluctant to talk about their experiences openly.

In fact, the paucity of targets’ narratives was such that at the first American conference on workplace bullying hosted by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in January 2000, a session featuring a bullying target describing her experiences in detail was regarded as a pioneering and important part of the gathering.

The shift

I believe that at least three major factors have made it easier and safer for individuals to share their stories.

First, putting a label on this form of abuse has made it much easier for us to talk about it. True, some would prefer to use terms such as work abuse or mobbing, and others consider the labels of bullying and bully to be too stigmatizing. Regardless, it’s very difficult to talk about something without giving it a name, and the term workplace bullying has resonated with many.

Second, growing media coverage of workplace bullying has brought this phenomenon out of the closet. Bullying targets have shared their stories with reporters, and many others have done so — perhaps more anonymously — through comments posted to articles and blog pieces on the Internet. This has served as a powerful validating force for those who have experienced workplace bullying, making it easier for them to speak out as well.

Third, the legislative campaign to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill has highlighted workplace bullying as a significant social and public policy concern. Bullying targets have shared powerful in-person testimony and written statements with their elected officials. Many others have visited, called, and e-mailed their legislators urging support.

Looking forward

When those who have experienced or observed injustice and mistreatment become voices for change, remarkable progress can occur.

We are at that juncture today with the U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement. A form of abuse that few even knew what to call a decade ago now is entering the mainstream of our discussions about the workplace. This progress can be attributed in no small part to the growing chorus of voices calling for change.


A note for bullying targets

In making these observations, I don’t want anyone who has experienced workplace bullying to feel compelled to share your story publicly. There is no shame whatsoever in remaining private, and in many cases it is the wise thing to do. Indeed, going public with one’s story may have mental health, career, and legal implications, so the decision to do so should be weighed carefully.

For some, a safer approach may be to describe one’s experiences without a lot of detail in a letter to a legislator, urging passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill. If preserving anonymity is important, blogging or posting comments on the Internet using a pseudonym is a viable option as well.


Workplace bullying 2.0

This is one of a series of blog posts under the “workplace bullying 2.0″ rubric, exploring the degree to which workplace bullying has become a mainstream topic in American employment relations. For other posts in the series, go here.

Workplace bullying 2.0: From understanding to action

Not long ago, if we sought to comprehend common bullying behaviors at work, their frequency, and the harm they cause, we’d look to our friends in Europe, Canada, and Australia for published research studies.

Today, work from our international colleagues continues to enrich our understanding, but U.S. researchers have stepped up to produce a growing body of work on bullying, mobbing, and incivility in the American workplace. And if my travels to different conferences featuring poster presentations by graduate students in the midst of dissertations and theses are any indication, there’s a lot more good stuff in the pipeline.

From understanding to action

We must continue to examine the prevalence and effects of workplace bullying. This type of research must be ongoing, and eventually it should provide us with the ability to compare the frequency and variety of bullying behaviors over time.

However, we’re also at a point where we must emphasize evidence-based action by facilitating prevention, intervention, and response. Indeed, a centerpiece of the “workplace bullying 2.0” theme is that we’ve got the evidence to make our case for tackling this problem at all levels, including organizational change, public education, law reform, and mental health counseling.

Of course, work of this nature is underway as I write, but more is needed. We’re much closer to having a finely-tuned set of best practices and policies (public and private) to deal with workplace bullying than we were a decade ago. With the right blend of research, practice, public education, and advocacy, we can reach that desired objective.


This is one of a series of blog posts under the “workplace bullying 2.0″ rubric, exploring the degree to which workplace bullying has become a mainstream topic in American employment relations. Psychology and mental health, the law, human resources and organizational management, and labor studies are among the fields I’ll be examining.

Workplace bullying 2.0: Psychology and mental health

I suppose it makes sense that, in assessing whether workplace bullying has become a mainstream topic in America, I should start with psychology and mental health.

After all, most researchers concur that the pioneering work of the late Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann during the 1980s constituted the starting point for conceptualizing and understanding the phenomenon of workplace bullying.  He used the term “mobbing” to describe the kinds of abusive, hostile behaviors that were being directed at workers.

And here in the U.S., Gary and Ruth Namie  — both with Ph.Ds in psychology — would begin introducing “workplace bullying” into the vocabulary of American employment relations during the late 1990s.  After discovering the works of Leymann and other European writers and scholars, they decided that an American campaign of research and education was necessary to expose this widespread form of mistreatment at work.

Industrial/organizational psychology & occupational health psychology

Of all the major disciplines relevant to studying, preventing, responding to workplace bullying, the fields of industrial/organizational psychology and its emerging sibling, occupational health psychology, rank first in terms of research and practice.

These fields pass the “blank stare test.” In other words, if you mention “workplace bullying” to the average organizational psychology researcher or practitioner, you are much less likely to get a blank stare in response.

To illustrate:

  • The biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology, now hosts multiple panels on bullying and incivility at work.
  • The APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program regularly promotes programs, publications, and blogs addressing workplace bullying and related topics.
  • There’s a growing body of work on workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in I/O psychology journals. For example, in 2009, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research published a special issue on workplace mobbing and bullying, edited by Len Sperry and containing contributions from Sperry, Patricia Ferris, the Namies, Suzy Fox & Lamont Stallworth, Maureen Duffy, Laura Crawshaw, and Richard Kilburg.
  • Workplace bullying appears with increasing frequency in the latest editions of treatises and textbooks on I/O psychology. For example, Frank J. Landy and Jeffrey M. Conte devote three information-packed pages to workplace bullying in their 3rd edition of Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology (2010).

In sum, those who seek an organizational psychology perspective on workplace bullying will find a growing abundance of resources in the U.S.

Mental health counseling and therapy

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those seeking information on counseling and therapy for bullying targets.

This is not to say that helpful resources do not exist. The Namies’ The Bully at Work (rev. ed. 2009) has been a self-help staple for years, and Duffy & Sperry’s new Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions (2012) is a welcomed addition to the literature as well.

But compared to I/O psychology and OHP, you won’t find a similar body of literature and programs on counseling and coaching targets of workplace bullying. For example, when I recently scoured the rich website of the Psychotherapy Networker for commentary and programs about workplace bullying, I came up empty. I’m a fan of this publication — it does an excellent job of linking mental health concerns to broader issues of social responsibility — which makes the absence of information on helping bullying targets all the more glaring.

This isn’t particularly shocking. Although some therapists are familiar with workplace bullying, over the years I’ve had many exchanges with bullying targets who have told me that mental health counseling yielded extremely disappointing results. At times, therapists were downright dismissive or insensitive toward their plight.

Despite the significant psychological impacts of workplace bullying, it’s apparent that the topic hasn’t crossed squarely onto the radar screen of the mental health community. Fortunately, with the right push, it shouldn’t be too hard to bridge this gap. Counselors are trained to deal with related forms of abuse and their consequences, such as child abuse and sexual harassment. The toolkit, so to speak, already is in place.


This is one of a series of blog posts under the “workplace bullying 2.0″ rubric, exploring the degree to which workplace bullying has become a mainstream topic in American employment relations. Psychology and mental health, the law, human resources and organizational management, and labor studies are among the fields I’ll be examining.

Workplace bullying 2.0: Have we reached a tipping point in U.S. public awareness?

When I started this blog in late 2008, I could’ve posted about, and linked to, virtually every news article on workplace bullying, without driving myself to exhaustion.

Not anymore. In the U.S. alone, articles about workplace bullying and related topics abound in newspapers and other periodicals, the electronic media, and all over the Internet.

When I first started to give presentations about workplace bullying to American audiences about a decade ago, I usually began with a fairly lengthy definition and explanation of workplace bullying.

Not anymore. While at times I still have to explain the topic in greater detail, many audiences comprehend the basics already. This includes professional organizations whose members hadn’t even heard of the term workplace bullying a decade ago.

Yup, it now seems like a long time ago when I first called Gary & Ruth Namie in 1998 to ask them about an initiative they had dubbed the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying.

Have we reached a tipping point?

Does this mean we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of public awareness of workplace bullying in the U.S.?

Okay, some academic hedging here: Yes and no. We’ve seen vast progress in getting this topic before the public, but there’s still a long way to go.

The answer also depends on what aspects of public awareness we’re talking about. We’re seeing a lot of general media coverage, considerable discussion in fields such as organizational psychology, but not yet as much attention in law.

During the next few months, I’m going to be writing a series of blog posts under the “workplace bullying 2.0” rubric, exploring the degree to which workplace bullying has become a mainstream topic in employment relations, psychology and mental health, the law, and related fields, as well as the extent to which the term resonates with the general public.

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