How do social and economic class differences impact workplace bullying?

Do social and economic class differences impact workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors? If so, how?

America continues to think itself as a classless society, despite deep and worsening wealth divisions. Now, however, it appears that a combination of the ongoing effects of the Great Recession and the tumult associated with the election of Donald Trump has prompted some closer looks at class distinctions. For example, The Guardian newspaper has launched an ongoing investigative study of class and inequality in the U.S.:

We’re calling it On the Ground: reporting from all corners of America. The series is funded in part by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support the Guardian’s reporting on wealth inequality in America. The Rockefeller grant will fund a broader Guardian project called Inequality and Opportunity in America, focused on economic disparities due to work, class and inequality.

Also, Annie Lowrey, writing for The Atlantic, spotlights a new book by Richard V. Reeves, Dream Hoarders (2017), that points a finger at America’s upper middle class as a major culprit in reinforcing inequality. While recognizing the extreme wealth concentrations enjoyed by the top one percent, Reeves argues that the top twenty percent have also enjoyed considerable success in recent decades, leaving the others in their wake. He further posits that these advantages are being passed on to their children in ways that will only harden social and economic class inequalities.

I’d like to take a closer look at these commentaries in a future post, but for now let’s return to bullying and class distinctions. I did a quick search for studies examining potential relationships between workplace bullying and social/economic class and didn’t come up with much. But the more I ponder the question, the more I’m convinced that class can play out significantly in this realm. It may manifest itself in a well compensated manager or highly degreed professional who looks down at less educated, lower paid co-workers and treats them accordingly. It may involve a group of co-workers who see a peer as not being from their side of the tracks (whichever side that may be) and bully, harass, and ostracize that individual because of it.

In any event, this topic is ripe for more research and understanding. Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse may occur due to many reasons. Class distinctions definitely belong on the list.

WBI survey: Strong public support for workplace anti-bullying laws

new, scientific Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) national survey on workplace bullying shows strong public support for workplace anti-bullying legislation.

WBI’s 2017 survey is the latest in a series that includes similar polls in 2014, 2010, and 2007. On the question of support for workplace anti-bullying legislation, survey participants were asked: “Do you support or oppose enactment of a new law that would protect all workers from repeated health-harming abusive mistreatment in addition to protections against illegal discrimination and harassment?” Some 77 percent of respondents said they “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the enactment of such a law. Here are their specific responses:

  • 47% “Strongly support”
  • 30% “Somewhat support”
  • 15% “Not sure”
  • 4% “Somewhat oppose”
  • 4% “Strongly oppose”

It is notable that the survey question itself tracks the language of the Healthy Workplace Bill, model legislation I have authored that provides bullied workers with a legal claim for damages and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

Other key survey info

Here are other key results from the 2017 report, as summarized by Dr. Gary Namie:

  • 19% of Americans are bullied, another 19% witness it
  • 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace
  • 60 million Americans are affected by it
  • 70% of perpetrators are men; 60% of targets are women
  • Hispanics are the most frequently bullied race
  • 61% of bullies are bosses, the majority (63%) operate alone
  • 40% of bullied targets are believed to suffer adverse health effects
  • 29% of targets remain silent about their experiences
  • 71% of employer reactions are harmful to targets
  • 60% of coworker reactions are harmful to targets
  • To stop it, 65% of targets lose their original jobs

The 2017 WBI survey was conducted in conjunction with Zogby Analytics and significantly underwritten by the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.

Linking workplace bullying to workplace violence

Last week’s news included a San Francisco workplace shooting allegedly committed by a man who believed he was a target of bullying. As reported by Tara Moriarty of KTVU and the Associated Press:

The UPS worker who opened fire at the company’s San Francisco warehouse yesterday, killing three co-workers before turning the gun on himself believe[d] he was being bullied by two of those employees, sources told KTVU Thursday.

Jimmy Lam, an 18-year veteran of UPS, appeared to single out three slain drivers during the shooting rampage although police have not yet publicly disclosed a motive in the case. San Francisco police declined to comment about their investigation on Thursday.

***

Friends and colleagues recounted several personal and professional troubles that Lam had been experiencing.

Most recently, he was upset with UPS managers and had filed a grievance in March claiming he was working excessive overtime, said Joseph Cilia, Lam’s friend and an official with the union that represents UPS drivers.

In his 1995 book Violence at Work, Joseph A. Kinney, founder of the National Safe Workplace Institute, observed that workplace violence can be a consequence of bullying at work. Kinney noted that “there have been numerous instances where abusive supervisors have baited angry and frustrated employees, pushing these individuals to unacceptable levels of violence and aggression.” According to the news report cited above, none of the San Francisco UPS victims were managers, so this scenario is slightly different than what Kinney described back in 1995. However, it is the latest instance of a tragic workplace shooting tied to allegations that the shooter had been bullied at work.

Of course, there’s a difference between someone claiming to be bullied and someone being found to have been bullied under some objective, factual standard. Also, in no way am I attempting to justify deadly violence as a fair response to a lesser form of mistreatment. In addition, a murder-suicide scenario such as the one in San Francisco suggests that we need to look much deeper into underlying circumstances before we offer a confident interpretation of what happened.

Nevertheless, there’s enough anecdotal evidence for us to say that being bullied at work may, in turn, trigger violent behavior by the victim towards the aggressors. After all, abuse can become cyclical and escalate. Stopping and reversing these cycles of abuse, hopefully with compassion and understanding, must be among our core objectives in confronting mistreatment at work.

Coming attraction: “Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States”

Scheduled for publication in December 2017 is Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (Praeger/ABC-CLIO), a two-volume, multidisciplinary book project, edited by Dr. Maureen Duffy and me, and featuring chapters authored by some twenty contributors.

Here are some highlights from the publishers’ book webpage (still in progress):

Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States provides a comprehensive overview of the nature and scope of the problem of workplace bullying and mobbing. By tapping the knowledge of a breadth of subject experts and interpreting contemporary survey data, this resource examines the impact of bullying and mobbing on targets; identifies what constitutes effective prevention and intervention; surveys the legal landscape for addressing the problem, from both American and (for multinational employers) transnational perspectives; and provides an analysis of key employment sectors with practical recommendations for prevention and amelioration of these behaviors.

The contributors to this outstanding work include researchers, practitioners, and policy and subject-matter experts who are widely recognized as authorities on workplace bullying and mobbing, including Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, cofounders of the U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement; Drs. Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry, internationally recognized authorities on workplace mobbing; and professor David Yamada, leading expert on the legal aspects of workplace bullying. The set’s content will be of particular value to scholars and practitioners in disciplines that overlap with American labor and employee relations, industrial/organizational psychology and mental health, and law and conflict resolution.

Features

  • The first comprehensive, multi-contributor book on workplace bullying and mobbing grounded in American employee relations
  • An ideal starting place for anyone seeking to better understand the breadth and depth of research on workplace bullying and mobbing in the United States
  • Features contributions from leading researchers and subject-matter experts on workplace bullying and mobbing, including some who are founding members of the U.S. Academy on Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse
  • Summarizes and analyzes leading research for scholars and researchers in industrial/organizational psychology, clinical and counseling psychology, organizational behavior and communications, business management, law, and public health

We will be sharing more about the specific chapters and authors in the months to come. The two volumes will total approximately 600 pages. Alas, this will be a pricey acquisition, aimed toward academic and professional audiences and libraries, with the list price of $131 set by the publisher.

The U.S. focus of the book set is not an attempt to be parochial or insular, but rather a recognition that American employee relations with regard to bullying and mobbing behaviors has unique characteristics, not all of them positive. Accordingly, we wanted to offer research and commentary written by a primarily American group of contributors, using — whenever available — research and analysis grounded in U.S. workplaces.

This project traces its origins to the publisher’s invitation to Dr. Duffy to submit a proposal for a two-volume set on workplace bullying and mobbing. Maureen, in turn, enlisted me as a co-editor. During the past year and a half, I have learned tons from Maureen about the care and feeding of such an ambitious project. We’re very excited about this book set, and we believe it will be a meaningful and comprehensive contribution to our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors and how we can respond to them.

Male targets of workplace bullying

Many of us in the workplace anti-bullying movement have understood that men who face workplace bullying are less likely than women to talk about their experiences and to seek assistance. However, thanks to the work of Dr. Sue O’Donnell (U. New Brunswick, Canada), we have an excellent seven-minute video that captures a cross section of the male experience of being a bullying target. I had the privilege of watching the video as part of her presentation at the 2017 Work, Stress and Health conference currently underway in Minneapolis.

A nursing school professor, Dr. O’Donnell worked with New Brunswick colleague Dr. Judith MacIntosh to conduct interviews of men who had experienced workplace bullying and then teamed with Nick Wilson Videography to turn those interviews into a form of live testimony. It’s a powerful video that will resonate specially with men who have struggled with workplace bullying and how to talk about it. This is no small subset of targets. To illustrate, the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 U.S. national prevalence study found that among survey respondents, some 40 percent of workplace bullying targets were male.

Drs. O’Donnell and MacIntosh have co-authored “Gender and Workplace Bullying: Men’s Experiences of Surviving Bullying at Work” (Qualitative Health Research), their underlying research study for the video. Here’s the abstract of the piece:

Although men are targets of workplace bullying, there is limited research focused on their experiences. To address this gap, we used a qualitative grounded theory approach and interviewed a community sample of 20 Atlantic Canadian men to explore and explain their experiences of, and responses to, bullying. The main problem identified by men was a lack of workplace support to address and resolve the bullying, a challenge named abandonment. Men addressed this problem by surviving, a process that involved efforts to manage persistent bullying and the associated consequences. Men experienced physical, emotional, and social health consequences and, contrary to prevailing assumptions related to men’s help-seeking behaviors, men want support and many sought help to address the problem and its consequences. Responses to abandonment and the associated consequences varied according to a number of factors including gender and highlight the need for research aimed at understanding the gendered nature of bullying.

Work, Stress and Health 2017 (Hello from Minneapolis!)

The biennial Work, Stress and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP) is a continuing education highlight for me and an opportunity to share some of my work with colleagues from around the world. It also serves as ongoing proof that a large conference can be enjoyable and friendly, thanks to the great people organizing it and the wonderful folks it attracts.

The 2017 conference began today in Minneapolis with an afternoon opening session, and here are some of the highlights:

  • An opening panel on temporary jobs and the gig economy featured two excellent presentations: David Desario, founder of the Alliance for the Temporary Workforce discussed the elevated workplace health & safety risks faced by temp workers. He’ll be screening “A Day’s Work,” his documentary film about these (sometimes deadly) hazards, at the conference on Thursday afternoon. Journalist Sarah Kessler (Quartz), author of a forthcoming book about the gig economy, sketched out the nature of this small but growing sector, summing up the gig worker’s plight as “risk without the potential rewards of entrepreneurship.”
  • Among the award recipients was Dr. Larissa Barber (Northern Illinois U.), whose cutting-edge research and commentary on work-life issues has been discussed previously on this blog (e.g., here and here). Lacie, as she is known to her friends, was recognized for her early career accomplishments, a richly deserved honor. Dr. Julian Barling (Queen’s U., Canada), one of the earliest researchers on workplace mistreatment (among his many research topics), received an equally well-deserved lifetime achievement award.

I’ll be part of two panels at this year’s conference: One is on “Trauma-Informed Best Practices for Responding to Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” a panel I organized with Drs. Maureen Duffy and Gary Namie. I included my panel paper in my last post. A second is on “Non-Standard Work Arrangements: A Discussion of Taxonomy and Research Priorities,” building on themes raised in the opening program on temp jobs and the gig economy. I was invited by NIOSH to discuss some of the legal aspects of this topic, including the oft-discussed distinctions between employee and independent contractor status.

Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing

At next week’s Work, Stress and Health Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I’ll be presenting a short paper, “Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” on a panel with Drs. Maureen Duffy and Gary Namie. I’m happy to include the paper in its substantial entirety here. Regular readers of this blog will find a lot of material that I’ve already included in various chunks here, but I hope it will be interesting and informative nonetheless.

Introduction

Emerging insights about psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder are informing our understanding of legal disputes involving workplace bullying and mobbing, as well as suggesting how trauma-informed employment lawyers, managers, and human resources personnel can be more effective in dealing with legal situations involving abusive work environments. Among other things, neuroscientific discoveries concerning psychological trauma carry potentially great significance for legal and benefit claims involving workplace bullying and mobbing.

Linking Workplace Bullying and Mobbing to Psychological Trauma

Workplace mobbing researchers Leymann & Gustafsson (1996) associated severe work abuse with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder early on in their pioneering work. Since then, scholars, mental health providers, and subject matter experts on workplace bullying and mobbing have made those connections as well (Hogh, Mikkelsen, and Hansen, 2011, pp. 115-17).

Targets of bullying and mobbing have described the trauma of work abuse through narrative descriptions of their experiences. For example, Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts (2006) interviewed self-identified targets of work abuse. Targets’ accounts were “saturated” with references to “beating, physical abuse, and death” (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts, 2006, p. 160). The abuse process was described alternatively as a “game or battle,” a “nightmare,” “water torture,” and a “noxious substance” (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts, 2006, p. 159).

Emerging Neuroscientific Insights

In his 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk discusses research on how traumatic experiences impact the brain, which may include sharp cognitive impairments that undermine an individual’s ability to present information in an ordered manner (van der Kolk, 2014). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows how psychological trauma activates parts of the brain associated with emotions (the so-called right side), while shutting down parts of the brain associated with speech and logical thinking (left side). These effects can be replicated well after the original traumatic event(s). Accordingly, an individual experiencing psychological trauma may be able to share emotions and impressions about the experience, while encountering great difficulty in setting out the narrative story behind it. Dr. van der Kolk calls it “the speechless horror” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 43).

Emerging Significance for Employment Law and Legal Practice

These developing insights and discoveries concerning psychological trauma carry potentially great significance for legal and benefit claims involving workplace bullying and mobbing. They also raise potential opportunities and challenges for employment lawyers on both sides of the aisle who are dealing with alleged instances of bullying and mobbing.

Challenges

Mainstreaming fMRI technology – Although fMRI technology is used increasingly in research, its use in clinical settings lags far behind. More significantly for this discussion, its reliability as legal evidence has not yet been widely established, and in some instances has been questioned by courts.

Causation and before/after documentation – Most legal claims and some employee benefits (especially workers’ compensation) require sufficient evidence of causation between the legally significant workplace events and the complained-of harm or injury. In cases where PTSD is part of a claim for damages or worker benefits, the plaintiff or claimant may have to establish factual causation. Thus, if fMRI technology becomes significant in this realm, it may be necessary to have both “before” and “after” scans in order to show impairment due to work-related psychological trauma.

DSM-5 PTSD requirements – In the current edition of the DSM, the list of requisite predicate stressor events for a PTSD diagnosis continues to exclude many instances of non-physical bullying or mobbing: “death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence.”

Potential Applications

Legal client counseling – Employment lawyers who gain a basic understanding of psychological trauma will be in a better position to talk to, interview, and counsel clients who are experiencing it.

Workplace anti-bullying legislation – Currently there is no general, direct legal claim for workplace bullying in the U.S. However, scientific evidence of how trauma can impair brain functioning supports passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill, model legislation I have authored that provides bullying targets a private legal claim for damages and creates legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to bullying behaviors (Yamada, 2004; Yamada, 2013).

Workplace bullying-related litigation — Some bullying-related mistreatment may be legally actionable under employment discrimination laws, anti-retaliation and whistleblowing statutes, tort (personal injury) causes of action, and collective bargaining laws (Yamada, 2000; Yamada, 2013). Whenever these legal claims are raised in connection with bullying and mobbing situations, evidence of psychological trauma is relevant to prove emotional distress, health care-related damages, and potential decline in on-the-job productivity.

Workplace safety and health laws — Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, a covered employer must provide employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” Brain imaging eventually may help to document the serious harm wrought by bullying and mobbing and thus bring it within the General Duty Clause of OSHA.

Workers’ compensation laws – Workers’ compensation laws provide benefits to workers who are injured in the course of and arising out of employment. The easiest type of WC claim is a physical injury leading to a physical impairment, such as a worker who severely injures an arm on the job and thus experiences a significant physical impairment as a result. The hardest type of WC claim is the so-called “mental-mental” scenario, e.g., non-physical forms of sexual harassment, bullying, etc., leading to mental impairments. Evidence of impaired brain functioning associated with trauma can help to buttress WC claims associated with bullying and mobbing.

 References

Hogh, A., Mikkelsen, E. G., & Hansen, A. M. (2011). Individual consequences of workplace bullying/mobbing. Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Developments in research, theory, and practice. (Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C., eds., Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press).

Leymann, H., & Gustafsson, A. (1996). Mobbing at work and the development of post-traumatic stress disorders. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 5(2), 251-275.

Tracy, S. J., Lutgen-Sandvik, P. & Alberts, J.K. (2006). Nightmares, demons and slaves: Exploring the painful metaphors of workplace bullying. Management Communication Quarterly, 20, 148-185.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. (New York, NY: Penguin).

Yamada, D. C. (2000). The phenomenon of “workplace bullying” and the need for status-blind hostile work environment protection. Georgetown Law Journal, 88(3), 475-536.

Yamada, D. C. (2004). Crafting a legislative response to workplace bullying. Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, 8(2), 475-521.

Yamada, D. C. (2013). Emerging American legal responses to workplace bullying. Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, 22(2), 329-354.

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