School anti-bullying researcher questions whether “workplace bullying” is a real phenomenon

On occasion, I am left deeply dismayed by a commentary concerning workplace bullying. Such was my reaction to Elizabeth Englander’s “Is Workplace Bullying a Genuine Phenomenon?,” just published in The Atlantic (link here).

Dr. Englander is a psychologist who directs a center at Bridgewater State University that primarily addresses school bullying. Building on news stories of well-publicized toxic work situations, she questions the reality of workplace bullying. Here’s a snippet:

Whenever powerful people wage a campaign of misery against someone with less agency, it can be harmful. Victims of bullying are typically less productive, less happy, and less likely to be positive contributors to society. They’re more likely to use dangerous drugs, to be violent, and to break laws.

Bullying doesn’t refer to just any type of social cruelty, however; it’s specifically when an individual or group repeatedly and deliberately attacks a less powerful person.

…Just calling something bullying doesn’t make it so, of course, and identifying bullying among adults can be difficult. In schools, we can clearly distinguish between a child who makes a random mean comment about a haircut and a child who goes after a target every single day on a playground or on social media. Only the latter is waging a repetitive campaign of cruelty. In a workplace, a nasty comment that might seem like a single incident could actually be a repetitive behavior—or not. For example, if your boss berates and belittles you one day in a meeting, you may wonder if that’s how she talks about you to management. Could that explain why you weren’t promoted? Or maybe your boss was just having a bad day and she took her anger out on you—not great, but not bullying.

Englander is right on in saying that “identifying bullying among adults can be difficult” and that bullying, in its essence, is an abuse of power. She’s also right that workplace bullying is not about a “boss just having a bad day.” I personally agree with a definition of bullying that includes intent on the part of the aggressor. In fact, I have written the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill to include intent as a required element towards proving a legally actionable claim. (Not all anti-bullying advocates agree with me, but after considerable pondering I have held firm on this point.)

Despite this apparent common ground, Englander concludes:

Ultimately, the word bullying may be simply a distraction. Whether a workplace problem fits the definition of bullying is secondary. What’s more important is promoting professional behavior and workplaces that improve the lot of employees.

It appears that Englander is practicing the unfortunate academic game of defining a term restrictively (here, bullying), then questioning that which doesn’t fit easily within it, and finally (and somewhat paradoxically) claiming at the end that definitional distinctions are secondary distractions. Ultimately, by reserving the mantle of “bullying” mainly for applications to children, her commentary overlooks decades of research, public education, clinical, and advocacy work on an international scale about workplace bullying and mobbing. Perhaps had she done a deeper dive into that abundant body of work, rather than build her piece around individual instances of bad bossism, the published result would’ve been different.

Why not seek common ground instead?

Ms. Englander’s primary domain is bullying among children. Mine is workplace bullying. I respect that, at times, the dynamics of school bullying and workplace bullying are different. Indeed, I and many others have likened workplace bullying more to domestic abuse than to school bullying in terms of core relational dynamics. But I have increasingly regarded these differences as being less important than the similarities.

Thus, I am mystified as to what triggered Englander’s commentary. The heart of the movement to address workplace bullying and mobbing has always been in steadfast support of efforts to respond to other forms of interpersonal abuse, such as school bullying, cyberbullying, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment. We’ve also learned that it’s unproductive to get overly hung up on labels and vocabulary, especially when it comes to the risks of creating turf battles.

In sum, it’s unfortunate that Englander (and The Atlantic) would invest in an article that misses the mark so unnecessarily. The more constructive common ground is to comprehend that bullying behaviors exist at every life stage and to share many related insights for our mutual benefit.

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.

***

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.

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.

“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.

***

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.

***

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.

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.

MTW Newsstand: Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week edition

Hello dear readers, it’s Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, an annual observance launched by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Among other things, I’d like to share some relevant articles with you:

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, “Global Workplace Bullying Developments Continue during Covid-19,” SAI Global (2020) (link here) — “In this blog, I review new laws around the world that prohibit bullying in the workplace, as well as an international standard that will address violence and harassment at work that becomes effective soon.”

Mickey Butts, “How Narcissistic Leaders Make Organizations Less Ethical,” Greater Good Magazine (2020) (link here) — “A new paper by Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Jennifer Chatman and her colleagues shows not only the profound impact narcissistic leaders have on their organizations, but also the long-lasting damage they inflict.”

Manuela Priesemuth, “Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces,” Harvard Business Review (2020) (link here) — “While direct interactions with ‘bad bosses’ can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. Indeed, some of my own research has shown that abusive behavior, especially when displayed by leaders, can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse.”

Brian Truitt, “New survey: Women in Hollywood are twice as likely as men to experience unchecked bullying at work,” USA Today (2020) (link here) — “A new survey from The Hollywood Commission confirms that abusive conduct is a pervasive problem in Hollywood made worse by the entertainment industry’s power imbalances – and the targets of the bullying are often young workers and assistants.”

Mike Krings, “KU law, journalism scholars sum up nonexistent state of workplace cyberbullying laws,” KU Today (2020) (link here) — “While technology has provided a way for many parts of life to carry on virtually, it has also provided space for negative elements of life such as cyberbullying to increase. Schools have made strides in combating the problem in recent years, but two University of Kansas scholars point out in a new book chapter that American law is woefully unprepared to handle workplace cyberbullying.”

Elizabeth Mulvahill, “When Teachers Bully One Another,” We Are Teachers (2020) (link here) — “Indeed, while there is news story after news story about student-on-student bullying, no one is talking about the problem of teacher-on-teacher bullying. But for teachers facing harassment from their colleagues every day, the proverbial struggle is real.”

Will “de-densifying” reduce workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment in the COVID-transformed American workplace?

In a piece for The Guardian over the summer (link here), Cassidy Randall speculated on the future of American office life, as employers consider options for full or partial re-opening in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge in parts of the US, some companies have moved forward with plans to let their employees re-enter the office after months of working from home.

In the absence of federal guidelines around best practices, office managers will probably need to rely on an abundance of caution. This may turn offices into ghost towns of their former selves, with gatherings by the water cooler, big meetings and buzzing shared spaces disappearing for the foreseeable future.

Anticipating a possible uptick in infection rates during the fall, she emphasized the likelihood of “de-densifying” staffing patterns and staggered shifts to moderate the number of workers present in the office at any given time. This could mean, at least for now, the cessation of large, in-person staff meetings and crowded work areas.

The disturbingly stubborn rates of COVID-19 infections have no doubt caused many employers to continue to permit workers to spend parts or all of their week working from home. In some circles, this has raised the question of the necessity of maintaining large offices and on-site work requirements, even after we find our way through this pandemic. A prominent example of this revamping is Microsoft. As reported earlier this month by Tom Warren for The Verge (link here):

Microsoft is allowing more of its employees to work from home permanently, the company announced Friday. While the vast majority of Microsoft employees are still working from home during the ongoing pandemic, the software maker has unveiled “hybrid workplace” guidance internally to allow for far greater flexibility once US offices eventually reopen. The Verge has received Microsoft’s internal guidance, and it outlines the company’s flexible working plans for the future.

Microsoft will now allow employees to work from home freely for less than 50 percent of their working week, or for managers to approve permanent remote work. Employees who opt for the permanent remote work option will give up their assigned office space, but still have options to use touchdown space available at Microsoft’s offices.

Better work environments?

I’ve been looking at these assessments in part through a lens of whether the coronavirus-impacted work environment will affect prevalence rates and the nature of various types of workplace abuse. Back in May, I offered this preliminary forecast for when physical workplaces start to reopen:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

What I didn’t anticipate was the now very real possibility that some (many?) organizations may never return to the fully occupied physical workspaces that were the norm before the pandemic suddenly defined the contours of our lives.

To the extent that bullying, mobbing, and harassment are very relational activities, de-densifying via continued physical distancing and staggered employee shifts may help to reduce the prevalence of these forms of mistreatment. 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.

It’s also possible that, as I suggested in May, most people will try to rise above the fray, grateful to be employed, while recognizing that we should all bring a sense of team play to the current work situation.

For now, it’s too early to know whether these work-at-home practices will become a new normal. But this bears watching, especially by those of us who are attentive to the various ways in which workplace mistreatment may manifest itself.

%d bloggers like this: