Bully Nation: How economic power and inequality are fueling a bullying culture

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Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society (2016) by sociologists Charles Derber (Boston College) and Yale R. Magrass (UMass-Dartmouth) takes a “big picture” look at how the economic Powers That Be have fueled a deeper, broader culture of bullying behaviors. Here’s part of an excerpt published on AlterNet

Any economic or social system based on power inequality creates potential or latent bullying that often translates into active bullying, by institutions and individuals. So this is not a problem exclusive to capitalism; bullying was brutally manifest in systems claiming to be socialist or communist, such as the Soviet Union, and it is also obviously a major problem in China today. But capitalism is the dominant system currently and has its own, less recognized, institutionalized bullying propensities.

This looks like a promising book. Unfortunately, however, Drs. Derber and Magrass also take an unmerited swipe at the anti-bullying movement, by suggesting that we have failed to link bullying to the broader economic and political forces that frame their analysis:

Though the bullying of vulnerable kids in schools gets a lot of attention, the bullying of vulnerable workers usually is ignored. If the mass media mention it at all, they typically parrot the corporate view that the agitating workers are troublemakers who deserve punishment. The failure of scholars in the “bullying field” to see even illegal (not to mention legal) corporate threats, intimidation, and retaliation as bullying is another profound failure of the psychological paradigm that views bullying only as a “kid thing” in schools. Such scholars are blind to the adult and institutionalized bullying that is endemic to our economic system.

It appears that the co-authors neglected to do the necessary homework to learn more about the workplace anti-bullying movement. Indeed, the ongoing campaign to enact legal protections against workplace bullying has its philosophical roots in the value of employee dignity. In the law review article that led to my drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), I explore the social and economic conditions that are fueling bullying at work.

In addition, I connect the dots between the state of workers’ rights, employee dignity, and economic power in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review, 2009). My 2014 blog post drawing from that piece stated:

American employment law has been dominated by a belief system that embraces the idea of unfettered free markets and regards limitations on management authority with deep suspicion. Under this “markets and management” framework, the needs for unions and collective bargaining, individual employment rights, and, most recently, protection of workers amid the dynamics of globalization, are all weighed against these prevailing norms.

Furthermore, we know darn well about the plutocratic forces that want to keep workplace bullying legal. Here in Massachusetts, a powerful corporate trade group, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, has spearheaded opposition to the Healthy Workplace Bill. The Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management are among the other corporate friendly trade groups that have opposed employer accountability for severe workplace bullying.

This oversight aside, it appears that Bully Nation has the potential to raise our collective consciousness about how concentrated power is fueling abusive behaviors. I look forward to taking a closer look at it.

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Fooled from the start? First impressions and masters of workplace manipulation

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Do we fall for self-promoting masters of workplace manipulation from the get go, maybe even at the interview stages when they wow people in the room?

Business Insider‘s Jenna Goudreau has been writing about social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s (Harvard) new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. I found especially interesting her recent piece on the two questions that people quickly answer when they first meet someone, per Dr. Cuddy:

In her new book, “Presence,” Cuddy says people quickly answer two questions when they first meet you:

Can I trust this person?
Can I respect this person?

Psychologists refer to these dimensions as warmth and competence respectively, and ideally you want to be perceived as having both.

In another piece on Cuddy and Presence, Goudreau discusses how there’s no single non-verbal cue that tells us that someone is a liar. Rather, according to Cuddy, “instead of looking for one big ‘reveal,’ the best way to spot deception is to look for discrepancies across multiple channels of communication, including facial expressions, posture, and speech,” especially “leaks” that show “differences between what people are saying and what they are doing.”

Ah, but here’s the rub as I see it. The “leaks” often don’t reveal themselves at first, at least when we’re dealing with masters of manipulation. Whether they are simply smooth operators or lean in the direction of clinically diagnosable conditions such as narcissism or sociopathy, they are very, very practiced at making positive first impressions. It’s often not until later when you discover that they’re worthy of neither trust nor respect.

Presence is being touted as a coaching manual of sorts for folks who want to get ahead, and that’s perfectly understandable. After all, only the rare (and very odd) person doesn’t want to make a good first impression. But Dr. Cuddy’s research findings also help to illuminate how smart, manipulative, possibly toxic people present so well in interviews and continue to make strong first impressions after they show up. They immediately begin to position themselves and build street cred.

Again, we all want to get off to a good start in a new job. In no way am I suggesting that coming in with a winning attitude is a bad thing! But the master manipulators are often less than meets the eye and more about feathering their own nest. The nasty ones will find ways to roll over others in their way, often in a stealthy manner. It’s not surprising that when bullying-type behaviors are involved, they are often of the covert, behind-the-back variety.

The folks who see through this veneer may find it impossible to effectively sound the alarm, because it’s already too late. If you’re putting down a shining new star, it must be because you’re resentful, right? 

How many times are these scheming newcomers given the keys to the kingdom, practically before they’ve finishing picking their 401(k) and health plan options? Based on my admittedly anecdotal assessments, the manipulators seldom pay a big price for their self-interested maneuvering. Many times they depart before it catches up with them, moving up the ladder as others continue to fall for their game. Sigh.

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Can workplace bullying harm the offspring of women who are targeted during pregnancy?

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How does workplace bullying affect the health of an unborn baby? Studies examining possible links between negative health outcomes to the children of women who experienced considerable stress at work during pregnancy suggest that this question merits our attention.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic magazine, “Should You Bring Your Unborn Baby to Work?,” Moises Velazquez-Manoff observes that research on the work stress/pregnancy question is inconsistent, but sufficient to raise concerns:

In 2012, a study of female orthopedic surgeons found that those who worked more than 60 hours a week while pregnant had nearly five times the risk of preterm birth—meaning delivery before 37 weeks of gestation, which can indicate unfavorable conditions in the womb and predict ill health throughout a child’s life—compared with those who worked less. But one glaring problem with this study was that it surveyed women after they gave birth, asking them to remember how much they had worked during pregnancy.

A 2009 study from Ireland that followed 676 pregnant women was better designed. Experiencing two or more work-related stressors—including shift work, temporary work, or working 40 hours or more a week—was associated with a more than fivefold increased risk of preterm birth. A much larger subsequent study from Denmark, however, found no such relationship between “job strain” and preterm birth.

What was I to think? I called up Sylvia Guendelman, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of California at Berkeley. The research could be inconsistent, she said. “But the bulk of evidence seems to suggest that something is there.”

Especially given that workplace bullying can trigger severe stress reactions far beyond those of “normally” stressful work situations, this body of developing research serves as a yellow flag, at the very least, to pregnant women who are experiencing workplace bullying.

Yehuda studies: Stress reactions can be transmitted to unborn children

Even if the workplace studies have methodological issues or yield contrasting findings, other research appears to confirm that women who experienced psychological trauma during pregnancy may transmit stress reactions to their children.

Noted trauma expert Rachel Yehuda led a team of researchers who studied the effects of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks on pregnant women who were at or near the site and who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence. They found that these stress reactions can be transmitted to their unborn children. As reported by The Guardian newspaper in 2011:

…(T)he children of women who were traumatised as a result of 9/11 subsequently exhibit an increased distress response when shown novel stimuli. Again, this was related to the stage of pregnancy – those with the largest distress response were the ones born to mothers who were in their second or third trimester when exposed to the World Trade Centre attacks.

Previous trauma research led by Yehuda indicates a similar association between Holocaust survivors who experienced PTSD and increased risk for PTSD by their offspring.

“Something is there”

To borrow from Professor Guendelman (quoted in The Atlantic article), something is there.

Although concededly speculative, it makes intuitive sense for us to be connecting these dots. Workplace bullying is a form of targeted mistreatment that threatens one’s livelihood and sense of well being, and it has long been associated with symptoms consistent with PTSD. In severe, recurring forms, it has been likened to torture.

Furthermore, while it’s not clear whether the frequency of workplace bullying increases during pregnancy, it’s no secret that many employers do not greet news of a worker’s pregnancy with open arms. For example, as the Great Recession tore through the global economy, The Guardian noted an apparent increase in bullying faced by pregnant staff. (Legally, this is potentially significant, as many jurisdictions — including the U.S. — prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of pregnancy.)

Accordingly, this body of research on the effects of trauma on unborn children bears watching, for it potentially adds to our understanding of the harm that may be caused by workplace bullying, and thus could very well carry important implications for public health and public policy.

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Related posts (click on titles to access full articles)

Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids (2011) — “We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.”

Workplace bullying and families of targets (2011) — “Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured. Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case.”

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Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying

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Especially in the work context, the definition of gossip can be hard to corral. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gossip as “information about the behavior and personal lives of other people.” In the workplace, however, these shared tidbits can also include details and rumors about salaries, working relationships, and working conditions.

In many instances, this is the stuff of everyday conversations at work. However, the presence of frequent and intense workplace gossip may signal deeper dysfunctions about an organization’s culture. It may manifest itself in offsite social media exchanges. In more severe instances, what might appear to be casual gossip is really part of a targeted campaign of defamation or bullying.

Earlier this month, Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal wrote about dealing with gossip at work:

Office gossip can be a welcome distraction. It just can be hard to know what to do when you become the focal point. Overreacting or saying the wrong thing may fan the flames, but ignoring some kinds of gossip can damage your reputation or even career.

The full article (subscription necessary from this link) contains advice on what to do if you are the subject of workplace gossip and includes video and radio clips. (Editor’s note: To access the article online, I Googled “Shellenbarger” and “gossip” and got a clean link.)

Healthier gossip

Shellenbarger aptly notes that gossip can have its beneficial qualities:

Not all gossip is bad. Some workplace talk can help ease stress or frustration over perceived injustices, research shows. . . . Knowing and sharing gossip are ways for employees who lack power to gain informal influence among their peers.

American workplaces, especially, are more likely to be built around a top-down, command-and-control organizational and communications structure. When employers do not provide healthy avenues for exchange and feedback, informal conversations may be the only way to share important information. Sometimes there’s a fine line between gossip and useful intelligence gathering.

In addition, what some employers might label as gossip may actually be, under certain circumstances, forms of legally protected speech, such as sharing concerns about discrimination or sexual harassment, or engaging in discussions about working conditions. Employment discrimination laws, occupational safety and health laws, labor and collective bargaining laws, and assorted whistle blower provisions may be sources of protection for certain types of worker speech.

Gossip as a bullying or mobbing tactic

A graphic accompanying Shellenbarger’s article recommends that when a “rumor is false and threatening your reputation,” confronting the source(s) of the gossip is the appropriate response. On this point, I strongly urge caution and remind us that universal recommended responses may fail to account for critical nuances and can have bad consequences. On balance: Confronting a subordinate is less risky; confronting a peer (or peers) is somewhat riskier; and confronting a supervisor or superior is a very different situation and can be fraught with risk.

If gossip is for the purpose of maliciously trashing someone’s reputation and pushing them out of the workplace, then the situation may be part of a bullying or mobbing campaign. This is a far cry from casual or even reckless rumor mongering. We’re now talking about orchestrated, deliberate behaviors.

Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….

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Working Notes: 2 important new books on workplace bullying & mobbing

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As the calendar year comes to a close, two important new books have arrived to enlighten our understanding of, and shape our responses to, workplace bullying and mobbing.

Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing

Drs. Maureen Duffy (therapist and consultant) and Len Sperry (faculty, Florida Atlantic University and the Medical College of Wisconsin) have co-authored Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (Oxford University Press, 2013). Earlier this year, I was asked to provide an endorsement for the book. After spending a good chunk of time with the manuscript, I wrote up this statement, which appears on the back cover:

This is a very important and useful contribution to the literature on mobbing, bullying, and emotional abuse at work. Employee relations and mental health practitioners, mobbing targets and their families, scholars, and advocates alike will benefit from its command of the relevant research, on-the-ground understanding of the workplace, and practical application. I will be adding it with enthusiasm to my short list of recommended books on this topic.

I meant every word. And at a list price of $21.95 — very reasonable for a university press hardcover title — it is within the budgets of most who will gain from its insights. Kudos to Maureen and Len for writing this excellent book.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Adult Bullying

Over the past decade, Dr. Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik (North Dakota State University) has emerged as a leading scholar on workplace bullying and related topics, authoring and co-authoring a variety of peer-reviewed studies and commentaries through the lens of communications. Now, in Adult Bullying: A Nasty Piece of Work (ORCM Academic Press, 2013), she has gathered these works into a single volume. In addition to serving the needs of scholars in this field, Pam has written the book for those dealing with bullying-related “grievances, complaints, or concerns with upper-level management and HR professionals.”

Several of her co-authors will be very familiar to those steeped in the literature on workplace bullying, including Jess K. Alberts, Gary Namie, and Sarah J. Tracy. Other co-authors include Elizabeth Dickinson, Lisa Farwell, Courtney Vail Fletcher, Karen A. Foss, Jacqueline Hood, and Virginia McDermott.

This book also is priced very affordably, listing at $13.61 for the softcover edition and $9.99 for the Kindle edition. It’s a handy way to obtain the writings of a leading expert in the field.

Bullying of volunteers

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I’ve been asked twice in the past few days about bullying in the voluntary sector. This appears to be largely unexplored territory, deserving of greater attention. I searched “bullying of volunteers” and found only a smattering of relevant hits, and nothing in terms of a full-blown examination of the topic.

That said…

…I think we can make some credible assertions and raise important questions about the bullying of volunteers:

1. Why not? — There’s no reason why bullying-type behaviors should be uncommon among and between volunteers as compared to people in other settings with frequent human interaction. Most organizations have tensions, conflicts, and rivalries. Why should it be any different with those heavily staffed by volunteers?

2. Emotional stakes — In fact, in some cases the emotional stakes may be even greater among pure volunteers than among paid staff.

For example, in hyper-charged, cause-type situations, emotions can run especially high and play host to all sorts of negative behaviors, running the gamut from conflict to incivility to bullying. If the volunteers are working on behalf of a cause in which they have an important personal stake, the emotional ante is ratcheted up and buttons may be easily pushed, especially with “underdog” issues where people already feel marginalized.

Conversely, if the volunteer activity is associated with high levels of community prestige or power, there may be a lot of competition and posturing that create their own drama and give rise to the possibility of bullying behaviors. Ambition and recognition are not limited to paid employment, after all!

And even if social change or prestige isn’t at stake, community connections may well be. For many, volunteer activities such as coaching youth sports or organizing a church choir may be lifelines to their communities, and being cut out or pushed out of them may be painfully isolating.

3. Institutional status — The bullying of volunteers raises all sorts of institutional status questions. Are we talking about rank-and-file volunteers who are doing the on-the-ground grunt work? Or maybe this is about bullying within non-profit boards? Are there differences between all-volunteer groups and those that have a mix of staff and volunteers? And what if bullying behaviors cross certain groups within these organizations, involving staff, volunteers, and board members?

4. Behaviors — The bullying of volunteers also raises questions of specific behaviors: Do they lean toward direct or indirect? Do the emotional elements of some volunteer-driven causes plant the seeds for mobbing-type mistreatment? Given the increasing role of the Internet in linking volunteers, is online bullying more common than in, say, brick & mortar work settings?

Important stuff

We may not know a lot about bullying in the voluntary sector, but we should be taking the experiences of volunteers more seriously.

After all, the voluntary sector is significant, especially in the U.S. The unique, central role of civic organizations in the fabric of American life was recognized two centuries ago by Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic work, Democracy in America (1835 & 1840):

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

In other words, voluntary associations are a societal cornerstone, and a lot of folks devote time to them. Their experiences as volunteers not only impact them personally, but also have a ripple effect on our communities in general. It follows that we should understand the significance of when and how working relationships among volunteers become dysfunctional and even abusive.

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Dissertation, anyone?

In January, I wrote up a list of research ideas about workplace bullying and related topics for scholars and graduate students, drawn from past blog posts. I definitely would add bullying of volunteers to the list.

As I explained in that earlier blog post, I’m not a social science researcher. But I’d bet that many of the quantitative and qualitative research approaches used to study workplace bullying would apply easily to examining the bullying of volunteers.

Related posts

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

Related article

Labor attorney and law professor Mitchell Rubinstein’s 2006 law review article, “Our Nation’s Forgotten Workers: The Unprotected Volunteers,” explains the precarious legal status of volunteers in terms of workplace protections.

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying

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It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.

You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; (3) disproportionally come from privileged backgrounds; and (4) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured, competitive educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of analytical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence.

You then unleash them into the world of work. Uh oh.

Med schools

In a 2012 New York Times blog piece that attracted over 1,000 comments (link here), Dr. Pauline Chen wrote about a resident doctor who terrified the medical students with his explosive behavior:

Powerfully built and with the face of a boxer, he cast a bone-chilling shadow wherever he went in the hospital.

At least that is what my medical school classmates and I thought whenever we passed by a certain resident, or doctor-in-training, just a few years older than we were.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I now see that the young man was a brilliant and promising young doctor who took his patients’ conditions to heart but who also possessed a temper so explosive that medical students dreaded working with him. He had called various classmates “stupid” and “useless” and could erupt with little warning in the middle of hospital halls. Like frightened little mice, we endured the treatment as an inevitable part of medical training, fearful that doing otherwise could result in a career-destroying evaluation or grade.

Chen went on to discuss studies documenting high levels of abuse directed at medical students, as well as efforts that have been undertaken by some medical schools to change their educational environments — often with disappointing results.

In a 2019 Boston Globe feature (link here), Dr. Amitha Kalaichandran focused on the bullying of new doctors doing their residencies:

THERE’S NO QUESTION that bullying is endemic in medical education. One study revealed that about half of residents and fellows in the U.S. reported being bullied, most often by their attending physicians. Canadian researchers found that 78 percent of residents surveyed reported being bullied and harassed in their training, often by attendings or program directors.

. . . Search “bullying in residency” and you’ll get thousands of hits, from heart-wrenching blog posts to short opinion articles to forums on sites like Reddit or Quora where residents anonymously share their experiences and advise targets. There are tales of discriminatory remarks. There are performance reviews in which attending physicians detail fabricated incidents that the residents can’t refute.

Law schools

Lest I be accused of tossing bricks from my glass house, let me quickly acknowledge that law schools are no better at educating their students to be socially intelligent practitioners. Even in the face of pressures being exerted by accreditors and leaders of the Bar to do a better job of preparing students for actual practice, law schools overwhelmingly emphasize the study of judicial decisions, statutes, and regulations.

To the extent that lawyering skills become a part of the law school curriculum through simulation courses, clinical programs, and externships, much of the focus remains on advocacy as the most valuable interpersonal skill. Client counseling and everyday interpersonal communications are considered “soft” skills, and they typically do not get a lot of attention.

Consequently, a lot of lawyers who possess the intelligence to earn a law degree and pass a bar exam come up short on interpersonal skills. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the legal profession is home to a lot of workplace bullying. Too many lawyers are wired to act aggressively in any interpersonal situation, including dealing with colleagues and clients. Some cross the line and are downright abusive.

Survey results illustrate the breadth of the problem. A 2018 International Bar Association survey about bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession (link here) concluded:

The legal profession has a problem. In 2018, the International Bar Association (IBA) and market research company Acritas conducted the largest-ever global survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the profession. Nearly 7,000 individuals from 135 countries responded to the survey, from across the spectrum of legal workplaces: law firms, in-house, barristers’ chambers, government and the judiciary. The results provide empirical confirmation that bullying and sexual harassment are rife in the legal profession. Approximately one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied in connection with their employment.  

Start early

The cues for what constitutes appropriate behavior often are communicated initially in these professional schools. Doctors and lawyers in training may have no idea how to conduct themselves as practitioners. Some may have initially been influenced by a lot of unfortunate “role models” on television. Soon they are shaped by their real-life teachers and mentors. If we want to prevent workplace bullying, then the training schools for these professions are the first and perhaps best places to start. In terms of introducing future professionals to best practices and ideal ways of interacting with colleagues and those who need their services, this critical onboarding period can communicate what is expected of them.

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This post was revised in September 2019.

Hat tip to Dr. Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State U.) for the New York Times article.

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