Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

So here’s my question for today: When you think about accountability for workplace bullying and mobbing, do you think more about individual aggressors or about the organizations that hire and keep them on the payroll?

Of course, the pat response — in fact, the right one, I’d argue — is both. But I’d submit that the calculus is not uniform, and that the perch from where we sit may determine our personal answers. Here are a few of my observations on this question:

  • Bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically targeted and personalized. Sometimes the motivations for the abuse are transparent. But often they are not. Furthermore, they may not be rational, in that the underlying reason(s) for the abuse can be explained in a way that easily makes sense. Figuring out motivations sometimes can be a challenge for a targeted worker, adding to the confusion and bewilderment of the experience and sharpening the focus on specific aggressor(s).
  • Nevertheless, as intensely interpersonal as these behaviors may become, they usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference. This applies specially to mobbing, which requires multiple players, often aided by institutional mechanisms.
  • For an individual targeted by bullying or mobbing, the natural focus is on the closest abusers and tormenters. However, the target often recognizes the organizational dynamic when reaching out for help and finding that little or no genuine assistance is available.
  • If we want to prevent and stop bullying and mobbing at work, the first view should be organizational and systems-based, looking especially at top leadership and workplace culture. Bullying and mobbing rarely thrive at organizations committed to treating their employees with a baseline of dignity and to hiring workers who share that commitment.

For those interested in the legal side, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve authored recognizes both organizational and individual responsibility for creating abusive work environments. Under my template version of the legislation, those who have been subjected to severe workplace bullying may pursue claims against both their employer and the individual tormenters. Furthermore, in recognition of the overall role played by employers, the legislation includes liability-reducing incentives for employers that act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

Ageism in the American workplace (and its continuing relevance to workplace bullying)

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Rita Pyrillis, writing for Workforce, details the ongoing realities of age discrimination as America’s proportion of older workers continues to rise:

The number of older workers is on the rise. As their ranks grow they will play an important role in the U.S. economy, according to the National Council on Aging. By 2019, more than 40 percent of Americans over 55 will be employed, making up more than one-fourth of the U.S. workforce, according to the not-for-profit advocacy group. In 2014, older workers made up 22 percent of the workforce, according to the council.

Today’s mature workers are generally healthier and more active than their predecessors and offer a wealth of experience and knowledge, yet they are far more likely to experience age-related job discrimination than their younger counterparts, according to a 2013 study by the AARP. In fact, age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased dramatically in recent years. Between 1997 and 2007, 16,000 to 19,000 annual complaints were filed, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 filings per year since 2008, according to the EEOC.

Concerns about age discrimination continue to dovetail with this blog’s focus on workplace bullying. Workers who are bullied in middle age and beyond often face difficult odds in securing new jobs after leaving or being pushed out of bad work situations. Along with the common challenges that often confront older workers seeking new jobs, when workplace bullying enters the picture, targeted individuals may experience depression, psychological trauma, and a loss of trust and confidence — among other things.

Last month, I highlighted a Next Avenue blog post and forthcoming book by Elizabeth White about the challenges facing older workers who have lost their jobs. I’ve now had a chance to spend some time with Ms. White’s new book, Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal (2016), and I’m happy to recommend it. Although not specifically about workplace bullying, it will be especially helpful to those 50 and older who are trying to get their practical and emotional bearings in a job market inhospitable to mature workers. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s online description:

You’re in your fifties and sixties and have saved nothing or not nearly enough to retire. . . . Are there actions you can take (or not take) to have a shot at a decent retirement?

Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal culls wisdom from boomers navigating the path ahead. It invites you to join with others to look beyond your immediate surroundings and circumstances to what is possible in the new normal of financial insecurity. . . . 

Containing over 100 online resources, Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal is the book to read to help you navigate the emotional aspects of where you’ve landed. It is where to turn when you want to know what steps you can take to steady yourself enough to go another round.

Also, for more about linkages between ageism and workplace bullying, these earlier posts may be of interest:

Unemployed at midlife, “faking normal”…and sometimes bullied, too (2015)

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife (2013)

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

A talk on advancing dignity in our workplaces

For those of you who would like to contemplate the big picture of why we need to inject the value of human dignity into our workplaces, you’re invited to watch this 40-minute talk that I gave at the 2014 annual workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City. It was part of a public program on “Work That Dignifies the Lives of All People,” [Note: You may have to “rewind” the YouTube video to the beginning, as some for some weird reason, the talk sometimes starts at around the 10 minute mark!]

The talk gave me a chance to discuss many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I then tied them together under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

Next I asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

This morning I was poking around the HumanDHS website and to my surprise found the video! I hadn’t posted it before, but I’m pleased to share it with you now. Introducing me is HumanDHS director Linda Hartling. As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished participating in this year’s HumanDHS workshop, and it once again was a tremendously rewarding experience.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies 2016 annual workshop: Building a community of caring

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I just finished participating in the annual two-day workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to the advancement of human dignity and to the ending of humiliating practices. Every December we gather at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, immersing ourselves in highly interactive discussions and exchanges, amidst a genuine spirit of fellowship.

This card is one of the little gifts distributed at the workshop. “The Five Good Things” come from the late Jean Baker Miller, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of relational psychology, not to mention a key mentor to HumanDHS director Linda Hartling.

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“The Five Good Things” were at play throughout this workshop. It was a supportive, enlightening, and even loving gathering at a time when a lot of folks in our group (including yours truly) really needed it. (Summaries of this annual workshop have become a staple on this blog for good reason!)

I have been involved with HumanDHS since 2007, and in recent years my connections to it and the remarkable people who are part of it have grown deeply. In addition to joining the board of directors, I have been increasingly involved in the New York City workshop. This year I presented a short paper on the importance of understanding psychological trauma and moderated two of the dialogue sessions. I also led our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong and an apt song for our event.

Group photo after our board meeting

Group photo after our board meeting

Being part of this extended global community is both a privilege and a blessing. Such a community is not, and should not be, our sole point of connection with the world. In fact, at the workshop we recognized the importance of sharing dignity-enhancing practices with those who are initially resistant to them. Nevertheless, at a time when raw exercises of interpersonal aggression and bigotry are too often rewarded by the dominant power structure, the need for people holding a different set of core values to come together in order to refuel and reenergize is significant.

I’ll be writing more about this year’s workshop and posting some photos from it, but for now I simply wanted to do this quick mention and express my gratitude to those who made it such a meaningful experience.

Workplace bullying and the experience of humiliation

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Humiliation is a word that can make us squirm uncomfortably. It is one of the least desirable of human emotions. Over the years, many people who have experienced severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse have invoked the term to describe their experiences, especially when the mistreatment has played out publicly, ripped apart relationships, ended a career, or undermined an ability to earn a livelihood. In such cases, coping with and healing from humiliation are key parts of the road to recovery.

For those seeking insights on the mental health implications of humiliation, Drs. Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network have authored an important article, “Healing Humiliation: From Reaction to Creative Action,” published in the Journal of Counseling & Development. Recognizing the “confluence of global crises that threaten, inflict, and intensify feelings of humiliation in the lives of countless numbers of individuals, families, and communities at home and around the world,” they take this approach to their topic:

We will briefly explore the history of humiliation research and explain how this experience is moving to the forefront of concern. We will apply a relational perspective to examine how degrading and derisive interactions inflict traumatic stress and social pain. Finally, we will offer a case example to illustrate specific ways counselors can help victims of humiliation heal, leading them out of destructive reactions into creative action.

I have known Linda and Evelin for many years, and I cannot praise too fulsomely their pioneering work on humiliation and human dignity. This article is among their latest difference-making contributions. 

Publishing in a journal for counselors, their focus blends the social change framework with the need for skilled and sensitive clinical intervention. Here is part of their conclusion:

The study of humiliation is in its early stages. As the research develops, counselors need to apply their most sophisticated relational skills to read and repair the complex intrapersonal and interpersonal damage that can lead victims of humiliation to react with aggression or despair. . . . Victims of derision, degradation, and debasement need a safe relational space to begin the journey of transforming the pain of humiliation into constructive and creative action. By providing this healing space, counselors may find they are not only saving the life of a client but also healing society.

This piece is worth sharing with any counselor or therapist who might benefit from such wise and humane insights. It also may be a helpful read for those who are experiencing humiliation in connection with interpersonal abuse at work or in other contexts.

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Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner are Director and Founding President, respectively, of the HumanDHS network. Last year it was my pleasure to join the HumanDHS board of directors. We will be holding our 2016 Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict in New York City on December 8-9, including a free public event on the evening of the 8th.

Renewing a commitment to bullying-free workplaces

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

(Drawing by Aaron Maeda, copyright 2016)

Here in America, it should come as no surprise that in survey data released by the American Psychological Association earlier this fall, “52 percent of American adults report[ed] that the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress,” with the figures cutting fairly evenly across political lines. Many of these stressors and anxieties have continued in terms of the post-election aftermath and the evolving transition in Washington D.C.

Under such distracting (and, for some of us, distressing) circumstances, it can be hard to turn our attention back to the tasks at hand, which for many readers of this blog include preventing, stopping, and responding to bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. But that we must. As I see it, our basic agenda as we head into 2017 holds steady:

  • Engaging in public education about abusive work behaviors;
  • Educating and persuading employers and other employee relations stakeholders about the destructive effects of abusive work environments and the importance of effective prevention and response;
  • Expanding the pool of mental health providers who are competent and knowledgeable to assist targets of bullying and mobbing at work; and,
  • Enacting legal protections such as the Healthy Workplace Bill to provide targets with a legal claim for damages and to incentivize employers to take these behaviors seriously, as well as building a stronger safety net of public and private employee benefits to help those transitioning out of toxic workplaces.

And so the work goes on, fueled by a continuing recognition that building workplaces that value and practice dignity will benefit us all.

What does it mean to be “onto something”?

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

Say I’m at a conference, workshop, or seminar, and someone offers insights or ideas that appear to open a new door to understanding and solving challenges big or small. My usual thought bubble is, hey, you’re onto something here! And if I get a chance to share feedback during the session, that’s the gist of what I’ll say.

What does it mean to be “onto something”? Well, if you search “onto something meaning,” you’ll get several similar explanations of the term. I like this one from Oxford Living DictionariesHave an idea or information that is likely to lead to an important discovery. 

Most of the discoveries in my realm tend to be solution-based approaches to challenges facing law & public policy, workers and workplaces, and so forth. Events such as periodic workshops on workplace bullying and on therapeutic jurisprudence, the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference, the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, and the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop are among those that frequently prompt my “you’re onto something” responses.

For change agents in any field, and those who want to be, what does this mean? As I suggested in the close of my recent law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), it means finding “a place where one’s networks, circles, and tribes feel right in terms of shared or compatible goals, and where one’s activities and values are largely congruent.”

As I further acknowledged, it took me until my fifties to find that place. So if you want to be a difference maker, but you haven’t found your niche yet, try to be patient and remain open to messages and opportunities. Sooner or later, you’ll be onto something.

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