Does the term “collateral damage” help us to understand how some organizations treat workplace bullying?

“Collateral damage,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is an “injury inflicted on something other than an intended target,” especially “civilian casualties of a military operation.” It’s also a term that helps us to rationalize the suffering of noncombatant civilians as the inevitable (and thus vaguely justifiable) costs of war.

Though most commonly used in a military context, the term resonates with my understanding of how some organizations regard the mistreatment of employees, especially bullying, harassment, and discrimination. No organization, explicitly or implicitly, considers bullying and abuse of workers as its main objective. (Okay, a few seem to come close…) Rather, in identifying organizational priorities, we’re more likely to hear about productivity, competition, innovation, and profit.

However, when bullying or other forms of mistreatment occur, bad organizations often regard the targets of such behaviors as collateral damage. Hey, bad stuff happens in the rough and tumble world of work, and occasionally some really bad stuff happens — that is, to others. Organizational leaders assume that everything is going well, except for this distracting problem.

In lousy workplaces, a target who complains about wrongful treatment — perhaps someone who previously was regarded as a solid or even outstanding performer — suddenly becomes the expendable other. This especially is so if the aggressor is a popular and/or powerful member of the management team.

Once the target is pushed out, the whole incident is treated as an unfortunate and regrettable annoyance. What a shame, it just didn’t work out because of a personality conflict. The main business of being productive, competitive, innovative, and profitable may now go on as if nothing had happened.

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Google it

Apparently many others associate collateral damage with workplace bullying. Do a Google search using the terms together, and you’ll see what I mean.

Related post

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory (2011)

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying

(Image courtesy of classroomclipart.com)

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.

Gary & Ruth Namie’s “The Bully-Free Workplace” hits the bookstores

Gary and Ruth Namie’s latest book, The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop the Jerks, Weasels & Snakes from killing your organization (2011), is now available in a print edition and on the Amazon Kindle.

The Bully-Free Workplace is a guidebook for employers who want to prevent and stop workplace bullying, drawing upon the Namies’ years of experience and accumulated expertise in consulting with private, public, and non-profit organizations throughout North America.

This is a brisk, information-packed, no-punches-pulled read, intended for organizations that take these behaviors seriously and recognize that effectively addressing bullying at work requires ongoing commitment and, at times, tough decisions.

In strongly recommending this book, I once again must disclose my bias: I have worked with Gary and Ruth on workplace bullying initiatives for over a decade. They are colleagues and dear friends, and I have “blurbed” the book on its back cover.

That said, my endorsement is grounded in the deep respect I have for their understanding and wisdom. At a list price of $16.99, it’s an inexpensive and wise investment for executives, managers, human resources directors, board chairs, and other organizational leaders who understand that bully-free workplaces are a win-win for employers and workers alike.

Go here to access the website for the book.

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector

Not always so rosy (Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

Not always so rosy (Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

It may be tempting to tag the big bad corporate world as the main locus of workplace bullying. But many who have toiled in the non-profit sector will tell you that work life in the land of crunchy granola and dreamy mission statements is not a picnic.

During the 15-plus years that I have been involved in the anti-bullying movement, I’ve heard dozens of accounts of employee abuse in the non-profit sector — including some of the worst situations imaginable. I don’t know if bullying is more frequent in non-profit organizations than in private companies or government offices, but it would be a huge mistake to ignore its prevalence and severity in the do-gooder realm.

After all, workplace bullying transcends social and political beliefs. You’ll find workplace aggressors of all different political stripes, income levels, and faith traditions. There’s no reason why the non-profit sector should be immune from them.

But why?

The non-profit sector is all about helping people, making a difference, and righting wrongs, correct? So how can such devastating behavior be commonplace in the philanthropic world? Here are some possible circumstances that plant the seeds, in no particular order:

First, non-profits often are hierarchical, top-down organizations, with scant managerial accountability. Such organizations may, rightly or wrongly, feel like they’re too busy to bother with adopting and practicing effective feedback mechanisms on their leadership.

Second, some do-gooders believe that the nobility of a mission justifies overlooking the building of positive employee relations, especially when time and resources are in short supply. It’s all about the cause, and we’re all in this together, right?

Third, non-profit boards may exercise very little oversight or care when it comes to how workers are treated. Impressions of employee productivity and morale are often filtered mainly through the executive director (or equivalent senior administrator).

Fourth, the non-profit sector is as susceptible as any other to falling for glib, quick-witted, charismatic types who are great at working the room during an interview. Some of these folks talk a great game but turn out to be all about themselves. The worst of them demonstrate deeply narcissistic behaviors and don’t hesitate to bully, exclude, and/or marginalize those in their way.

Fifth, non-profit managers are not always selected because of their leadership ability. More than a few are great at advocating for folks in need, a safe environment, or all the shelter cats and dogs whose pictures adorn Facebook, while being lousy at leading and working with others on an individual level.

Finally, non-profits often are expected to do more with less. Bullying can erupt when managers and co-workers feel the squeeze.

Part of a bigger picture

In a great 2007 piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Guess Who’s Socially Irresponsible?,” fundraising consultant Mal Warwick noted that “philanthropy — the love of humankind — is missing from the practices of many nonprofits.” He especially criticized those organizations that deny their workers living wages and use “strictly hierarchical, command-and-control” management techniques.

Warwick didn’t talk specifically about workplace bullying in his article, but it would’ve made for a perfect addition. After all, his message was that non-profits must “come to understand that philanthropy begins at home.” Treating workers with dignity is a pretty good start.

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This post was revised in August 2016.

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Is emotional detachment an antidote for a nasty workplace?

(image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

(image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

Organizational psychologist Robert Sutton advises on his blog “Work Matters” (hosted by Psychology Today) that “for people who are trapped in nasty workplaces, and can’t escape at least for now,” one useful coping mechanism “is to learn the fine art of emotional detachment — so the poision (sic) around you does not ruin or infect your soul.”  Sutton, who draws on his popular book The No Asshole Rule (2007), further explains:

Passion is . . . wonderful if your organization and your colleagues care about you.  BUT it is [a] recipe for self-destruction if you are trapped in a job with a demeaning boss, or worse yet, knee-deep in [a] workplace where asshole poisoning runs rampant.  If you face constant abuse, then (until you can get out) going through the motions and “not letting it touch your soul” is one tactic that can help you survive with your self-esteem intact.

Exit vs. Voice?

Sutton’s commentary bears some connection to insights from Albert O. Hirschman’s classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970). Here’s my very oversimplified nutshell: Hirschman suggested that when an organization’s actions trigger objections from one of its members (such as an employee or customer), the individual may choose to either exit (i.e., some type of withdrawal) or voice concern (via a complaint or grievance). The choice of response may be influenced by the degree of loyalty that individual feels toward the organization, with the latter indicating anticipation of an active, continuing relationship.

As Sutton and Hirschman might concur, the exit option in a work situation can include emotional detachment or withdrawal.  For example, organizations rife with workplace bullying can experience reduced employee loyalty and productivity, in addition to the predictable effect of higher attrition.  Obviously this means that more workers have “checked out” in the face of an abusive work environment.

Presenteeism

Emotional detachment may be related to the concept of presenteeism, which EHS Today defines as “the phenomenon where employees show up for work but don’t perform at full capacity.” Although presenteeism is often discussed in the context of employees showing up for work sick due to lack of paid sick leave, it also relates to how bad workplace conditions negatively influence engagement and productivity.

There’s a big difference between giving a job a fuller effort vs. doing enough to escape criticism. Emotional detachment nudges even the best of workers toward the latter.

When jobs are scarce

Emotional detachment may be a more prevalent choice during a difficult economy when employment options are more limited.  It galls me when those who oppose workplace bullying legislation base their objection in part on the assumption that a target of abuse has the easy option of picking up and going to another job.  There are myriad reasons, some quite rational, why someone might remain in a less-than-wonderful employment setting.  At a time when the job market is tight, keeping a roof over one’s head and food on the table might be among them.

But still…

Emotional detachment does not come without its costs, as anyone who understands workplace bullying can comprehend. After all, indifferent slackers aren’t the ones typically targeted by abusive bosses or co-workers.  Oftentimes it’s the high achiever, or at least someone who is engaged in her work, who is marked for mistreatment. Telling this person to turn off the passion for her work is indeed an instruction to numb her soul, even if for the purpose of avoiding deeper injury.

In sum, emotional detachment may be an effective coping mechanism for a hostile work setting, but for many it is a sad response to a bad situation, nothing more.

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This post was revised in July 2016.

Workplace bullying in healthcare III: A sampling of legal cases

Here are three court decisions that illustrate how healthcare workers have attempted to use tort (personal injury) law against doctors for bullying behaviors, with varying success.

A bit of background: Although targets of workplace bullying currently do not enjoy abundant legal protections against this form of mistreatment, some have filed tort claims in an effort to gain redress.  As I have explained at length in two law review articles (“The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” and “Crafting a Legislative Response to Workplace Bullying,” both available in the Free Articles section of this blog), employees face an uphill battle using this legal route.  But some do prevail.

RAESS v. DOESCHER, Indiana Supreme Court (2008)

In the 2008 case of Raess v. Doescher, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a jury award of $325,000 for assault to a perfusionist (operator of “a heart-lung machine during open heart surgeries”) who brought an action against a surgeon for an altercation at a hospital.   The claim was based on the following factual allegations:

(T)he defendant, angry at the plaintiff about reports to the hospital administration about the defendant’s treatment of other perfusionists, aggressively and rapidly advanced on the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him.  The plaintiff backed up against a wall and puts his hands up, believing that the defendant was going to hit him…. Then the defendant suddenly stopped, turned, and stormed past the plaintiff and left the room, momentarily stopping to declare to the plaintiff, “you’re finished, you’re history.”

The Court’s decision was based largely on procedural and evidentiary issues.  It rejected a challenge to expert testimony about workplace bullying rendered by Dr. Gary Namie for the plaintiff, finding there was nothing in the record to suggest that Namie’s testimony was inadmissible, and ultimately holding that the issue was not properly preserved for appellate review.   It also held that the trial court “did not abuse its discretion in refusing” the defendant’s tendered jury instruction concerning workplace bullying.

The legal impact of Raess v. Doescher with regard to workplace bullying is modest because of the limited scope of the Indiana Supreme Court’s holdings.  It created no new legal claim, and did not expand substantive tort law in a way that might pave the way for future plaintiffs.  However, the decision has received national attention because the media characterized it as a successful workplace bullying claim.   It has been cited as evidence of a growing liability risk that counsels employers to take workplace bullying more seriously.

HOLLOMON v. KEADLE, Arkansas Supreme Court (1996)

Most bullying-type lawsuits that allege the a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress are not successful, with courts holding that the offending behavior was not sufficiently outrageous.  Perhaps the most stunning example of this reasoning came in Hollomon v. Keadle, a 1996 Arkansas Supreme Court case that involved a female employee, Hollomon, who worked for a male physician, Keadle, for two years before she voluntarily left the job.

Hollomon claimed that during this period of employment, “Keadle repeatedly cursed her and referred to her with offensive terms, such as ‘white nigger,’ ‘slut,’ ‘whore,’ and ‘the ignorance of Glenwood, Arkansas’.” Keadle repeatedly used profanity in front of his employees and patients, and he frequently remarked that women working outside the home were “whores and prostitutes.”

According to Hollomon, Keadle “told her that he had connections with the mob” and mentioned “that he carried a gun,” allegedly to “intimidate her and to suggest that he would have her killed if she quit or caused trouble.” Hollomon claimed that as a result of this conduct, she suffered from “stomach problems, oss of sleep, loss of self-esteem, anxiety attacks, and embarrassment.”

On these allegations, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled for the defendant Keadle, holding that Hollomon’s failure to establish that Keadle was made aware of her peculiar vulnerability to emotional distress was fatal to her claim.

SNYDER v. TURK, Ohio Court of Appeals (1993)

The defendant, Turk, was a surgeon performing a gall-bladder operation.  According to Turk, a nurse, plaintiff Snyder, was making mistakes and complicating an already difficult procedure.  Turk became so exasperated that when Snyder handed him the supposedly wrong instrument, he grabbed her shoulder, pulled her face down toward the surgical opening, say “Can’t you see where I’m working?  I’m working in a hole.  I need long instruments.”

At trial, after the plaintiff presented her evidence, the judge directed a verdict for Turk, holding that Snyder, among other things, (1) had not established the elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (2) had not established the elements of battery (offensive or harmful touching).

The Ohio Court of Appeals agreed that the emotional distress claim was not warranted, it reinstated the battery claims finding that a jury could have found the physical contact to be offensive.

THE ROLE OF WORKERS’ COMPENSATION

It is notable that all three of these claims were brought against individual doctors, not the hospitals or clinics where they worked.  It is quite possible this was the case because in many states, workers’ compensation precludes workers from bringing individual lawsuits against their employers for intentional harm at work.  Workers’ compensation is designed to largely replace personal injury lawsuits as a means of compensating employees for injuries suffered on the job.

However, workers’ compensation may not necessarily insulate individual co-employees from being sued.  Doctors should take note, as those who bully and have “deep pockets” (i.e., money to pay damages in a lawsuit) could find themselves personally liable for their own behaviors.

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Link to the first in this series of posts on bullying in health care, discussing the Joint Commission standards

Link to the second post in the series, discussing the Vanderbilt University Medical Center remedial program for physicians

Link to the fourth and final post in the series, discussing bullying of nurses and how nurses’ unions can respond

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