Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Midlife correlates with an increased risk of being bullied at work, suggest the results of a Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll released earlier this month.

The instant poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Dr. Gary Namie explained the rationale for conducting the instant poll:

For the 16 years of WBI operations, we have noticed that telephone callers seeking help with their workplace bullying problems are rarely young. They tend to be veteran workers with long careers. For a variety of reasons documented by other WBI studies older workers make ideal vulnerable targets. An earlier WBI study found the average age to be 41.

Triple jeopardy: Bullied and job seeking

It telling that so much of WBI’s contact base and website traffic comes from older workers who have taken the time to research and learn about what is happening to them. The implications of the bullying/middle age correlation are significant and daunting.

We have long known that job loss is the most common result of unresolved workplace bullying situations. The target either “chooses” to leave in order to avoid further abuse or is pushed out as the final step of a long course of mistreatment.

In addition, in this era of the Great Recession, older workers who lose their jobs face significant challenges obtaining comparable employment. Statistical data and anecdotal accounts relating to unemployment at middle age refute any assertion of a genuine economic “recovery.”

It follows that middle-aged bullying targets who lose their jobs often face a triple whammy:

First, even after leaving their jobs, many must confront the mental and physical health impacts of being treated abusively.

Second, they re-enter a job market increasingly hostile to older workers, while carrying the baggage of that terrible experience.

Third, these challenges often have a significant impact on their personal finances, requiring them to draw heavily upon savings and retirement accounts to stay afloat.

A good number of faithful readers of this blog fall into this general description. Their accounts pepper the comments to many posts.

Although “middle aged” is a term that few in their 40s and 50s are eager to embrace, this phase of life typically is marked by high levels of personal and occupational achievement and productivity. The specter of workplace bullying during the ongoing economic crisis, however, tells a very different story.

***

You can read the full WBI instant poll report by Gary Namie here.

Related posts

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

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

Bullying of volunteers

Image courtesy of clipart panda.com

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.

***

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.

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic

gaslight

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated.  Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting,” defined in Wikipedia as:

a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.

Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment. Gaslighting appears on a recurring basis as a topic of discussion on social media among workplace bullying subject matter experts. It deserves some attention here.

Pop culture origins

Dr. Martha Stout, in her book The Sociopath Next Door (2005), describes the origins of the term:

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

Naturally, Bergman’s psychological descent is hastened when no one believes her claims.

The almost psychopath as gaslighting expert

I’ve been touting the work of Dr. Ronald Schouten, lead author of Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012). Ron talked about the almost psychopath at work during a New Workplace Institute program. Here’s how NWI legal intern Kim Webster summarized his remarks:

On average, one person in a hundred meets the clinical definition for psychopathy.  However, [Schouten]  suggested that maybe we should be more concerned about the 10 to 15 percent of the population that almost meets the definition.

Schouten noted that most disorders are defined by sets of standardized criteria. For psychopathy, a 20-item scale is commonly used, measuring traits such as glibness or superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulative behavior, lack of remorse or guilt, a shallow affect, and a lack of empathy.

The “almost psychopath” falls short of meeting the criteria for psychopathy, but nevertheless may exhibit many of the most disturbing traits and behaviors. In the workplace, a good number of almost psychopaths engage in bullying. They often escape detection and removal as they charm their superiors and exploit and abuse their peers and subordinates.

I submit that among almost psychopaths, you will find a bevy of gaslighting experts. In fact, the traits that characterize many an almost psychopath — especially superficial charm, pathological lying, manipulative behavior, and lack of empathy — serve up a great skill set for gaslighting practitioners.

Gaslighting at work: Workplace bullying

As Dr. Schouten has observed, almost psychopaths can function and be successful in everyday society. This means, of course, that a lot of almost psychopaths ply their trade in the workplace. And when they engage in bullying behaviors, woe to the targets, especially babes in the woods.

If you’ve ever experienced or witnessed gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic, then you know what I mean. Manipulative mind games, twisted harassment, and stalking behaviors are often accompanied by denials that anything is going on. The goals are to undermine a target’s confidence, keep the target off-balance, and instill fear and paranoia.

Gaslighting often is discussed in the context of spousal and family relationships. It makes sense, then, that we see so many parallels between domestic abuse and workplace bullying. Perhaps the leap from Ingrid Bergman & Charles Boyer to The Office isn’t much of one after all.

***

This post was revised in March 2017. In addition, I posted a more general piece, “Gaslighting at work,” the same month. The new piece digs a little deeper into gaslighting psychology and relates the behaviors to management practices and opposition to labor unions. 

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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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

This post was revised in August 2016.

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