Is closure possible for targets of workplace bullying and injustice?


Does “closure,” a favorite term in pop psychology (and one I have used), really exist?

Drake University sociology professor Nancy Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us (2011), questions the very concept of closure as an accepted fact. In a Q&A with the Boston Globe (link here), she states:

The idea of closure [is seen] as a new emotional state for explaining what we need and how we’re supposed to respond to trauma and loss. But closure is a rhetorical concept, a made-up term . . . .Closure is not something that we can simply find or something we need. It’s a frame used to explain how we should respond to loss.

She is especially concerned when people impose the idea of closure upon others who are grappling with grief or trauma:

…(I)f the concept of closure helps them in sharing or thinking about their own story, that’s fine, that might help them. But a concern is that they try and turn around and tell other people “you need closure,” or when people assume that everyone understands closure the same way they do and that everyone experiences it the same way.

Application to abusive work situations

Dr. Berns is coming at the topic largely from the perspective of dealing with personal grief. Nevertheless, her words may resonate with those who are processing the experiences of bullying and other serious injustices at work.

Targets of workplace bullying or mobbing often hear some variation on the phrase you really need to get over this. I suppose there’s some truth in this. No decent human being wants to see another stuck in a place of stress, fear, anger, and trauma. But prodding someone with those words, however well meaning, is rarely helpful — especially absent more concretely useful assistance. After all, the more we learn about trauma, depression, and other conditions that can be prompted or exacerbated by severe work abuse, the more we know that “getting over it” can be a very challenging process.

True, some bullying targets manage to achieve a sense of closure relatively quickly. I’ve seen this happen when there has been a fair and decisive organizational response, or when the individual has managed to move on to a better situation.

For others — many others, I believe — “getting over it” comes in stages, often with emotional relapses. When the relapses become less frequent and less intense, we see progress. Rarely does one reach a point where they declare from some virtual mountain top, “I have achieved closure. I am over it.” Rather, it’s a quieter realization that they have been able to move on.

Some may continue to struggle. This is most likely when the acute conditions — such as ongoing mistreatment or a bad career setback — have not been sufficiently addressed, or when someone is otherwise consumed by their situation. For these folks, progress definitely remains possible, but they may be in a difficult place for the time being.


This post was revised in June 2016.

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory

Last week I referenced the Orwellian concept of unpersons, those (in the words of Wikipedia) “whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, practiced by modern repressive governments.” Though Orwell saw the making of unpersons through the lens of totalitarian governments, many of us can comprehend how the practice applies equally to private and non-profit organizations.

In fact, it was an online exchange with a friend regarding the creation of unpersons in the non-profit sector that led us to consider the role of institutional memory, defined as (and thanks again to Wikipedia for this):

a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations and by extension in entire cultures.

The two ideas are closely related. Bad organizations choose to “forget” less flattering events of their institutional history, especially those that conflict with their self-generated mythologies. Sometimes that process requires them to create new unpersons out of individuals associated with those events.

Those who try to remind organizations of these transgressions are criticized for talking about “the past,” even if the events in question occurred very recently. If they bring up that past too frequently, they risk being turned out and rendered unpersons themselves.

Rinse and repeat

Of course, any discussion of institutional memory should recall the Santayana chestnut that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Bad organizations often fail to heed that advice. In fact, when less-than-wonderful events do repeat, the purging of institutional memory often guarantees that no one will remember the original disaster.

Easy as 1-2-3

Today, with websites often serving as the public face of an organization, the creation of unpersons and the emptying of institutional memory is as easy as editing a web page. Entire biographies and histories can be deleted in a few keystrokes. One day, all links lead to your page; the next, you don’t even exist (at least virtually)!

From abstract to concrete

Okay, this discussion has been rather abstract. But I’m guessing that many readers familiar with workplace bullying, sexual harassment, whistleblowing retaliation, and other forms of mistreatment can identify readily with the ideas here. Hopefully I’ve provided a modest backdrop for understanding the accompanying institutional responses.

Keys to happiness at work?

In 2009, Australian psychologist Timothy Sharp conducted an informal survey that asked a simple question, What do you consider to be the top three keys to happiness at work? The responses he received “were remarkably consistent.”

His study led to a short piece for Greater Good magazine, in which he shares “five key steps to workplace happiness” (link here):

“One: Provide leadership and values”

“Two: Communicate clearly and effectively”

“Three: Give thanks”

“Four: Focus on strengths”

“Five: Have fun”

Is that all there is to it?

This list is a good start — and the full article supplies more of the deeper meaning for each item — but I think there’s more. Sharp casts his lot with the school of positive psychology. In fact, according to the article he is known in Australia as “Dr. Happy.” As such, I think his general orientation may gloss over the darker sides of work and how organizations handle issues that implicate fairness, inclusion, and ethics.

Organizational justice is a term used to capture employee perceptions of fair treatment. A difficult situation at work can be a test of organizational justice. Workers who believe their employer acts with fairness and integrity are more likely to be satisfied and loyal and to feel safe, and those who do not are prone to think the opposite.

Signs of growing worker discontent

In any event, employers are advised to take worker happiness and satisfaction seriously, for it appears that pent up worker frustrations are emerging. Tim Gould, in a piece for HR Morning (link here), reports that “(m)ore than eight in 10 (84%) of the employees polled said they plan to look for a new job in 2011, according to staffing consultant Right Management.” The reasons include:

  • the prolonged recession and layoffs
  • increased workloads, small or no raises
  • companies’ reticence to add staff, even as business conditions have improved, and
  • a lack of trust in company leaders.
Hat tip to the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program for the HR Morning article.


Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy?

Is your workplace a beacon of psychological health, or do employees experience the Sunday night dreads over the coming week? Is there a sense that it is run with integrity and transparency, or are folks waiting for (maybe hoping for) some investigation or even indictment?

I periodically post questions that help us determine the psychological well-being and ethical culture of a given workplace, often drawing upon experts in employment relations, organizational behavior, and psychology. I’ve collected some of them here, with links to the original posts.  Read ’em and cheer…or weep:

1.  The New Workplace Institute’s “Eightfold Path” toward a psychologically healthy workplace:

  1. Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?
  2. Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?
  3. Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?
  4. Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?
  5. Are diversities of all types welcomed and accepted?
  6. Does the organization face tough questions concerning employee relations?
  7. Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?
  8. Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

2.  From the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, how does your workplace stack up based on these criteria?

Every year, the APA recognizes North American employers who excel in these five categories:

  • “Employee involvement”
  • “Work-life balance”
  • “Employee growth & development”
  • “Health & safety”
  • “Employee recognition”

3.  From psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, what kind of workplace culture do you have?

Hartling and Sparks note that a healthy “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

By contrast, they identify three types of “non-relational” cultures that hurt morale and productivity:

(1) “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
(2) “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
(3) brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.

4.  From Chief People Officer Kevin Kennemer, questions about willingness to mistreat employees:

  • Does your company employ leaders and/or employees who lack that strong inner conscience to resist  shocking behavior?
  • Do you think your coworkers are capable of inhumane treatment?
  • Do psychologically abused employees find themselves stranded and secluded from their coworkers?
  • What do you do if you see an employee being psychologically abused by a supervisor?

5.  From business ethics & law professor Marianne Jennings, does your workplace exhibit any of the “seven signs of ethical collapse”?

  • Pressure to maintain numbers
  • Fear and silence
  • Larger than life CEO
  • Weak board of directors
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Innovation trumping any other priority, such as ethics
  • Belief that goodness in some areas atones for wrongdoing in others

6.  From writer and organizational consultant Art Kleiner, who are the core groups in your workplace?

If you want to understand how an organization includes or excludes, identifying the core group is a vital first step.  Examine the core group members in terms of demographics.  Look at the inclusionary or exclusionary practices of those within the core group.  You’ll get a lot of answers about the culture of a particular workplace or institution, along with some insights about what is required to achieve positive change.

Riggio on the cardinal virtues and sins of leaders

I’m a fan of Ronald Riggio’s Cutting-Edge Leadership blog at Psychology Today, and here are two posts on the virtues and sins of leaders worth highlighting:


In a 2009 post he identified the four virtues of a true leader:

  • courage
  • prudence
  • temperance
  • justice


Last month he discussed the four cardinal sins of bad leaders:

  • lying
  • bullying
  • cronyism
  • neglect

I’m pleased to see that Ron recognizes the harm wrought by workplace bullying to the point where he includes it on his list.  It’s another sign of how bullying is entering the mainstream of our employment relations dialogue.

Read more

The lists are not exactly symmetrical, but taken together they make imminent sense.  Ron has a lot more to say than my bullet point summary provides, so I’d suggest taking a closer look if you have a few minutes.

The University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings and the academic workplace

I usually hesitate to use this blog to provide instantaneous analyses of developing news stories, but already it is clear that Friday’s terrible shootings at the University of Alabama-Huntsville will carry broader implications for academic workplaces.

Three professors were killed, and two other professors and one staff member were injured during an incident that took place at a faculty meeting.  In custody is Amy Bishop, an assistant professor in UAH’s biology department.

Earlier that day, Bishop learned she had lost an appeal of her tenure denial.  As soon as that piece of information was reported, the story behind this tragedy started to sharpen quickly.

The Tenure Track

For academicians, the tenure track is a multi-year gauntlet.  You have roughly 5 or 6 years to assemble a record of teaching, scholarship, and service that meets your institution’s tenure standards.  The stakes are huge: Earning tenure is the equivalent of a permanent contract of employment.  A tenure denial means you’re obliged to leave.

News reports indicate that Amy Bishop was angry over her tenure denial and blamed certain colleagues for her demise.  It appears that once she learned the denial had been upheld, she went to her department’s faculty meeting, armed with a gun.

Should we have seen this coming?

In recent years, several well-publicized acts of violence by unstable students have caused colleges and universities to beef up their emergency response protocols and to take student mental health issues more seriously.

But frankly, there has been very, very little attention devoted to faculty mental health, much less the risks of personal violence committed by fellow faculty members.  In fact, I fear that the increasingly bizarre details surrounding Bishop’s life history (how she killed her brother in 1986, perhaps accidentally; being a suspect in a mail bomb investigation in 1993) will allow us to dodge these matters, instead of using this as a wake-up call.

However, if we do want to reverse our inattention, here are some considerations that might inform our deliberations:

Professorial profiles

Obviously college and university faculty span the range of personality types, but as in many vocations, certain characteristics tend to predominate.

More often than not, professors are deeply drawn to their work and bring to their academic appointments a track record of high achievement as students.  They are invested in the value system of academe and take its judgments seriously.  Their social skills vary greatly.  Some may be the life of the party, but more frequently, terms such as “intense,” “eclectic” and “quirky” apply.

For those who have spent virtually their entire post-adolescent and adult lives in the groves of academe, decisions on promotions, perks, and obviously tenure can take on a monstrously elevated importance, above and beyond how even the most serious folks in other professions and vocations might regard their work.


News accounts of the tragedy are making much of the fact that Amy Bishop earned her Ph.D. in genetics at Harvard.  From the standpoint of drawing in readers and viewers, it’s an attractive hook: The brilliant Harvard-trained geneticist heads down to Alabama-Huntsville, is denied tenure, and goes ballistic.

But tucked beneath the headlines is a more serious dynamic that may well apply here, and that is the burden of expectations and pressures fueled by being a graduate of an elite university.  At this juncture we can only speculate on how Amy Bishop’s perceptions of her worthiness and her sense of injustice caused her to snap, but I would bet that her own private Harvard-to-Alabama narrative played a role.

Organizational justice

From this distance, it would be wholly unfair to pass judgment on UAH’s overall treatment of Bishop or its tenure decision.  However, in attempting to understand the forces at play, we must understand that considerations of organizational justice — i.e., the actual and perceived fairness and integrity of organizational decision-making in terms of both substance and process — loom large in the culture of academe.

This certainly is the case at the vital threshold stage of tenure.  Decisions over who is invited to become a permanent member of a faculty go to the core of academic life.  Indeed, it is my belief that once a school’s tenure process is perceived to have lost its base integrity, everything else is up for grabs.

UAH and Beyond

At UAH, no doubt there will be considerable looking back to determine how this tragedy unfolded, whether it could’ve been avoided, and how to prevent future ones.

More broadly, let us hope this will prompt other academic institutions to examine their policies and practices with an eye toward fairness and transparency, and to be more attuned to the psychological health and well-being of their employees, both for their own sake and the safety of others.  Sadly, it often takes these headline-making tragedies to get us to do what we should’ve been doing all along.

[Note: As details about this tragedy have become available, I have made minor edits to this entry since originally posting it.  However, my basic points about the broader implications remain intact.]


In the aftermath of the UAB shootings, this post was quoted  in news articles and served as the catalyst for interviews about higher education, the tenure process, and mental health:

Chronicle of Higher Education roundup of commentary on UAH shootings

Chronicle article by Jennifer Ruark about mental health issues in academe

Boston Globe article by Tracy Jan about the personal impact of tenure processes 


[June 2010 update — Amy Bishop has been charged with the 1986 shooting death of her brother.]

[March 2011 update — From the Boston Globe: “An Alabama grand jury has formally indicted Amy Bishop on capital murder and attempted murder charges stemming from the February 2010 University of Alabama Huntsville shootings.”]

[September 2012 update — From the New York Times and Associated Press: “A former biology professor pleaded guilty on Tuesday to fatally shooting three colleagues and wounding three others during a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2010, court officials said. The former professor, Amy Bishop, 47, pleaded guilty to one count of capital murder involving two or more people and three counts of attempted murder. Earlier she had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.”]

Employee dignity as crime prevention strategy

When it comes to sticky fingers at work, we’ve heard plenty about Bernie Madoff and the folks at Enron, but we shouldn’t ignore what happens when rank-and-file workers start walking off with the store, perhaps a little too literally.

Employee theft: Worse than shoplifting?

New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse recently shed some light on the problem of employee theft:

At the Saks flagship store in Manhattan, a 23-year-old sales clerk was caught recently ringing up $130,000 in false merchandise returns and siphoning the money onto a gift card.

. . . Employee fraud involving gift cards appears to be growing sharply as retailers struggle to contain overall theft, now estimated at $36 billion a year in the industry, or 1.51 percent of retail sales, according to a leading national study.

Indeed, internal theft may be more of a problem than shoplifting:

Retail experts say they can only estimate what portion of their theft losses can be traced to employees, to shoplifting and to vendors, but they view their own store workers as the leading culprits. The national study, based on information obtained from 106 retail chains that responded to a questionnaire, said employees were responsible for 43 percent of the stores’ unexplained losses, versus 36 percent for shoplifting.

A secret to preventing employee theft?

Buried deep at the end of the article are some clues to addressing the problem.  The principal author of that national theft study, Professor Richard Hollinger, notes that:

…the rate of theft is greatest among retailers with high turnover rates and many part-time workers, who may be less loyal and under more financial pressure than full-time workers.

He also found higher theft among younger workers. “Older workers know they have a lot more to lose — promotional opportunities, health insurance, 401(k)’s and pensions,” Professor Hollinger said.

Hmm, could it be that treating workers well and paying them decently is one way to stave off employee theft?  Reading between the lines, it appears that longer-term workers who are loyal to their employers and who have a decent financial stake in their jobs are less likely to steal from their employer.

No, I’m not defending theft as the right of an underpaid retail store worker.  But I am looking at realities.  The literature on organizational justice tells us that workers who are disgruntled or who feel mistreated are more likely to seek payback.  Forgive my profiling here, but that young temp who feels exploited and underappreciated may be a more likely candidate to walk off with a gift card or two than a permanent employee who feels a part of the store.

Employee dignity as a crime prevention strategy…imagine that!

Link to Greenhouse article:

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