School anti-bullying researcher questions whether “workplace bullying” is a real phenomenon

On occasion, I am left deeply dismayed by a commentary concerning workplace bullying. Such was my reaction to Elizabeth Englander’s “Is Workplace Bullying a Genuine Phenomenon?,” just published in The Atlantic (link here).

Dr. Englander is a psychologist who directs a center at Bridgewater State University that primarily addresses school bullying. Building on news stories of well-publicized toxic work situations, she questions the reality of workplace bullying. Here’s a snippet:

Whenever powerful people wage a campaign of misery against someone with less agency, it can be harmful. Victims of bullying are typically less productive, less happy, and less likely to be positive contributors to society. They’re more likely to use dangerous drugs, to be violent, and to break laws.

Bullying doesn’t refer to just any type of social cruelty, however; it’s specifically when an individual or group repeatedly and deliberately attacks a less powerful person.

…Just calling something bullying doesn’t make it so, of course, and identifying bullying among adults can be difficult. In schools, we can clearly distinguish between a child who makes a random mean comment about a haircut and a child who goes after a target every single day on a playground or on social media. Only the latter is waging a repetitive campaign of cruelty. In a workplace, a nasty comment that might seem like a single incident could actually be a repetitive behavior—or not. For example, if your boss berates and belittles you one day in a meeting, you may wonder if that’s how she talks about you to management. Could that explain why you weren’t promoted? Or maybe your boss was just having a bad day and she took her anger out on you—not great, but not bullying.

Englander is right on in saying that “identifying bullying among adults can be difficult” and that bullying, in its essence, is an abuse of power. She’s also right that workplace bullying is not about a “boss just having a bad day.” I personally agree with a definition of bullying that includes intent on the part of the aggressor. In fact, I have written the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill to include intent as a required element towards proving a legally actionable claim. (Not all anti-bullying advocates agree with me, but after considerable pondering I have held firm on this point.)

Despite this apparent common ground, Englander concludes:

Ultimately, the word bullying may be simply a distraction. Whether a workplace problem fits the definition of bullying is secondary. What’s more important is promoting professional behavior and workplaces that improve the lot of employees.

It appears that Englander is practicing the unfortunate academic game of defining a term restrictively (here, bullying), then questioning that which doesn’t fit easily within it, and finally (and somewhat paradoxically) claiming at the end that definitional distinctions are secondary distractions. Ultimately, by reserving the mantle of “bullying” mainly for applications to children, her commentary overlooks decades of research, public education, clinical, and advocacy work on an international scale about workplace bullying and mobbing. Perhaps had she done a deeper dive into that abundant body of work, rather than build her piece around individual instances of bad bossism, the published result would’ve been different.

Why not seek common ground instead?

Ms. Englander’s primary domain is bullying among children. Mine is workplace bullying. I respect that, at times, the dynamics of school bullying and workplace bullying are different. Indeed, I and many others have likened workplace bullying more to domestic abuse than to school bullying in terms of core relational dynamics. But I have increasingly regarded these differences as being less important than the similarities.

Thus, I am mystified as to what triggered Englander’s commentary. The heart of the movement to address workplace bullying and mobbing has always been in steadfast support of efforts to respond to other forms of interpersonal abuse, such as school bullying, cyberbullying, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment. We’ve also learned that it’s unproductive to get overly hung up on labels and vocabulary, especially when it comes to the risks of creating turf battles.

In sum, it’s unfortunate that Englander (and The Atlantic) would invest in an article that misses the mark so unnecessarily. The more constructive common ground is to comprehend that bullying behaviors exist at every life stage and to share many related insights for our mutual benefit.

Workplace bullying, the Healthy Workplace Bill, and the “poster case”

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

On many occasions during my years of drafting and advocating for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, I’ve been asked, so, what’s your poster case?, or something along those lines.

This is an important topic, even if the term is somewhat coarse.

First, a bit of vocabulary: “Poster case” is a modification of the term “poster child,” the latter defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a child who has a disease and is pictured in posters to solicit funds for combating the disease.” Merriam-Webster then offers a secondary definition closer to what we’re talking about in this context: “a person having a public image that is identified with something (such as a cause).”

The substitution of the word “case” clarifies that we’re talking about a legal or legislative setting. Accordingly, a poster case instance of workplace bullying and mobbing is one that neatly and compactly captures the essential dynamics of severe work abuse and clearly shows the need for stronger legal protections in the form of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Phoebe Prince

A decade ago, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life. This tragedy galvanized public attention to school bullying, and it played an influential role in reviving a school anti-bullying bill that had been languishing in the state legislature. The bill suddenly picked up great momentum and was enacted into law.

Over the years, legislative staffers and others close to the policymaking process have quietly told us that passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill would be hastened if we had a “poster case” like that of Phoebe Prince — in other words, a deeply sympathetic individual who died by suicide associated with bullying at work.

In addition…

Those of us who have been advocating for law reform are acutely aware of suicides associated with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. Surviving family and friends of these bullying targets are among the readers of this blog. Their stories are heartbreaking and outrageous, and they are sometimes invoked in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill. For various reasons, no single instance has captured public attention sufficient to push the bill over the top, in the way that Phoebe Prince’s story gave decisive impetus to the school bullying law.

In any event, we must continue to broaden our focus, to include, but go beyond, these tragic suicide narratives. Countless numbers of bullied and mobbed workers are living with their experiences every day. Their experiences must always be given voice as well.

Here in Massachusetts, the Healthy Workplace Bill is once again before the state legislature, filed by Senator Paul Feeney for the 2021-22 session. Please go here to see the bill, currently designated as Senate Docket No. 2426. And if you live in Massachusetts and are so inclined, please contact your state senator and state representative (link here) and ask them to co-sponsor the bill.

MTW Newsstand: July 2019

Every month, the “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the pieces are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Caitlin Flanagan, “The Problem With HR,” The Atlantic (2019) (link here) — “If HR is such a vital component of American business, its tentacles reaching deeply into many spheres of employees’ work lives, how did it miss the kind of sexual harassment at the center of the #MeToo movement? And given that it did, why are companies still putting so much faith in HR?”

Shahida Arabi, “Bullied by Narcissists at Work? 3 Ways Narcissistic Co-Workers and Bosses Sabotage You,” PsychCentral (2019) (link here) — “If you work or have worked in a traditional corporate environment, chances are you’ve run into a narcissist or sociopath in your career. Research suggests that psychopathic personalities do climb the corporate ladder more readily and are able to charm and gain trust from other co-workers and management to do so.”

Quentin Fottrell, “Is your boss a psychopath?,” MarketWatch (2019) (link here) — “Do you ever wonder why the bad guy is in charge — and the good guy is pushing paper? There may be a reason for that. Bad bosses often promise the world, according to Deborah Ancona, a professor of leadership at MIT Sloan School of Management and founder of the MIT Leadership Center, and hard-working employees can be left to deal with the aftereffects. ‘Toxic leaders are often talking about all the great things that they can do,’ she told MIT Sloan.”

Amy Coveno, “As adults, some former bullies try to keep history from repeating,” WMUR (2019) (link here) —  “News 9 put out a call on Facebook for former bullies to tell their stories.”

Ruchika Tulshyan, “How to Reduce Personal Bias When Hiring,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “Changes in process and diversity initiatives alone are not going to remedy the lack of equal representation in companies. Individual managers who are often making the final hiring decisions need to address their own bias.”

Randall J. Beck & Jim Harter, “Why Great Managers Are So Rare,” Gallup (2019) (link here) — “Gallup finds that great managers have the following talents….”

Janelle Nanos, “Wayfair walkout is part of a new era of employee activism,” Boston Globe (2019) (link here) — “Employees of Wayfair, the online furniture giant based in the Back Bay, weren’t planning to stage a walkout on Wednesday. But when the company’s leadership shrugged off workers’ objections to fulfilling a $200,000 furniture order for detention centers on the US-Mexico border, ‘Wayfairians’ became the latest group of tech co-workers to start a social activist movement targeting their own employer.”

Lessons learned early: School responses to bullying and abuse accusations

For better and for worse, we often learn about organizational responses to bullying and abuse accusations early in life, by witnessing how school systems deal with them. As Kerry Justich reports for Yahoo (link here), a high school senior in Vancouver, Washington, is learning what that response may entail:

A high school senior in Vancouver, Wash. will no longer be walking in his graduation on Saturday, after accusing the administration of ignoring bullying and sexual assault allegedly taking place at school.

Charles Chandler was giving a speech in front of students and families of Heritage High School during a ceremony on Wednesday when he went off script and made some controversial comments against the administration.

“And to you, underclassmen,” Chandler is heard saying toward the end of his speech, “who have to endure all the things the school throw at you for two to three more years. A school where the administration closes their eyes to everything that happens in the school. Their school. The sexual assault, the bullying, the depression, the outcasts. And they do nothing to fix it.”

Through surprised reactions heard throughout the crowd, Chandler continued to say that if the school does take notice of these incidents, “they take the side of the accused and not the victim,” before the audience ultimately erupted in cheers.

Although Chandler’s peers appeared to agree with him, principal Derek Garrison did not, claiming his comments were not truthful:

“His comments were full of inaccuracies, inflammatory statements and hurtful accusations,” the principal’s letter, obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle, reads. “Administrators called the student in to explain why spreading rumors and inaccurate information was extremely problematic.”

The story has attracted a lot of local attention, and several dozen Heritage students protested the school’s treatment of Chandler by staging a walkout.

One of many

Of course, this is only one of many accounts of how school systems have pushed back against accusations of bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse and misconduct. Typically this takes place in one or more of these forms:

  • Outright denial that any wrongful behavior occurred;
  • Dismissal of the seriousness of the allegations, suggesting an overreaction;
  • Active coverups of abuse; and/or,
  • Retaliation against the accusers.

Hmm, this sounds like what happens in way too many bullying, harassment, and whistleblower situations at work, yes?

Indeed, school responses to student allegations of wrongdoing sometimes resemble responses of bad employers to employee allegations of mistreatment or misconduct. When both student complainants and bystanders witness how such allegations are swept under the rug or otherwise mishandled by their schools, they learn an unfortunate lesson about getting along, going along, and keeping their mouths shut in the face of wrongful behavior.

Back to Heritage High

We don’t know the full story behind Charles Chandler’s accusations about student life at Heritage High School. According to the Yahoo news article, the “principal’s letter offered Chandler the opportunity to participate in a ‘restorative solution,’ or face disciplinary action that included not walking at graduation,” and that Chandler opted for the latter. Reading between the lines, it appears that he didn’t trust the process offered to him, and that many of his fellow students — as evidenced by their support for him — share his concerns. 

In fact, Katie Gillespie reports for The Columbian that other students have reported mistreatment at the school (link here):

Some students at the school praised Chandler for standing up for what they see as continued tolerance of bullying and harassment at the Evergreen Public Schools campus.

Frost Honrath, 17, said she twice reported being physically assaulted by another student, but felt the district’s response was insufficient.

“I really want to see action in our school,” Honrath said. “They’re pushing it aside.”

Ethan Wheeler, 17, said a student once wrapped a noose, a prop from a play, around his neck and told him to kill himself. When he tried to get help, “it seemed like nothing was really done.”

This may turn out to be one of those more unusual situations of a story going viral, and thus prompting a public defense of the individual issuing the accusations. It could lead to a more comprehensive examination of student life at this high school. Maybe the students will learn a different lesson about the value of raising their voices.

Childhood bullying: Research analysis suggests long-term reduction in adverse effects

A major analysis conducted by a group of London-based university researchers and published in the Psychological Bulletin suggests that the adverse effects of childhood bullying can subside over time.

The London researchers (Tabea Schoeler, Lauren Duncan, Charlotte Cecil, George Ploubidis, and Jean-Baptiste Pingault) examined 16 separate studies of the short and long-term adverse effects of bullying victimization as experienced by youth. They found:

Based on the most stringent evidence available to date, findings indicate that bullying victimization may causally impact children’s wellbeing in the short-term, especially anxiety and depression levels. The reduction of adverse effects over time highlights the potential for resilience in individuals who have experienced bullying. Secondary preventive interventions in bullied children should therefore focus on resilience and on addressing children’s preexisting vulnerabilities.

In the article’s Public Significance Statement, they concluded:

This meta-analysis of quasi-experimental studies suggests that bullying victimization leads to poorer developmental outcome in the short-term, including higher internalizing and externalizing symptoms and reduced academic achievement. These adverse effects diminish in the long-term, highlighting the potential for resilience in individuals who experienced bullying. In addition to tackling bullying, interventions should therefore address the immediate adverse consequences of bullying victimization, while fostering resilience in victimized children.

Unfortunately, the short-term effects — depression, anxiety, reduced academic performance — are not surprising. The more hopeful finding, however, is that the same, significant body of research indicates that these adverse impacts may diminish over the long term.

Relevance to adult and workplace bullying

Response and resilience. Those are the takeaway points from the study that I get when looking at how to help targets of adult and workplace bullying. We need to respond to the immediate adverse consequences (which may include trauma and accompanying health impairments). We also need to foster resilience in bullied workers and, well, in everyone else, too.

This individual focus does not reduce the vital importance of addressing bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors from the perspective of organizational cultures. Organizations typically discourage or enable such behaviors, so this is the starting place for prevention and intervention. We must always remember that these abuses rarely occur in a vacuum, whether we’re talking about schools, workplaces, or any other institutional setting.

***

Hat-tip to Dr. Kenneth Pope for the journal article.

“Why do we reward bullies?”

In a New York Times op-ed piece from earlier this year, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), ponders why our society all too often rewards bullies for their behavior. He offers three reasons:

First, people tend to be selective ethicists. The other side’s bully is a horrible person; your side’s bully is a “truth teller.” Indeed, we sometimes even flip the script and say our bully is actually a victim who is simply fighting back against even bigger bullies.

***

Second, people are, paradoxically, attracted to bullies. In her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” the social scientist Jean Lipman-Blumen shows that people complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives yet nearly always remain loyal out of a primordial admiration for power and need for security in an uncertain world.

***

The third explanation is simple acquiescence. In a famous study published in 1999 in the Journal of Adolescence, three psychologists investigated how children act when they witness an act of bullying. Hundreds of schoolchildren were videotaped on the playground, and nearly 200 bullying incidents were recorded. . . . And how did the peers react? Twenty-one percent joined the bully, while 25 percent defended the victim. The rest — 54 percent — watched the incident passively, neither joining in nor defending the victim.

Brooks’s perspectives on bullying were shaped by his experiences performing with a professional symphony orchestra during his twenties. He calls orchestra conductors “notorious tyrants, cruel and demanding” who “turn players against one another, prey on weakness, destroy confidence.”

One of the most telling aspects of this op-ed piece is how the experience of being bullied can stick with people for decades. Brooks in his mid-fifties. He is a regular contributor of op-ed pieces to the New York Times. His editorial voice tends to be deliberate and pointed, rather than overtly emotional. Accordingly, his sharp criticisms about orchestra conductors show, in hard relief, the lasting impact of bullying.

Brooks suggests that standing up to bullies is the best way to curb their power and ability to abuse others. He may be right in some instances, but there are plenty of stories where taking on bullies has backfired badly. There is no magic response; power dynamics and surrounding circumstances all matter. What we need are more people who oppose bullying and abusive leaders, thereby creating a broader and deeper cultural norm that does not tolerate such mistreatment as a matter of course.

***

Related posts

Toxic workplace cultures and bullying at work (2018)

Creating a society grounded in human dignity (2018)

 

Guardian investigation: Bullying behaviors rife at top U.K. universities

Hannah Devlin and Sarah Marsh report on a Guardian newspaper investigation indicating that a culture of bullying is “thriving” at leading British universities:

Hundreds of academics have been accused of bullying students and colleagues in the past five years, prompting concerns that a culture of harassment and intimidation is thriving in Britain’s leading universities.

A Guardian investigation found nearly 300 academics, including senior professors and laboratory directors, were accused of bullying students and colleagues.

Dozens of current and former academics spoke of aggressive behaviour, extreme pressure to deliver results, career sabotage and HR managers appearing more concerned about avoiding negative publicity than protecting staff.

Their feature-length article goes into detail about their investigative findings and shares stories of individuals who have experienced bullying behaviors in academic workplaces.

When media devote coverage to bullying and related behaviors in academe

This is not the first time that the Guardian has highlighted bullying and abuse at work. The newspaper ran a week-long series on workplace bullying in 2017. And we’ve known for a long time that academe can be a petri dish for these behaviors. In fact, “Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven?” (2009, revised 2014), is one of this blog’s most popular posts.

As I discussed in my last entry, when major, mainstream media outlets devote feature stories to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, it serves as a powerful message that we must take these destructive behaviors seriously. It’s also noteworthy when a major newspaper with a global readership deems that bullying in academe merits significant coverage.

Here in the U.S., coverage of academic bullying has been limited primarily to specialized media covering higher education (such as the Chronicle of Higher Education). My own interest in workplace bullying was originally stoked some 20 years ago by my awareness of such behaviors in academic (as well as legal) workplaces. So, cheers to the Guardian for diving in with this piece. It makes a difference.

Academic institutions, abuse allegations, and organizational ethics

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Greg Toppo asks why colleges and universities continue to deal with significant cases of sexual abuse and related mistreatment despite well-publicized, recent stories that should’ve served as cautionary tales:

When horrific, large-scale cases of sexual abuse emerged at Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and more recently at Michigan State University, higher education leaders expressed shock and vowed that such abuses would never happen again.

Then last month, it happened again. The Los Angeles Times reported on a University of Southern California gynecologist accused of decades of “serial misconduct” at a student health clinic, accusations now being investigated by police.

In each of the abuse cases, critics say key leaders failed to act on abuse reports until it was too late and dozens or even hundreds of victims came forward. How could the complaints fall through the cracks?

In several recent cases, presidents who mishandled abuse cases made one key error, said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, who now serves as a consultant to presidents and trustees. She said they hadn’t created a campus culture in which it was expected that they’d be informed of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

The full piece is definitely worth reading. It incorporates comparative perspectives that reach outside of academe, including organizations such as the U.S. Navy and Starbucks. The article rightly includes a lot about organizational cultures and hierarchies.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my observations about the world of higher education that pertain to the ability of colleges and universities to prevent abuse and respond to it, including sexual harassment and assault, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment:

First, don’t presume that because someone is a university president, provost, or dean, that they got there because of outstanding leadership abilities and a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility. True, some college leaders are exemplars of these positive qualities. A good number of others fall well short of the mark. The higher education sector is no different than any other in terms of how people climb up the slippery pole, where at the top you find widely varying levels of leadership ability, integrity, and moral courage.

Second, don’t automatically put university boards of trustees on pedestals. Some boards are smart, inclusive, and effective; others not so. The latter can be easily susceptible to insular decision making, groupthink, and dismissive disregard of concerns expressed by rank-and-file stakeholders — especially if individual board members come from organizations that are built on top-down hierarchies.

Third, keep in mind that the constant fear of bad publicity — and accompanying effects on reputation and rankings, student recruitment, and alumni/ae fundraising — can yield different leadership responses. Some higher ed leaders will opt to take the high road, by establishing inclusive organizational cultures, acting preventively toward interpersonal abuse on campus, and responding promptly and fairly when concrete reports arise. Less admirable leaders may choose to take the low road, by pretending that problems don’t exist, sweeping reports of mistreatment under the rug, and retaliating against whistleblowers.

Therapeutic jurisprudence group on bullying, mobbing, and abuse across the lifespan

If you’ve been following this blog regularly, then you may know that I have been closely involved in the creation of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a global, non-profit learned organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence, “an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions.”

The ISTJ will be conducting many of its activities through Interest Groups organized around substantive topics of law and public policy. As part of that effort, I’ve joined with a small group of fellow members to form an Interest Group on Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse Across the Lifespan. The group will examine and address these behaviors from an interdisciplinary perspective, emphasizing the intersection of psychological trauma and law & public policy. Here are among the group’s possible activities:

  • Creating and improving trauma-informed public education programs and workshops about bullying/mobbing/abuse in all settings;
  • Examining how we can support targets and victims in litigation, such as providing information to attorneys and planning expert witness testimony and analyses;
  • Examining different approaches to legislation and public policy, i.e., differences and commonalities in dealing with abusive behaviors across the spectrum; and,
  • Organizing writing projects, programs, etc.

I should note that this group will not be able to provide individual counseling, coaching, or legal advice for those who are experiencing any of these behaviors. However, in the future we may be able to develop resource listings like that on this blog for workplace bullying to guide those experiencing abusive mistreatment in other contexts.

If you are interested in becoming a member of this group, then you’ll first need to join the ISTJ (memberships run calendar year, Jan-Dec; $25 regular; free for currently enrolled students). After joining you’ll either want to indicate your interest in this topic of the TJ Forum page and/or e-mail me at dyamada@suffolk.edu.

Report: Abuse victims and whistleblowers at New England private schools faced retaliation

 

You've got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be carefully taught

To see how kids may learn their first lessons about unethical organizational behavior, look no further than how some schools respond to instances of bullying and abuse. To illustrate, consider the Boston Globe‘s investigation into how certain private schools in New England have handled reports and allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior:

The Globe Spotlight Team, in its ongoing investigation of abuses at New England private schools, found at least 15 instances of apparent retaliation against students who were sexually exploited by staffers or against employees who raised concerns about alleged sexual abuse and harassment. Some cases date back decades, while others are quite recent. But all of them are still raw for the people who felt the backlash.

The article begins with a story from the early 1980s about a female student who was asked to leave the tony Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts, after school administrators learned of her relationship with a teacher there. The school did the right thing, in part, by dismissing the teacher. But it also asked the student to basically disappear, reasoning that her presence would be uncomfortable to others, including “the teacher’s girlfriend, who worked there”! The school included the student’s photo in the annual yearbook only because her classmates insisted on it.

As it turns out, this was among the gentler instances of exclusion or payback described by victims and others interviewed for the Globe story about student abuse in private schools:

The retribution, they say, came in various forms, including abusers lashing out at their accusers or enlisting other students to ostracize them, and administrators punishing or expelling students who complained of being victimized.

Readers interested in the Globe‘s investigation may check the articles on the newspaper’s website, but my point here is that when schools respond to allegations of abuse by retaliating against or marginalizing victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers, they also send messages to their students (victims and bystanders alike) that both the abusive behaviors and the inadequate organizational responses are cultural and societal norms, to be tolerated and swept under the rug if necessary.

Of course, private schools that depend on hefty tuition dollars and alumni/ae donations don’t want news about abusive behaviors becoming public, so the morally challenged ones will resort to intimidating and retaliating against victims, witnesses, and others to keep the lid on. One can only wonder if some of their graduates, having learned these “lessons” taught to them by such institutions, will act in the same manner when they assume leadership roles later on in life.

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