Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition

Image of German Stuka dive bombers from MilitaryHistoryNow.com

Like all types of interpersonal mistreatment, workplace bullying and mobbing come in varying degrees of frequency and intensity. All are bad, but some are worse than others, and in some cases, much worse. For a long time I’ve been thinking about the right term to describe a particularly virulent form of all-out, coordinated or semi-coordinated, multi-directional work abuse, and I think I’ve found it: Blitzkrieg bullying or mobbing.

Blitzkrieg is a German term meaning “lightning war.” As defined by historian Raymond Limbach for Encyclopedia Britannica, blitzkrieg is a “military tactic calculated to create psychological shock and resultant disorganization in enemy forces through the employment of surprise, speed, and superiority in matériel or firepower.” He continues:

Germany’s success with the tactic at the beginning of World War II hinged largely on the fact that it was the only country that had effectively linked its combined forces with radio communications. The use of mobility, shock, and locally concentrated firepower in a skillfully coordinated attack paralyzed an adversary’s capacity to organize defenses, rather than attempting to physically overcome them, and then exploited that paralysis by penetrating to the adversary’s rear areas and disrupting its whole system of communications and administration.

I think it is wholly fitting to borrow a concept honed in practice by the Nazi regime to tag this form of intensive, targeted bullying or mobbing. After all, those who engage in this form of work abuse operate at a comparable level of morality: They are out to eliminate someone through aggressive, heartless, disorienting actions.

True, blitzkrieg tactics are historically associated with strategies to achieve fast, decisive victories, with a minimal expenditure of personnel and arms. In that sense, some might understandably respond that by comparison, bullying and mobbing campaigns may endure for months or years. I take the point, but blitzkrieg tactics also can be part of military campaigns that go on for some time.

In thinking about bullying and mobbing situations that merit the blitzkrieg label, I find that various combinations of following actions are often used:

  • Gaslighting behaviors meant to confuse and disorient
  • Eliminationist tactics such as blackballing
  • Electronic surveillance and hacking of electronic accounts
  • Using the legal system to abuse the target
  • Button pushing to trigger or provoke the target into making mistakes
  • Defamation and misrepresentation, often extending into the broader workforce or even community
  • Breaking and entering into a target’s premises
  • Vandalism, theft, and property destruction
  • Anonymous messaging and threats
  • Abusers claiming victim status

Bullying and mobbing motivated by retaliatory instincts can yield especially vicious forms of the above.

By using these tactics, abusers aim to disorient, confuse, frighting, weaken, and ultimately disable the target. As one can guess, it is very, very hard to fight this level of abuse. Sometimes it can be done, but it takes calculation, knowledge, and strategic smarts — qualities often in low supply when someone is being overwhelmed and their cognitive skills are frequently impaired. This is where friends, family members, and allies come in to provide support and assistance, but only if they understand that this form of blitzkrieg abuse is very, very real, even if the story at first sounds “crazy.”

As I see it, we need to understand more about blitzkrieg abuse and how perpetrators get away with it, for it surely captures the worst forms of bullying and mobbing. It also underscores the need for workplace anti-bullying laws that give targets a legal weapon to use in response. Such a law may well open the door to procedural discovery (document requests, depositions, interrogatories, etc.) that will help a target build an evidence trail, which, in turn, traces back to the main ringleaders.

Related posts

Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling (2016)

Workplace bullying, blackballing, and the eliminationist instinct (2015)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014)

Understanding the Holocaust (And why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014)

When workplace bullies claim victim status: Avoiding the judo flip (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012; rev.2017)

“Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (2012)

Harvard study: The key to living a meaningful and happy life

So it took a bunch of smart people at Harvard to identify the single most important factor toward leading a meaningful and happy life: Good relationships.

Melanie Curtin reports for Inc. on findings from the multi-generational Harvard Study of Adult Development, spanning some 75 years:

  • “According to Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one thing surpasses all the rest in terms of importance: ‘The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.'”
  • “Specifically, the study demonstrates that having someone to rely on helps your nervous system relax, helps your brain stay healthier for longer, and reduces both emotional as well as physical pain.”
  • “The data is also very clear that those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger.”
  • “‘It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,’ says Waldinger. ‘It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.'”

Okay, there are big qualifiers here in terms of the study participants. The 75-year study is limited to white men from two cohorts. Obviously it’s not the most diverse of participant pools. However, the longitudinal nature of the study is unique and makes the findings worthy of our attention. (Those who want to read more about the Harvard study may go to its website.)

Piece of cake, right?

So, if you want to live a good life, then build good relationships. It’s that easy!

Or maybe not. You see, other studies, analyses, and commentaries are telling us that loneliness is a huge problem in our society and that the absence of quality relationships in individual lives is adding up to a big public health issue.

Billy Baker, a soon-to-be-40-year-old feature writer for the Boston Globe Magazine, opens his recent piece on loneliness and middle aged men:

I’d been summoned to an editor’s office at the Globe Magazine with the old “We have a story we think you’d be perfect for.” This is how editors talk when they’re about to con you into doing something you don’t want to do.

Here was the pitch: We want you to write about how middle-aged men have no friends.

Excuse me? I have plenty of friends. Are you calling me a loser? You are.

The editor told me there was all sorts of evidence out there about how men, as they age, let their close friendships lapse, and that that fact can cause all sorts of problems and have a terrible impact on their health.

Baker then appeals to some expert testimony:

Health writer Emily Gurnon, writing last year for Next Avenue, cites a major 2016 analysis indicating more of the same:

You may have heard that loneliness is hazardous to your health — and can even lead to an early death. Now, an analysis of 23 scientific studies gives us numbers that reveal just how sick it can really make you.

People with “poor social relationships” had a 29 percent higher risk of newly diagnosed heart disease and a 32 percent higher risk of stroke, according to the study, published July 1 in the British journal Heart.

That puts loneliness and social isolation on par with other known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as anxiety and job strain, the researchers said. And it exceeds the risk posed by physical inactivity and obesity, said lead researcher Nicole Valtorta, of the Department of Health Sciences, University of York, England.

Relationships and work

The modern workplace is an incubator for social relationships of all kinds, ranging from casual friendships to romantic ties. When work is good and so are the people you’re working with, the possibilities for positive relationships are considerable.

But what happens when things at work aren’t so good, or they disintegrate? What happens when, say, some type of workplace mistreatment enters the picture?

In such situations, the quality of relationships may suffer greatly. When someone is experiencing a form of work abuse such as sexual harassment, bullying, or mobbing, supposed friends may abandon or distance themselves from the targeted individual or otherwise dive for cover, fearful for their own job security.

My very generic advice is that we shouldn’t base all of our friendships in the workplace. But it’s not easy to engineer where our friends come from; so many factors are at play.

Furthermore, at times I have not always practiced what I just preached. For example, when I was a young Legal Aid lawyer, we socialized together all the time. Currently, however, most of my friends come from outside my place of employment. Some happen to be professors and lawyers, but many are not. Overall, they hail from many different walks of life, and I am grateful for that.

Now that I am solidly into my middle years, these research findings about the quality of life being strongly shaped by our relationships resonate significantly with me. In terms of lessons, this means being more intentional about this important aspect of our lives, no small task when so many other priorities compete with it.

Workplace bullying: Acknowledging grief

Catching my attention this week was an essay by religion professor Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College, Minnesota) on the experience of grief. Titled “On Becoming Grief Outlaws” and published in The Cresset (the journal of Valparaiso University in Indiana, my undergraduate school), the piece questions how our popular culture urges us to internalize our grief rather than to express it openly. Bussie herself did this when her mother suffered with Alzheimer’s:

For a long time, I extradited my grief underground. I didn’t want to be a Debbie Downer. I didn’t want to live in the jail of other people’s judgment (especially the colleagues, acquaintances, and church folks who thought I should “move on,” “get over it already,” accept “God’s plan,” and “not grieve as one without hope”).

But the life of lies and fake Barbie smiles wore me out. Eventually, I let grief back into its home country—my heart—and let my heart back on to my sleeve.

Now, Bussie is calling upon us to bring grief out of the closet:

As a theologian, teacher, and person of faith, I want us to talk about the hard stuff. I want us to air all the dirty laundry we’re taught never to air—questions without answers, anger at God, scars that cause us shame, doubt that wrestles us to the ground, sorrow we just can’t shake. All of it.

Work abuse and grief

Research studies and seemingly endless numbers of terrible stories have taught us that those who experience workplace bullying and mobbing can lose a lot, especially:

  • Jobs, careers, and livelihoods;
  • Health and well being;
  • Family and friendship ties;
  • Financial stability; and,
  • Reputations and standing in a community.

It is not unusual for someone to lose all of these things as the culmination of an extended campaign of bullying or mobbing.

We typically don’t associate grieving with losses that might blithely be tagged as “work-related,” but in this context (among others), it’s important that we do so. Work abuse exacts a significant toll on its targets. The sense of loss can be deeply palpable. Grief is an understandable response.

Healing, recovery, and renewal

We need to acknowledge grief, but we also cannot let it win. Yes, I know that’s a competitive sounding statement about an emotion that has nothing to do with conventional notions of victory and defeat.

It’s just that I want us to find ways to help people heal, recover, and renew after such terrible losses. There is no singular path toward this better place, but we need to recognize that many must overcome (or at least negotiate with) their grief in order to reach it.

For some, this time of year marks a holiday celebrating rebirth; for others, it’s about a holiday commemorating liberation. My own faith is non-denominational, but I’m happy if we borrow from these faith traditions to count rebirth and liberation from grief as worthy objectives for helping those who have been savaged at their workplaces.

Disposable workers

This is hard to fathom, but unfortunately the headline pictured above — “A maid begged for help before falling from a window in Kuwait. Her boss made a video instead.” — tells the heart of the story. Avi Selk reports for the Washington Post:

The floor looks clean in this high-rise apartment, seven stories above Kuwait City traffic. Not a smudge in sight on the picture window. On the other side of the glass, the maid is hanging on by one knuckle, screaming.

“Oh crazy, come here,” a woman says casually in Arabic, holding a camera up to the maid.

“Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” the maid yells.

Instead, the woman steps back. The maid’s grip finally slips, and she lands in a cloud of dust, many stories below.

The maid — an Ethiopian who had been working in the country for several years, according to the Kuwait Times — survived the fall. The videographer, her employer, was arrested last week on a charge of failing to help the worker.

Selk adds that more instances of domestic workers falling off of buildings have been reported. Human rights advocates are sounding alarms about this horrible incident and others against the background of a system of servitude known as kafala, whereby foreign workers surrender basic labor rights in return for work visas.

The spectrum of workplace mistreatment runs from lighter instances of intentional incivility all the way to slavery and torture. This event in Kuwait, and references to the policy of kafala, remind us that forms of abuse tending toward, and falling squarely within, the latter still exist in this world.

Enter therapeutic jurisprudence

These concerns also raise the fundamental importance of bringing dignity at work into therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal processes, and legal institutions.

As close readers of this blog know, I have been active in the TJ movement for many years, to the point of regarding it as my primary lens for examining law and policy. In fact, I’m part of a wonderful group of law teachers, lawyers, and judges who are forming a new international, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence on a global scale. We will be launching this new entity at the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, to be held this year in Prague, Czech Republic.

To date, much TJ activity has been concentrated in legal areas such as mental health and disability law, criminal law, dispute resolution and the administration of justice, and family law. Laws and policies relating to work, workers, and workplaces, however, have not received as much attention. Along with other folks dedicated to advancing dignity at work, I look forward to playing an energetic role in changing that state of affairs.

You see, it’s important to remember that individual incidents of worker abuse, including this one in Kuwait, are enabled or validated by policies such as kafala, thus melding the mistreatment with the tacit approval of law. Changing laws does not necessarily change individual behavior, but it creates enforceable norms that can inform people’s decisions about how to treat others.

MA State House hearing for Healthy Workplace Bill

In the hearing room with Greg Sorozan of SEIU/NAGE, waiting our turn to testify

On Tuesday, I joined with other supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) to testify on its behalf at a hearing before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development of the Massachusetts legislature, held at the State House in Boston. Getting a favorable decision out of the Committee is the first critical step toward eventual passage of the bill.

I wrote the HWB to fill a big void in current employment law that exposes workers to bullying and mobbing without adequate legal protections. It provides severely bullied workers with a civil legal claim for damages and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

This is our fourth full session before the Massachusetts legislature, and we’ve been steadily building support. In the 2017-18 MA legislative session, the HWB is designated as Senate No. 1013, backed by main sponsor Senator Jennifer Flanagan and 46 co-sponsors. You can get all the information you need, including the bill text, here.

Supporting packet of information and written testimony, given to committee members

As I’ve written before, state legislative advocacy often requires a sense of restless patience. Even the best of policy proposals can take multiple legislative sessions before they become law. Tuesday’s legislative hearing covered not only the Healthy Workplace Bill, but also other bills designed to safeguard the dignity and well being of workers. Of these bills, only a small percentage will be enacted into law during a given two-year session.

How are we doing with the HWB in Massachusetts? We are a known presence in the State House, and our advocacy group has built a good reputation for being effective and steadfast. We are educating our elected officials and their staff members through these efforts. SEIU/NAGE, a major public employee labor union, has been in our corner from the start with resources and lobbying support, and we have other organizations giving their continuing endorsements.

Gone are the days when so many people greeted proposed legislation concerning workplace bullying with a quizzical look. This work won’t be finished until we get a bill enacted into law, and we’re going to keep at it until that happens.

How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing

A compelling 2016 Thought Catalog piece by Shahida Arabi on manipulative, diversionary tactics in abusive relationships periodically makes the social media rounds among supporters of the workplace anti-bullying movement, prompting me to consider how such insights inform our understanding of psychological abuse at work.

Titled “20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You,” the article sets out and explains these tactics in chilling detail. From this list, these are among the tactics most relevant to bullying and mobbing situations:

  • “Gaslighting”
  • “Nonsensical conversations from hell”
  • “Nitpicking and moving the goal posts”
  • “Changing the subject to evade accountability”
  • “Covert and overt threats”
  • “Smear campaigns and stalking”
  • “Triangulation”
  • “Control”

Yes, we can learn a lot about abusive work situations from examinations of toxic relationships. However, lest we blithely assume that the carryover is seamless, I think it’s worth raising at least three caveats in applying these insights:

First, a close focus on interpersonal dynamics should not divert us from looking deeply at organizational cultures. Work abuse typically occurs with institutional sponsorship or ratification. It seldom thrives without being enabled or empowered by the organization’s leadership and practiced values.

Second, work relationships are rarely as ongoing, intense, and intimate as interpersonal relationships. Thus, it may be harder, or take longer, to get an accurate read on a situation. This is especially the case in terms of tagging individuals with labels such as psychopath, sociopath, or narcissist. Surely these people exist in the workplace — I’ve seen and heard of too many examples to say otherwise. But unless you’re working up close and personal with someone for days and weeks on end, it may take a while for their actions to become clarifying from a psychological standpoint.

Third, especially if the abuser is in a superior position on the organizational chart (underscore that if they are your direct boss), it may be much harder to get a read on what’s happening than doing so in an interpersonal relationship. Don’t get me wrong — abusers can be very effective at cloaking their activities in personal situations as well — but in the workplace, these actions can be diffuse and multidirectional, with less access (for the target) to the abuser’s communications network.

The Guardian’s “bullying at work week”: Soliciting your story

Between April 3 and April 6 (UK time), The Guardian, a prominent British newspaper, will be accepting readers’ stories about being bullied at work, for possible inclusion in a special Careers section feature and its social media channels. An encrypted online form requests categories of information from contributors and allows them to limit how their stories are used, including decisions on anonymity and confidentiality.

The Guardian‘s Charlotte Seager explains the rationale for this invitation:

From bosses who try to sabotage their employees’ efforts, to colleagues who intimidate their co-workers or provoke them to tears: bullying at work is surprisingly common.

Nearly a third of workers in the UK experience ongoing intimidation. And with the rise in zero-hour contracts, insecure employment and cuts to legal aid, the problem can only get worse.

Studies show that bullies tend to be bosses or those in authority, making it hard for workers to speak up. “It is easy to denounce bullying,” says employment writer Stefan Stern. “The harder task is to understand why it is happening and to suggest ways of dealing with it.”

Of course, decisions on whether and how to go public with a personal bullying or mobbing story should be made carefully and even strategically, with an eye toward desired outcomes and possible career impacts. This includes, where applicable, potential legal implications, especially for those with pending claims. (Legal protections against workplace bullying in the U.K., while not ideal, are generally stronger than those in the U.S., so American readers should take this into account when considering this opportunity to contribute their stories.)

That said, this is an unusually open invitation by a prominent and respected periodical with global reach. I can’t wait to see what the published feature looks like.

The Guardian‘s “bullying at work week”

The online story solicitation is part of The Guardian‘s “bullying at work week,” a series of features running now in the newspaper. Today’s feature is “The psychology of a workplace bully,” and tomorrow’s is a live chat on dealing with bullying at work.

As an American reader and Guardian subscriber, I am both impressed and envious. Impressed because a major newspaper with an international readership takes workplace bullying seriously, especially from a target’s perspective. Envious because, at least for now, I can’t imagine a U.S. counterpart doing the same thing. This series demonstrates the degree to which public awareness and understanding of workplace bullying are becoming more widely mainstreamed elsewhere, and I hope that we in the States can reach that point sooner than later.

%d bloggers like this: