“The Hero’s Call”: An alumnus interviews me about workplace bullying

One of the most gratifying things that I experience as a law professor is when I can reconnect with a former student who has built a successful and positively impactful legal career. Such was the case recently, when Suffolk Law alumnus Marc Diller extended an invitation to appear on his law firm’s video web series, The Hero’s Call.

Marc’s law firm is devoted to personal injury law, built around the conviction that those who suffer harms because of someone’s negligent, reckless, or intentional behavior should be entitled to compensation for their losses. And I’m delighted to note that Marc himself has become a highly accomplished and respected trial attorney here in the Bay State.

When the pandemic emerged, his firm launched The Hero’s Call series to spotlight the work of folks who are working to safeguard and advocate for the health and safety of others. Marc and his colleague, Dr. John Naranja, interviewed me for The Hero’s Call about my work around workplace bullying and associated activities in the field of therapeutic jurisprudence. To watch the 24-minute interview, go here.

From genocide to bullying, may remembrance inspire our commitment

The social media image that most commanded my attention on Friday morning was a photo of Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, taken in May 1960, on the day that the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam was first opened to the public. Otto Frank was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Nazi concentration camps. Daughters Anne and Margot, and wife Edith, all perished before they could be liberated.

Staring at that photograph, I tried to imagine what was going through Mr. Frank’s mind. But I understood that I could never truly comprehend his experience and the journey that brought him back to the place where he, his family, and four other Jewish residents spent some two years in hiding before they were discovered and eventually transported to Auschwitz.

Remembrance

And yet, even if we do not share direct memories of the Holocaust, maintaining a collective sense of remembrance, buoyed by historical literacy, is central to our understanding of how humans can engage in seemingly unthinkable atrocities. Indeed, I believe that the Nazi genocide is a key starting place for grasping our capacity for cruelty. As I wrote eight years ago:

We need to understand the Holocaust because there is no more documented, memorialized, and analyzed chapter of widespread, deliberate, orchestrated human atrocity in our history. If we want to grasp how human beings in a “modern” era can inflict horrific cruelties on others  — systematically and interpersonally — then the Holocaust is at the core of our understanding.

Despite the ample historical record, we may be losing our collective memory of the Holocaust, at least in the U.S. In 2018, Julie Zauzmer reported for the Washington Post:

Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is, according to a study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day that found that knowledge of the genocide that killed 6 million Jews during World War II is not robust among American adults.

Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it — twice the percentage of U.S. adults as a whole who said the same.

. . . Asked to identify what Auschwitz is, 41 percent of respondents and 66 percent of millennials could not come up with a correct response identifying it as a concentration camp or extermination camp.

From genocide to bullying

Years ago, as I began my deeper dives into the dynamics of bullying and mobbing at work, I looked to the nature of genocidal behavior for understanding the eliminationist instincts that appear to be present in attempts to force someone out of a workplace and even wreck their careers. I took these steps somewhat gingerly, because I wasn’t sure of the appropriateness of comparing genocides to even the worst kinds of workplace mistreatment. You might sense these tentative steps in what I wrote back in 2011:

Do the individual and collective behaviors of the Holocaust help us to understand severe, targeted, personally destructive workplace bullying?

The question has been discussed within the workplace anti-bullying movement and requires respectful contemplation. I am well aware of the casual overuse of references to Hitler and the Nazis in our popular culture, especially in today’s overheated political discourse. Moreover, I acknowledge the dangers of comparing anything to the Holocaust, an outrage so profound that it is nearly impossible to fathom but for the abundant factual record.

Nevertheless, I have steeped myself in the experiences and literature of workplace bullying, and I have read many works about the Holocaust. Although the two forms of mistreatment are hardly equivalent — even the worst forms of workplace bullying are a world away from genocide — there are real connections between them.

I credit two important individuals for helping to validate my hesitantly shared belief that genocide and bullying exist together on a spectrum, connected by common human toxicities and failings.

First, Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized authority on school bullying whose work has also extended into the realm of human rights generally. In her book Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide (2007), she recounted how she used a talk at the University of Rwanda to explain “how it was a short walk from schoolyard bullying to criminal bullying (hate crime) to genocide,” invoking the roles of aggressor, bullying target, and bystander.

Second, Dr. Edith Eger is a noted trauma therapist, author, and Auschwitz survivor. At a conference in 2017, I had the bracing task of immediately following her eloquent keynote speech with my presentation about workplace bullying and mobbing. Looking periodically at Dr. Edie (as she is known) as she sat in the front row, I shared with everyone my unease about comparing the Holocaust to work abuse, especially in the presence of someone who had survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. Thankfully, when I finished my talk, Dr. Edie applauded enthusiastically and gave me a warm nod of approval. I was both relieved and honored by her response.

Commitment

In the realm of employment relations, we often use the terms workplace bullying and workplace incivility as a matched pair, with some differentiating them only slightly by severity and intention. However, I’ve come to regard workplace bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors as being closer in essential character to the even more virulent behaviors that target people for abuse or extinction en masse. The degree and extent of harm may vary greatly, but the driving psychological and social forces bear many likenesses.

Indeed, over the years, the worst accounts of workplace mistreatment that I’ve known of have had nothing to do with incompetent management or everyday incivilities. Rather, they’ve typically shared a malicious intention to diminish, undermine, and harm someone, to drive them out of the organization, and perhaps even to destroy their ability to earn a living. In each of these instances, an eliminationist instinct has been very present, usually enabled and protected by institutional cultures.

Ultimately, all behaviors on this spectrum of cruelty and toxic abuse of power demand our responses. Thus, remembrance should inspire our ongoing commitment to understand and address these behaviors, wherever they may appear. 

For my part, I’ll continue my research, writing, and advocacy on workplace bullying and related topics. That work is a lifelong commitment. In addition, the contemplations offered above, some of which draw upon previous writings posted to this blog, represent some early thinking steps towards a more ambitious project that examines the varied manifestations of cruelty and abuse and assesses how law and public policy have responded to them. My objective is to contribute to a broader and deeper understanding of the differences and commonalities among these forms of severe mistreatment and what we can do about them.

We need to dig beneath generic references to “toxic workplaces”

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

If you’ve been following media coverage of some of the not-so-wonderful aspects of the current American workplace, then you may have encountered the growing cacophony of references to “toxic workplaces,” “toxic work environments,” “toxic jobs,” and the like. (If you doubt me, do a few Google searches and you’ll quickly see what I mean!)

It appears that a mix of the following has given rise to generic references about toxic work settings:

  • The MeToo movement;
  • The pandemic and overwork of workers in essential job categories;
  • The Great Resignation;
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion;
  • Political and social discord;
  • Bullying and incivility;
  • Attention to bad bosses;
  • Wage stagnation and benefit cuts;
  • The recent dramatic uptick in union organizing.

Organizational behavior research from years ago taught me that different forms of workplace mistreatment tend to run together in packs. Thus, if you encounter a workplace rife with sexual harassment, then you’re quite likely to see other forms of interpersonal mistreatment flourishing as well. Contemporary news accounts often confirm this. For example, I’ve noticed that investigative pieces focusing on sexual misconduct in a given workplace often then segue into describing behaviors that might be labeled as bullying and/or incivility.

In any event, if we wish to create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces, then we need to dig beneath the generic tag of toxicity and ask specifically what’s going on. The results may yield different problem areas and different fixes. Some bad behaviors may be intentional. Others will fall under the categories of negligence or dysfunction. Some may implicate employment and labor law violations. Certain concerns may be organizational in nature; others may be limited to a department or working group.

It’s also true that, on occasion, frequent complainers will invoke the language of toxicity to avoid supplying specific allegations that won’t hold up. Some will do so as attempted shields against accountability for their own inadequate work performances.

That said, I feel confident in saying that there is a fair amount of genuine unhappiness and undue stress in our workplaces during this snapshot moment in time. Some of the causes may be beyond the means of even well-intentioned organizations to remedy. But good employers will address worker concerns with attention to detail and an innate sense of fairness and dignity, while bad ones will dismiss reports of workplace toxicity and sometimes pay the consequences.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Annotated recommended book list for 2022

 

This is an updated and revised annotated list of books on workplace bullying and related topics, following up on earlier lists published here in 2011 and 2018. This list now sorts recommended volumes into categories, while recognizing there is considerable overlap among them.

Here are several preliminary points before I jump into the list itself:

  • First, this list emphasizes books that are primarily about workplace bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors, as well as the organizational cultures that fuel them. It also adds books that bring important contextual understanding to this subject matter.
  • Second, I have not included several valuable books that look at bullying in specific occupational fields, such as education and health care.
  • Third, there is a strong U.S.-based focus here, with a healthy sprinkling of international perspectives. That said, important work on this subject continues to expand on a global scale, and I won’t even try to capture all of it here.
  • Fourth, with one exception (okay, a two-volume book set I co-edited!), I have emphasized single-volume works that, at least for more recent titles still in print, are relatively affordable.
  • Fifth, I have not included the many treatments of workplace incivility or bad management, or books touting best practices in management generally. While important and related to workplace bullying, I needed to cabin in the scope of this list.
  • Sixth, I have not covered the growing number of self-published titles on these topics, including first-person accounts of those who have experienced severe workplace mistreatment. These works contain useful insights and stories, but regrettably I have not been able to review them closely for this list.
  • Finally, some acknowledgements: I have been involved in this work since the late 1990s. Accordingly, I have contributed to books about workplace bullying and been discussed and cited by colleagues who have authored some of these volumes. It is impossible for me to be objective in making this selection, so for the sake of full disclosure I mark books to which I have contributed content with a double asterisk (**); and books where my work is discussed in a more focused way and/or where I provided a promotional “blurb,” with an asterisk (*), in both instances following the date of publication.

ESPECIALLY FOR WORKERS

Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (2nd ed., 2009)* — A seminal work by the individuals most responsible for introducing the concept of workplace bullying to a North American audience. It remains the most readable, accessible book for targets of workplace bullying. (Disclosure note: I have worked with the Namies and their Workplace Bullying Institute on a pro bono basis for almost two decades, and my work is discussed in this book.)

Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014)* — For both a comprehensive examination of workplace mobbing and valuable guidance for individuals, employers, and other workplace stakeholders, this is the best one-volume treatment of the topic.

ESPECIALLY FOR EMPLOYERS

Gary Namie & Ruth F. Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (2011)* — The Namies’ step-by-step program for employers that want to pro-actively address workplace bullying, drawing upon many years of research and consulting.

Teresa A. Daniel & Gary S. Metcalf, Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal, & Risk Management Professionals (2nd ed., 2016)* — A valuable “inside the fish bowl,” management perspective on preventing and responding to workplace bullying, with guidance for different levels of organizational leadership.

FOR RESEARCHERS GETTING STARTED

Stale Einarsen, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf & Cary L. Cooper, eds., Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Developments in Theory, Research, and Practice (3rd ed., 2020)** — Latest edition of the best one-volume, multidisciplinary, international collection of research and commentary on workplace bullying, with contributions from leading authorities.

Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018)** — A two-volume, encyclopedic, multidisciplinary examination of workplace bullying and mobbing from an American perspective, featuring the work of over two dozen contributors.

Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions (2012)* — A thorough, scholarly examination of mobbing behaviors and dynamics and how to respond to them, co-authored by two leading authorities on the subject.

EARLY, FOUNDATIONAL WORKS

Andrea Adams, with Neil Crawford, Bullying at Work: How to confront and overcome it (1992) — A pioneering work by a BBC journalist whose investigations helped to launch the workplace anti-bullying movement.

Carroll M. Brodsky, The harassed worker (1976) — Perhaps the earliest book to document and analyze these behaviors, this out-of-print and hard to find volume is worthy of mention for serious researchers and scholars.

Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz & Gail Pursell Elliott, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (2002) — An early, important work built around the European conceptualization of mobbing and the vitally important research of the late Heinz Leymann.

Tim Field, Bully in Sight (1996) — One of the first works on workplace bullying by an early U.K. anti-bullying movement advocate, it remains an important commentary for serious students of this subject.

Marie-France Hirogoyen, Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity (English ed., 2004) — Important analysis of emotional abuse in private lives and in the workplace by a French psychiatrist and therapist.

Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, BullyProof Yourself At Work! (1998)* — The Namies’ pathbreaking first take on comprehending and responding to workplace bullying.

Charlotte Rayner, Helge Hoel & Cary L. Cooper, Workplace Bullying: What we know, who is to blame, and what can we do? (2002) — An early examination by three leading authorities on bullying and stress at work.

Judith Wyatt & Chauncey Hare, Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It (1997) — One of the earliest books about psychological abuse at work, this is an important piece of the literature.

ALSO HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Judith Geneva Balcerzak, Workplace Bullying: Clinical and Organizational Perspectives (2015)* — Written by a clinical social worker and published by the National Association of Social Workers, this book is helpful to anyone who wants to understand workplace bullying and is especially useful for those in the social work field.

Carlo Caponecchia & Anne Wyatt, Preventing Workplace Bullying: An Evidence-Based Guide for Managers and Employees (2011) — Brisk overview with thought-provoking case studies, and applying research and analysis to practices and responses.

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, Workplace Bullying and Harassment: New Developments in International Law (2017)* — A handy and thorough global compilation and summary of laws and regulations pertaining to workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment.

Lynne Curry, Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge (2016) — Authored by a management and human resources consultant who has experienced workplace bullying, this book takes a helpful, systematic, coaching-based approach for those who are dealing with bullying at work.

Suzi Fox & Paul E. Spector, eds., Counterproductive Work Behavior: Investigations of Actors and Targets (2005) — Very useful collection of chapter contributions that includes considerable research and commentary on bullying.

Harvey Hornstein, Brutal Bosses and Their Prey: How to Identify and Overcome Abuse in the Workplace (1996) — This work by a social psychologist examines bad boss behaviors, with especially relevant research findings and commentary about abusive supervision in the midst of difficult economic times.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Adult Bullying: A Nasty Piece of Work (2013) — A leading researcher on workplace bullying and related topics has gathered her journal articles, many of which are co-authored with other experts, into a single volume helpful to both scholars and those dealing with bullying at their workplaces.

Robert I. Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007) — While the title alone guaranteed this book a fair amount of attention, its discussion of bullying and incivility at work is noteworthy in its own right.

Noreen Tehrani, ed., Workplace Bullying: Symptoms and Solutions (2012)— A thought-provoking collection of chapter contributions from an international group of scholars and practitioners, with an emphasis on European perspectives.

PSYCHOLOGICAL AND PSYCHIATRIC PERSPECTIVES

Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (rev. ed., 2019) — A revised and expanded edition of this informative look at the very worst types of workplace abusers, authored by two leading experts in psychopathic behavior.

Sheila M. Keegan, The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015) — An insightful book by a British consultant and psychologist that links the experience of fear at work to organizational cultures, and suggests solutions for moving forward. Includes a chapter on workplace bullying.

Ronald Schouten & James Silver, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012) — Examines the characteristics and behaviors of those who may not meet the strict clinical criteria for psychopathy, but who demonstrate associated qualities such as pathological lying and lack of empathy, including scenarios such as workplace bullying.

Robin Stern, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life (2018 ed.) — Explores the complicated dynamics of gaslighting, with the Introduction to the 2018 acknowledging the link between gaslighting and workplace bullying.

Martha Stout, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020)* —  A followup to the author’s earlier groundbreaking work The Sociopath Next Door (2006), this accessible and gruesomely fascinating exploration about how to respond to sociopaths includes considerable discussion of work situations, including workplace bullying.

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) — Though not specifically about bullying, this is the most lucid, accessible, and hopeful book about psychological trauma and possibilities for successful treatment that I’ve encountered, authored by one of the pioneering experts in the field.

BROADER CONTEXTS AND FRAMES

Emily S. Bassman, Abuse in the Workplace: Management Remedies and Bottom Line Impact (1992) — Early and valuable examination of the organizational costs of emotional abuse at work.

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, Managing Psychosocial Hazards and Work-Related Stress in Today’s Work Environment: International Insights for U.S. Organizations (2022)* — Explores how employers can recognize and respond to psychosocial hazards, including workplace bullying, to prevent physical and psychological injury and stress.

Randy Hodson, Dignity at Work (2001) — Broad examination of dignity at work, including bullying behaviors, from a sociological perspective grounded in human dignity.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We Can Do About It (2018) — Examines how modern management practices, including workplace bullying, are contributing to toxic workplaces that inflict significant harms on both worker health and organizational performance.

Peter Schnall, Marnie Dobson & Ellen Rosskam, eds., Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences, Cures (2009) — Occupational health experts analyze the psychosocial aspects of work, public health impacts, and possible stakeholder responses.

The Amy Wax situation: On academic freedom, diversity & inclusion, workplace mobbing, and cancel culture

Screenshot from Inside Higher Education

Applying just about any conventional measure, law professor Amy Wax has built a spectacularly successful career. She holds a chaired professorship at an Ivy League law school (University of Pennsylvania). She has assembled a ferocious c.v. (link here), loaded with sterling academic and professional achievements, publications, and awards. Her degrees include a J.D. from Columbia and an M.D. from Harvard.

And yet she is under heavy fire for an ongoing, alleged series of polarizing, critical statements and negative characterizations about people of color, women, and gays. For that she faces potential discipline and loss of tenure protections. The Dean of her law school has asked the university’s faculty senate to impose sanctions on her, a possible prelude towards eventual termination proceedings.

Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Education (link here), provides a lot of details about this situation, which has received national attention. Here’s his lede:

Some students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania have been clamoring for years for the ouster of Amy Wax, the polarizing law professor who courted scandal with incendiary and racist remarks and writings and seemed to relish the resulting controversies. Despite the repeated calls for her removal from her tenured position, and the criticisms of her actions—including by university leaders—that followed each controversy, Wax remained in the position and seemed firmly protected by free speech and academic freedom rights.

That pattern may be about to change: the dean of the Penn law school has started a process that could lead to Wax’s termination.

To be clear, we’re not talking about an isolated instance or two of questionable speech. From Penn Law dean Theodore Ruger’s memorandum to the Chair of the Faculty Senate (link here), here are some of Prof. Wax’s alleged statements, made to individual students, her classes, and public audiences:

  • “Stating in class that Mexican men are more likely to assault women and remarking such a stereotype was accurate in the same way as ‘Germans are punctual.'”
  • “Commenting in class that gay couples are not fit to raise children and making other references to LGBTQ people that a student reported evinced a ‘pattern of homophobia.'”
  • “Commenting after a series of students with foreign-sounding names introduced themselves that one student was ‘finally, an American’ adding, ‘it’s a good thing, trust me.'”
  • Telling a Black student…”who asked whether Wax agreed with [a panelist’s] statements that Black people are inherently inferior to white people, that ‘you can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.'”
  • Telling a Black student “that Black students don’t perform as well as white students because they are less well prepared, and that they are less well prepared because of affirmative action.”
  • “Stating, based on misleading citation of other sources, that ‘women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men,’ women are ‘less intellectual than men’ and there is ‘some evidence’ for the proposition that ‘men and women differ in cognitive ability.'”
  • “Stating that ‘our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.'”
  • “Stating that Asians have an ‘indifference to liberty,’ lack ‘thoughtful and audacious individualism’ and that ‘the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.’”
  • “Stating that ‘there were some very smart Jews’ among her past students but that Ashkenazi Jews are ‘diluting [their] brand like crazy because [they are] intermarrying.'”
  • “Stating that low-income students may cause ‘reverse contagion,’ infecting more ‘capable and sophisticated’ students with their ‘delinquency and rule-breaking.'”
  • “Stating that ‘if you go into medical schools, you’ll see that Indians, South Asians are now rising stars. . . . [T]hese diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are poisoning the scientific establishment and the medical establishment now.'”

In her recently posted GoFundMe appeal to create the “Amy Wax Legal Defense Fund” (link here), Prof. Wax states that Dean Ruger’s charges of inappropriate conduct are an attack on her conservative principles and are “littered with indignant invective and unsubstantiated and distorted claims.” She adds:

Penn Law Dean Ruger’s latest steps are part of a longstanding campaign at Penn Law School against me based on my stated positions, opinions, and speech, and despite my stellar performance as an award-winning teacher and academic during my decades-long career as a law professor. Penn’s actions represent an unprecedented and deeply destructive threat to the practice and traditions of free expression on campus and the tenure protections afforded to professors who express unpopular views. They are further evidence of the “woke” takeover of our university system, which seeks to stifle and punish dissent and purge our campuses of any deviation from a narrow set of progressive dogmas.

Academic freedom and tenure

While academic tenure may not be the lifetime job guarantee that some claim it is, it’s true that tenured professors at stable institutions who perform their work satisfactorily can expect continued employment. (For more about this topic, see my blog article, “What is academic tenure?,” link here.) And as a tenured professor at a prestigious university, Prof. Wax enjoys some of the strongest job protections available to any American employee.

One of the main purposes of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom in teaching, scholarship, and service activities. This includes freedom of expression, written or spoken. I regard academic freedom and tenure as carrying both rights and responsibilities. They include earned protections and accompanying obligations to perform one’s job with integrity. Tenure revocation is possible in cases of serious misconduct.

For controversial speech in such a context, I suggest that we establish a spectrum between being a thought-provoking scholar and being a simple provocateur.

The thought-provoking scholar pushes the boundaries of our assumptions and perceptions, using facts, analysis, interpretation, and sometimes creative expression. At times, this may include voicing or supporting unpopular viewpoints. The simple provocateur is more akin to a keyboard warrior, playing to the crowd in the comments section. This is the stuff of the internet troll and has very little to do with reasoned thought.

Where Amy Wax places on that spectrum may help us understand how her situation should be resolved. If her statements are considered so outlandish, irresponsible, and hurtful as to constitute misconduct, then sanctions may be in offing.

One of the most challenging considerations here is that we don’t have a bevy of comparable situations to give us guidance on how this should be handled. Assuming that Prof. Wax said or wrote most of the statements attributed to her, then this is a far cry from more typical scenarios that involve isolated instances or a small cluster of utterances deemed problematic.

It’s fair to point out that if Wax had been employed in a standard-brand, private-sector job setting (like a law firm or medical center), then it’s likely that she would’ve been terminated for cause already, perhaps following disciplinary warnings or a suspension. But academic freedom and tenure provide both substantive and procedural protections that most jobs do not offer.

Diversity and inclusion

You can easily see how the Wax situation is tailor-made for America’s tortured and fraught political and civic dialogue about diversity and freedom of expression. Her alleged statements have caused such an uproar because many have found them to be outrageous, hurtful, and wrongheaded. They’ve come at a time when “DEI” (diversity, equity, inclusion) is a deep focus of the day, in academe and corporate America alike.

Wax’s defenders range from those who agree with the substance of her alleged statements to those who place a very high value on academic freedom. 

Workplace mobbing

Folks have every right to criticize or defend Wax. She should be subjected to appropriate discipline if she’s crossed a clear line. From my concededly distanced perch, I believe that she is at that line or has even crossed it. While some of her alleged statements may fall under the cloak of academic freedom, many others appear to be grounded in animus towards difference.

Whether one agrees with Wax or not, there’s always a risk that critical voices can become an unruly mob. I find Wax’s worldview deeply objectionable, but I’m not happy about workplace mobbing scenes either. Prof. Kenneth Westhues’ pathbreaking work on mobbing in academe has repeatedly illustrated how quickly and dramatically such behaviors can escalate.

I imagine that Prof. Wax is feeling quite under siege right now. I don’t envy her. If she does face any disciplinary proceedings, then I hope — for everyone’s sake — that they will be conducted with dignity, fairness, and honesty.

Cancel culture

Especially because there is no legal definition of cancel culture, it’s important that we have some understanding of what it means in the employment context. I suggest that we define cancel culture at work as a response claimed to be disproportionately harsh — typically, either severe discipline or termination — to statements or actions deemed objectionable, hurtful and/or controversial.

At this juncture, it’s hard for anyone to legitimately claim that Amy Wax has been “cancelled.” However, the University’s moves toward possible disciplinary action and/or termination will cause the term to be used. And especially if her tenure is revoked and she is dismissed, then notwithstanding any due process she had been accorded, the cries of cancel culture from certain circles will be loud and sustained.

If Wax does leave Penn under whatever circumstances, then she will very likely land on her feet. She will be accorded martyr status and will no doubt be hired by an institution more compatible with her social and ideological views.

Summing up

While admitting that I’ve waded into this conversation with some trepidation, I feel obliged to share my own sense of this situation. I consider many of Amy Wax’s alleged statements to be hurtful and divisive. They sound like those of a provocateur fueling an ugly, exclusionary worldview, rather than those of a thought-provoking professor who occupies a position of enormous privilege and responsibility.

Yup, issues surrounding diversity and difference are challenging and can yield honest differences of opinion. There is a place in that discussion for strong language. But I don’t think that the heart of Wax’s rhetoric is contributing to our understanding of these issues. Sadly, one thing I’m certain of is that the eventual outcome of this situation — whatever it happens to be — will drive a deeper wedge into our political and social divide. 

Podcast: Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie and the history of the Workplace Bullying Institute

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of interviewing Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute about the history of their pioneering work to address workplace bullying, the latest addition to Gary’s Workplace Bullying Podcast series. The interview — a conversation, really — runs about 90 minutes. You can access it here (YouTube) or here (Podcast page, “The WBI Story — Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie”).

In 1998, I stumbled upon an online interview with Gary, in which he was describing a form of employee mistreatment that he called “workplace bullying.” He further explained that he and his wife, Ruth, had started an initiative called the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (eventually to become the Workplace Bullying Institute). I read the interview and had a fast epiphany: Bullying at work is one of the most neglected forms of abuse in the American workplace.

I called Gary and Ruth and introduced myself as a young law professor specializing in employment law. I offered to start researching potential legal protections against workplace bullying, and they accepted. This call would lead to a partnership and friendship that have endured to this day.

Thus, it was my special privilege to interview Ruth and Gary, starting with their origin story and moving into the present day. For those who have been closely following their work for years, this story should be of special interest.

The pandemic hasn’t curbed workplace bullying, but the Great Resignation might do so

Image courtesy Clipart Panda

As discussed on this blog last year, the pandemic did not put the breaks on workplace bullying, at least in the U.S. Rather, as verified in a scientific study by the Workplace Bullying Institute done with Zogby Analytics, much of the offending behavior simply went online, mainly via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom.

But perhaps the greatest shift in the labor market related to the pandemic — tagged broadly as the “Great Resignation” — is signaling to employers that it would be in their best interests to take bullying and related behaviors more seriously. 

You see, even the mainstream business media, such as Bloomberg and Forbes, are acknowledging that toxic work cultures are a major driver of the Great Resignation. And although references to toxic work environments do not necessarily equate with workplace bullying, you can bet that the latter makes up a lot of the former.

The pandemic has given many people opportunities to reflect upon their work experiences, and a good number have reckoned that they’ve been toiling under unpleasant conditions. Overall, a more plentiful labor market has offered workers greater flexibility in terms of changing jobs.

In addition, a resurgent labor movement — most strongly evidenced by a wave of successful union organizing campaigns at Starbucks locations across the country — is providing more workers with an opportunity to voice concerns about their conditions of employment, including bullying, harassment, and abuse. Bullying and related concerns can, in turn, be raised at the bargaining table. (Some unions, such as SEIU/NAGE here in Massachusetts, have become major allies in standing against workplace bullying.)

Generational dynamics are playing a role. There’s evidence that younger workers, in particular, appear to be valuing respectful working conditions over trendy perks. Many are entering the workforce after learning about bullying and exclusion during their years of schooling.

It’s too early to tell how many employers will take hard looks at their workplace cultures in the midst of this evolving labor market. After all, if there’s one word that characterizes our current climate of employee relations and the wider frame of the economy, uncertainty is it. In fact, if the economy goes into recession, then workers may suddenly find themselves with much less bargaining power over job offers and working conditions.

Nonetheless, smart employers will proactively address bullying and other abusive workplace behaviors as part of an intelligent program of employee relations aimed at bolstering productivity and worker well-being. The resources for doing so are readily available. The Workplace Bullying Institute, for example, offers a “Healthy Workplace System” with various education and training components. For starters, it can be as simple as applying lessons from The Bully-Free Workplace (2011), by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie.

Opportunities to build healthier workplace cultures abound. Reducing and responding to workplace bullying can be chief among them.

Dr. Martha Stout on outsmarting sociopaths (including those at work)

Reading this on the subway gets me some odd looks

Years ago, when I began learning about psychiatric disorders that can fuel workplace bullying and abuse, I found Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) to be quite the eye-opener. She started by suggesting that if we want to understand a condition that may be present in roughly 4 percent of the population, then we should try to imagine living and acting without a conscience. She went on to explore the dynamics of sociopathy, mainly in terms of interpersonal relationships.

Her bottom line? If you find yourself around a sociopath, then try to distance yourself from them.

Dr. Stout’s latest work, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020), builds strongly on her earlier, excellent volume. She explores sociopathy in different settings, including parental (if a child exhibits sociopathic traits), workplace (as in bullying and abuse), spousal/legal (especially custody battles), and criminally assaultive contexts. She also examines how private and public institutions can engage in sociopathic behaviors.

Although Stout’s advice on avoiding sociopaths still holds, she recognizes that circumstances may make it difficult to do so and offers guidance on how to interact (and not interact) with sociopaths in specific settings. In addition, she looks at potential systemic responses to sociopathy, including legal ones.

If you want to learn about sociopathy and sociopaths, then I heartily recommend both books. But if you have time for only one, then Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door is my recommendation. It is clear that the author did a lot more digging between the publication of these books. (Among other things, Stout incorporates illustrative stories shared by readers of her first book to offer new insights.)

Sociopathy at work

I was very happy to see Dr. Stout looking deeply into our workplaces. In a chapter titled “Human Evil at Work: Sociopathic Coworkers, Bosses, and Professionals,” she dives into sociopathic behaviors on the job. This represents a major expansion of the range of her investigations and may resonate strongly with those who have experienced bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors in their jobs. It has long been my ongoing hypothesis that the worst types of bullying and abuse at work — targeted behaviors designed to drive people out of their jobs and destroy their livelihoods — are committed by folks with significant personality disorders.

I was grateful to see Dr. Stout discussing our workplace anti-bullying initiatives in her final chapter, “The Nature of Good: Compassion, Forgiveness, and Freedom.” She mentions Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and me by name and touts our work in drafting and advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In short, I highly recommend Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of sociopathy, the behaviors of sociopaths, and how the rest of us can respond to these threats to our well-being. This is an important work.

Great literature may help us to understand trauma

Great literature may help us to understand psychological trauma. In a newly published essay (link here), “Ahab Rages and Odysseus Weeps: Trauma as a Core Concept for Humanistic Inquiry,” I summon Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Homer’s The Odyssey for that purpose. Drawing upon Moby-Dick, I consider the injured Captain Ahab as a workplace trauma sufferer and abusive boss. Examining The Odyssey, I see Odysseus experiencing grief and exhaustion as he tries to return home after 10 years of fighting a war.

The piece has just been posted to the blog of Harrison Middleton University, a fully online university devoted to Great Books and Great Ideas, where I am a 2022 “Fellow in Ideas.” In this side-gig role, I am contributing writings to HMU’s publications and taking part in various discussion groups.

Presentation: “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace”

Earlier this year, I gave a virtual presentation about “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace” for the Northeastern University College of Science in Boston, as part of a series on “Disrupting Academic Bullying.” The recording has been posted to YouTube (link here). I use the first 18-19 minutes to cover bullying, mobbing, and incivility generally, and then I discuss these behaviors in academic work settings. My prepared remarks run for about 44 minutes in all, followed by Q&A and comments for another 25 minutes.

Relevant Earlier Posts

  • Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (2017) (link here);
  • UMass-Amherst launches campus-wide workplace anti-bullying initiative (2013) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009; rev. 2014) (link here).
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