March 4th, 2011
Workplace Bully Bashers of Bellingham
By Brad Broberg, Puget Sound Business Journal, March 4, 2011
Pity the bully who picks on Gary Namie.
“I’m bully-proof,” he says.
That’s easy to say when you’re built like a bear, but it’s Namie’s nature, not his stature, that makes him immune from bullies. Pitch him any you-know-what, and he’ll pitch it right back.
“I’m a really nice guy,” he says, “until you cross me.”
If everyone were like Namie, workplace bullies would be starving for targets. But many people aren’t wired for conflict and are unable to rebuff a bully — usually their boss but sometimes a co-worker.
Insults, intimidation and isolation are just some of the tactics a bully employs. The toll on the target’s health — everything from clinical depression to high blood pressure to post-traumatic stress disorder — can be devastating.
The issue exploded into the headlines last year when the editor of a University of Virginia literary magazine killed himself after complaining of alleged bullying by his boss — an extreme response but a testament to bullying’s destructive potential.
Such devastation is why Namie and his wife, Ruth founded the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Based in Bellingham, the institute is the hub of an anti-bullying enterprise that combines nonprofit advocacy and education with a money-making consulting and speaking practice.
“What I’m most proud of is the breadth and depth of what we do,” says Namie, who was a college teacher and corporate manager before bully busting became his life’s work.
WBI is a virtual institute with a website full of news and data about workplace bullying, including tips on how to respond, advice on how to get help and forums to share experiences. The nonprofit institute also offers telephone coaching sessions that — for a fee — provide bullying targets with emotional support and personalized strategies for dealing with their plight.
Media coverage of workplace bullying frequently features the Namies, who’ve been cited and quoted by the likes of CNN, and USA Today and authored articles in peer-reviewed publications such as the International Journal of Communication.
The institute commissioned what it says was the first national survey of workplace bullying in 2007 and followed that with another survey in 2010. In both surveys, one out of three respondents said they’d been bullied at work.
While the institute anchors their efforts, the Namies have many oars in the water. Their network includes:
— Healthy Workplace Campaign, which leads their nationwide push for anti-bullying legislation
— Work Doctor, home base for their consulting and speaking business
— WBI University, which provides training in how to spot and stop bullying
— Bully Busters, an online store selling mugs, buttons and T-shirts as well as their book, “The Bully at Work.” Another book, “The Bully-Free Workplace,” is due out this spring.
The Namies aren’t the only people addressing workplace bullying in the U.S., but they’ve been doing it longer than just about anybody else and are unique in combining advocacy, consulting and research, said Sarah Tracy, an associate communications professor at Arizona State University who studies workplace bullying.
“Everybody knows Gary and Ruth,” she said.
Although Ruth is retired and no longer plays an active role in the WBI, her story is the ongoing inspiration for the organization’s mission. Flash back to 1995. The Namies were living in San Francisco. Gary, a social psychologist with a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara, was teaching at local universities and consulting. Ruth, with a doctorate from the California School of Professional Psychology, was working for a health maintenance organization.
Both were blissfully ignorant of workplace bullying until Ruth found herself in the crosshairs of a female superior who berated her, spread rumors, disrupted her work and generally made her life miserable.
As the Namies searched for remedies, they were surprised to learn two things: Bullying is usually not illegal, and there was nowhere to turn for support and advice.
But they didn’t curse the dark. They lit a candle — the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying. Through a toll-free hotline, a website and seminars, their ad hoc crusade helped bring the largely unacknowledged issue to light, letting targets know they were not alone and were not to blame.
“We didn’t set out to create a (business),” Gary Namie says. “We set out to fill a need that wasn’t being met.”
Gary Namie compares the lack of recognition given to workplace bullying at the time of Ruth’s episode to the lack of recognition once given to domestic violence.
“This is domestic violence where the abuser is on the payroll,” he says.
The Namies moved to Bellingham in 2001 when Gary Namie landed a job teaching psychology at Western Washington University. That’s where the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying morphed into the Workplace Bullying Institute. Gary Namie, who retired from teaching in 2003, began pouring all of his energy into eliminating workplace bullying.
The WBI defines workplace bullying as repeated verbal abuse, offensive conduct and/or sabotage of the target’s work that harms the target’s mental/physical health.
“How do you distinguish a jerk or a tough manager from a bully? A tough boss is tough on everybody,” Gary Namie said. “A bully dumps all the misery on the few.”
The WBI provides lots of information about surviving being bullied, but none about how to confront bullies. Gary Namie believes that if targets were capable of confronting their tormenter, they already would have.
“The employer has to stop it,” Gary Namie says.
The problem is that employers often ignore or even tolerate bullying, he said.
Bullying sounds a lot like illegal harassment, but it’s usually not. Canada and some European countries have anti-bullying laws, but bullying typically is not against the law in the U.S. unless it involves harassment based on a person’s race, religion, sex or other legally protected status.
Namie and a volunteer network of state coordinators are working hard to change that through their grassroots Healthy Workplace Campaign. They have yet to pass a bill, but they’ve introduced bills in 20 states — including Washington (see sidebar) — and are convinced it’s only a matter of time until one state and then another and then another makes workplace bullying illegal.
The proposed laws put the onus on employers to prevent workplace bullying. While employers aren’t wild about anti-bullying laws, they’re starting to prepare for their “inevitable” passage, Namie says.
That’s a bullish development for people like Namie who help employers assess and eliminate bullying in their organizations. The phone at Work Doctor is ringing more than ever, he says. Ditto for WBI University, which will hold its first out-of-state session this spring in Chicago.
There’s good money to be made fighting workplace bullying. Tuition for WBI University, which provides three days of intense training in a class of five to 10 people, is $3,600. The price tag for five days of on-site consulting by Namie and his team averages $45,000. He says he gets one to two on-site consulting gigs, plus up to 10 speaking engagements, every month.
Critical of Competitors
Namie is openly critical of the credentials of many of his competitors — including one who called him a bully in a BusinessWeek magazine article after he questioned her abilities. He shrugs off the accusation.
“I’m not considered a bully (but) that’s OK. It doesn’t matter.” His point, he said, is that people should have “some background and experience” in the field before billing themselves as experts.
If Namie has a fault, it’s that he might be too passionate about his work, said Pam Lutgen-Sandvik, an associate communications professor at the University of New Mexico who interned at the WBI in 2003 and studies workplace bullying. She suspects some might find Namie’s devotion — and decibel level when he gets on a roll — disconcerting.
“He cares about it so much,” said Lutgen-Sandvik. “I’m sure that someone may look at him and think, ‘Wow! Why is he getting so excited?’ But that’s the way it is for people who have a life’s mission.”
As for being a bully, “I’ve never heard anybody talk about him like that or call him a bully,” she said.
The question facing the Namies is whether to continue growing — they’re up to four employees — or start licensing their trademarked system for assessing, correcting and preventing workplace bullying dubbed the Work Doctor Blueprint. Either way, they’re pleased what they’ve achieved so far.
“It was born in misery with Ruth’s plight,” Namie said, “but out of that has come the ability to help a lot of other people.”
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