February 4th, 2013

No excuses. Workplace bullying & abuse are perpetrated by people.


I’m old enough to remember when prostitution was rationalized as a “victimless” crime. The lies included: no one gets hurt, everyone is an adult free to choose, customers aren’t bad people just doin’ what comes naturally, blah, blah. Then newer generations discovered the sex slave trade, exploitation of young children, crime syndicates keeping the spoils. There certainly were then, and are, victims.

In our 15-year (16 in June) American campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of workplace bullying, we’ve seen some similar nonsensical rationalizations about this particular form of interpersonal violence. Excuses and protections for offenders delay societal rejection of workplace bullying. We call for an increased sympathy for bullied targets, the victims, to accelerate change.

Employers’ excuses for bullying: It is simply the exercise of managerial prerogative. Nothing illegal is done. Managers have to manage. Companies have to remain “competitive.” We can do what we want to our workers as long as there is no union. We can handle it voluntarily.

Lawmakers’ excuses for it: It will hurt corporations. I must be re-elected. The Chamber of Commerce (the principal corporate lobbyist in all states) tells me that employers can handle the problem voluntarily. Don’t regulate businesses or they will leave the state. State agencies hate stopping it because lawsuits stemming from new legislation would be expensive, and the State is broke.

Business press (the principal group of bully apologists) 2 types of excuses for it:

(1) Tough leaders are what makes companies great. They are visionaries, not bullies, (Jack Welch, Steve Jobs) and everyone else has to learn to live with them. CEOs are gods in our culture. Aggression is the American way of doing business. External market competitiveness should be internalized making us all cutthroat toward each other. If you side with victims, you are weak. Though aggressors are strong, never demonize them or insinuate that they are defective or broken, that would shatter the reverent myths about their superpowers. To do so denigrates their revered status, regardless of how they treat others.

(2) Bullying is a “trivial” issue as if it never involves leaders. It is simply a lower-level “HR-type” problem, if at all. Bullying is not perpetrated by managers (despite research showing the vast majority of it is top-down), it is only between non-supervisory workers. Leadership can afford to ignore it and not give it a priority.

Bullies’ excuses: I’m a victim, too. To say I’m responsible is unfair; I’m merely aggressive. I’m only following orders (and a good, but unethical, “soldier”). Targets make me hurt them; they provoke; they challenge my authority and I can’t tolerate that. If targets can’t stand up for themselves, they deserve to be humiliated. I am just managing people; if they can’t handle it, it is their problem.

Excuses prolong society taking steps to stop abusive practices. Our advocacy attempts to stop the delays by obfuscation. In America, eventually abusers are singled out, held accountable and sometimes stigmatized.

Prior to criminalizing domestic violence, apologists for wife beaters were common — “he’s a great guy,” “she did something to make him act that way.” Men owned the household and wife were chattel to be treated as the master saw fit. For years, women suffered and were traumatized or killed because society did not want to pierce the “family veil.” Those rationalizations slowed down progress toward societal condemnation of domestic violence. But right prevailed. To side against people who are clearly victims was a dubious moral decision. Imagine saying that violent men who tortured their wives were also victims. Today, few would dare defend domestic abusers. There are two actors in these situations, and one is nearly always an innocent victim who neither deserves nor invited the abuse.

Before child abuse was exposed and criminalized, society defended doing nothing by treating the home as sanctuary for the abusing family member. Somehow it was ignored because “what happens in the home was nobody’s business.” Victims were traumatized because society was so polite to alleged offenders, emphasizing the “allegation” so no punitive action need be taken. How ridiculous it sounds now to say that child abusers are victims too. Thankfully, the values of the movement to protect children trumped the rights of abusers to hide in their homes. Defending child abusers is now taboo.

We at WBI consider one of the biggest myths to be that bullying, a form of abuse, somehow occurs without someone being a perpetrator, a bully. To some, bullying’s offenders require more support than victims. This is odd for a number of reasons.

Given all the excuses used by employers, lawmakers and the business press to deny that workplace bullying is frequent, harmful and positively sanctioned, sympathy for the victims, targets, seems most important to achieve. The other anti-abuse movements were all built on the foundation of caring for victims, not abusers.

WBI centers the anti-bullying movement around the plight of targets. We are target-centric. Few situations are unquestionably characterized by an evil perpetrator and innocuous target. But to split sympathy evenly between abusers and the abused creates a false equivalency.

Bullying is ultimately the product of an enabling work environment interacting with the personality of bullies. Someone has to see the opportunity to harm someone else and exploit it. The “environment” is not a person. Executing the abusive conduct still must be done by one or more individuals.

Those who perform the abuse must take responsibility for their choices (they could always have acted with compassion and ethically instead). They deserve to be held accountable.

Bullying is not a perpetrator-less crime. Someone did the bullying. No sense being in denial about it.

Sympathy for workplace abusers can come after laws are enacted and identified bullies are available for research. Wife beaters were studied after domestic violence was criminalized and programs surfaced to help them become less violent.

What we don’t understand is how anyone can choose to side with perpetrators, bullies, aggressors, assholes (Bob Sutton’s term), and abusers when they have the chance to defend targets of the perpetrators’ assaults?

Choosing to defend those accused of bullying preserves the status quo. It supports those already with the power to harm others who deny the consequences of their actions. Insisting on protections for bullies who are never held accountable currently delays moving societal opinion about bullying from “favorable” to “unfavorable.”

If you care about stopping the destruction of the bullied targets’ health, jobs, careers, families, personal identities and overall well-being, sign on with WBI to hold bullies accountable. We have 3 sets of solutions — for individuals, for employers, and for public policymakers.

The core message of WBI’s advice for bullied individuals is to alert your employer to the costs associated with retaining the bully. It focuses on the impersonal fiscal impact of bullying, not calling out individuals.

Our work with employers through Work Doctor consulting employs a systemic solution to bullying, a systemic problem. We do not try to re-engineer personalities of bullies (doomed to fail given the perseverance of personality).

The legal solution through enacting state laws borrows heavily from anti-discrimination laws which incorporate work environment approaches. Hence, its name, the Healthy Workplace Bill, rather than “Get-the-Bully” bill.

Let’s accelerate the change that rejects workplace bullying as acceptable. Fully embrace the targets’ experience and stop bullying for their sake.

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This entry was posted on Monday, February 4th, 2013 at 2:11 pm and is filed under Commentary by G. Namie, Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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