March 15th, 2013
Abuse at Work: Still not taboo after all these years
At WBI we define workplace bullying as health-harming. It not only triggers a host of stress-related diseases that compromise the bullied target’s health, in its severest forms, it is another form of interpersonal abuse. Yes, abuse. Not simply eye-rolling as trivializing critics mischaracterize it. Bullying is a non-physical form of workplace violence. A systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction launched by a single instigator and executed by many joiners. It becomes an attack by many against the lone principled and shocked target.
American society reacts oddly to workplace bullying. Those to whom it has happened (35% of adult Americans) do not doubt its seriousness. Those with no experience are inclined to doubt and castigate the victims as somehow deficient. But we can’t wait for everyone to personally experience it before they agree to stop it.
There is precedent that even in the indisputably violent culture that is the U.S. some forms of abuse have been acknowledged to be morally wrong and prohibited — not eliminated — but frowned upon and condemned. They are taboo — not workplace bullying.
Child abuse, once ignored because outsiders (including law enforcement) did not want to pierce the “family veil,” has become taboo. Its practice clearly has not ended, but at least perpetrators are criminals according to American laws.
Domestic violence, rationalized for decades by a distorted logic that victims of physical assaults and death threats (indeed murder) invited, deserved, and welcomed the violence they suffered, was also made illegal. Domestic violence is now taboo.
School bullying, long considered an acceptable rite of passage for developing youths, has exploded on the public’s conscience. The destructive effects of taunting, degradation and humiliation have been researched. Programs to address student-age bullying flourish. The media equate bullying almost solely with school bullying. Youth bullying is now taboo.
In the workplace, employers fear physical violence and the threat of massacres (an American signature form of gun violence that has been copied around the globe). Some states have laws; most employers classify physical (and often verbal abuse) as unacceptable.
But when non-physical violence is routine, a “style of management,” or mistreatment of coworkers, it is normalized. The “new normal” for the American workplace is bullying. There is no employer fear.
The message to workers is clear. If you the worker don’t like it (the abuse), leave. The market is full of unemployed and underemployed people eager to take any job on any terms. Unions that once constrained employers have been marginalized allowing owners and executives free reign over work conditions. Toxic environments? No problem for executives. Employers expect loyalty from employees without reciprocation.
If the information revolution was the “third wave” (Toffler’s term with agrarian and industrial eras waves number one and two), I think globalization, characterized by driving down labor costs to the lowest possible level, is the fourth wave. Denying workers a living wage as a minimum is the foundation for other abuses. Dignity at work is impossible when workers compete with each other for low-paying, unsafe and degrading jobs.
Employers frequently deny: acknowledgement of, and protections against exposure to, dangerous chemicals; bathroom privileges; accommodations for returned-to-work injured workers; accurate pay according to state wage and hour laws; and fair and credible investigations of law or policy violations. They do this without consequence. Cruelty with impunity.
Employers smokescreen the nefarious undermining of workers with happy talk — Great Place to Work designations, Psychologically Healthy Workplace awards, and “employee engagement and managing talent” trends.
Because there are still no laws against psychological violence, a.k.a. workplace bullying, in the U.S. employers can and do deny its existence. Harm caused by abusers on the payroll is denied.
Employers do acknowledge one form of trauma caused at work. Witnesses to onsite violence can be traumatized. Counseling firms offer CISD — Critical Incident Stress Debriefing — contracts which large employers purchase as a form of insurance against rare events like robberies, hostage-taking or massacres on the worksite. Teams of therapists are rushed in during the aftermath to help workers cope. So, employers do know the that trauma exists.
The two major challenges ahead for the U.S. Workplace Bullying movement are (1) to expand employers’ understanding of trauma to include work trauma, the variety induced at work with no ties to abuse experienced outside the workplace, and (2) to convince society to add workplace bullying to the list of phenomena that can induce trauma and are deemed unacceptable, to become taboo.
Workplace bullying is the last form of potentially traumatizing abuse in the U.S. to not be taboo. Currently (in 2013), it is not only not condemned, it is revered and worshiped as an inevitable part of work life.
When it becomes taboo, no self-respecting American would want to be caught bullying. Offenders would face public scorn and be ostracized as child abusers and wife batterers now are. The fear of exposure will discourage decent people from experimenting with dominating or humiliating another person at work. There may be laws that convince employers to declare it unacceptable. In time, all but the most horrific and disturbed offenders will voluntarily cease. Then, society will develop new ways to deal with the resistant minority of bullies who persist despite the taboo.
Taboo status shifts societal stigma and shame from victims to perpetrators. Bullying is executed by individuals not presently held accountable. That will change.
We have a long way to go. Each day, awareness of workplace bullying grows in the public lexicon. Progress is being made. If you are recently targeted, it’s hard to believe, but we are making progress.
This entry was posted on Friday, March 15th, 2013 at 10:12 am and is filed under Commentary by G. Namie, The New America. 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.