Bullying is Domestic Violence At Work
The abuser is on the payroll!
In so many ways the two phenomena uncannily mirror each other. With bullying and partner violence, the abuser's motive to control and dominate the victim starts the process and determines the nature and extent of the sick, twisted relationship that follows. The perpetrator objectifies the victim. In 98% of domestic violence cases, the perpetrator is the man. In bullying, the majority of abusers, 62%, are male; women are famously perpetrators, too. So, regardless of gender, the bully-abuser dehumanizes her or his prey. She can have such contempt for the target that she refuses to grant even the minimal respect due to a fellow human being. Dehumanization enables the severe mistreatment. When the recipient is not seen as an equal, it is easy to denigrate, belittle and humiliate. The target is a lesser-than object not deserving decent treatment.
The forms of mistreatment that accompany objectification can cause emotional harm. The digs are ad homonym attacks about the person's worthlessness and undeservedness. These assaults result in stress-related health harm, both physical and psychological. Emotional harm outlasts physical injuries that occur in domestic violence cases. The abused spouse is likely to suffer more from emotional damage than from broken bones, which heal relatively quickly. The legacy of emotional torment, the traumatization, can last a lifetime after infliction. With bullying, there is typically no physical violence, only the emotional.
Another overlap between domestic violence and bullying is that friends close to the two key players tend to distance themselves from abusive situations. This gives them cover to plausibly resist getting involved. Doing nothing becomes easier if they are not present when the abuse happens. Closest friends of the abuser tend to justify the actions. "He wouldn't hurt a fly." "When I'm with him, he is a gentle, kind soul." "She's absolutely brilliant and because she doesn't suffer fools gladly, people working for her have to learn to adapt to her style."
Finally, institutions initially duck their responsibility to act. For years, domestic violence cases perplexed police officers called to homes during an abuser's attack. Without the fearful victim agreeing to file charges, nothing could be done. Now that criminal laws are in place, police can apprehend abusers when warranted, regardless of the victim's willingness to go along. Note that it took laws to allow law enforcement to intervene on behalf of injured and abused domestic violence victims. The enactment of laws made the difference.
With respect to workplace bullying, employers -- the institutions that host the abusers -- loathe holding bullies accountable. A former director of a federal agency (Minerals Management Services) refused to terminate a bully division chief, as we had recommended. He said, "No, I won't do it because he is a great conversationalist and a lunch buddy." Well there you have it. No need to act, he wouldn't harm a fly. The evidence spoke otherwise. All employees in that division were stressed. There were multiple heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular complications from working for the bully. But friendship with the executive trumped all reason.
Years later, in 2010, when the BP oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 workers and poisoning the environment, MMS made news. They were the agency whose employees had committed serious ethical violations. MMS was corrupt. Its culture was corrupt when it allowed the bullying to damage so many lives for glib reasons stated by the inept director.
Will laws be required to compel employers to stop abusers on the payroll? After all it took laws to disrupt domestic violence.
Why Employers Care About Domestic/Partner Violence
Employers Acting Out of Self-Interest
As with Workplace Violence, employers have discovered the financial impact of a social phenomenon when it interferes with an employee's uninterrupted attention to work and an ability to produce.
In fact, employers have been the last to recognize the truth about workplace violence. Experts have found that worker-on-worker violence accounts for only 11% of the deaths.
Most deaths come from customers and acquaintances who find their victims at the workplace. So, in typical American fashion, it is only the rare variety that makes headlines in the press. In knee-jerk fashion, employers rush to create anti-violence, zero-tolerance policies, as much for public relations damage control as for being mad that productivity is disrupted by explosions of violence.
Now comes the discovery of domestic violence by employers. The good news is that they finally recognize that victims deserve protection at work from abusive spouses who know where to find their victims, essentially passive sitting ducks chained to their desks at work.
We applaud the efforts of the pioneers in the domestic violence movement who have partnered with employers in their successful awareness and outrage campaign.
Targets of workplace bullying are similarly trapped in relationships from which it is difficult to remove the perpetrator. Targets are often seen as bringing on their own problems, as are abused spouses. Outsiders wonder aloud and critically why Targets don't "simply get up and just leave." And it is true that Targets, like abuse victims, while in the middle of their dilemma are emotionally overwhelmed, which prevents them from seeing alternatives, however remote. Bullied Targets, like victims of domestic violence, are also more hurt from verbal assaults than from physical attacks (short of homicide) in that emotional trauma is longer lasting, more resistant to healing, than physical wounds.
Employers Driven by Compassion for the Abused
Often a battered woman is a working woman. It is important for employers to create a climate in which women can feel comfortable talking about the violence experienced at home and to ask for help.
If you think a co-worker may be abused, talk with her, and let her know that help is available.
Be alert for symptoms of domestic violence in co-workers. Women who are being beaten may have unexplained bruises. They may appear distracted, have difficulty concentrating, skip work often, or receive repeated, upsetting telephone calls from the men in their lives.
Employer-provided EAP or counseling services should help and have referrals for abuse victims.
Bullies Often Target Domestic Violence Abuse Victims
In marked contrast to the rosy picture of employers who act on behalf of families by paying attention to how domestic violence enters the workplace, either out of self-interest or compassion, we at WBI have seen how domestic violence victims are perceived as vulnerable and prone to assaults by workplace tyrants.
The victim of violence at home is traumatized by a domineering, control-driven partner. The victim's psychological boundaries against attacks have been compromised by repeated assaults by that destructive partner.
They have little ability or energy left to ward off attacks at work, too. Bullies often seize the opportunity. We know that bullies choose to attack the first day heart attack victims return to work, the day that ends maternity leave, the first day back after chemotherapy begins. In similar fashion, cowardly tyrants attack when they see that a battering spouse or partner has broken resistance after a domestic dispute. Bullies choose to pounce when the Target is her weakest. This sick situation reveals the darkest side of humanity.
Unfortunately, the dual victim -- domestic violence and bullying -- is doubly likely to turn inward, to keep the pain to herself. Employers already predisposed to ignore life in the trenches and to support the bully's version of reality there will find it difficult to believe the cruelty that actually happens. This empowers the bully to continue without fear of consequences.
Visit the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence website
When Bullying Causes Domestic Violence
It is also now time to make another important link between work and domestic violence that explores a different causal link. Mistreatment at work can cause domestic violence. We've documented elsewhere the various ways that bullying indirectly impacts families through damage to the Target's emotional and physical health, and to financial well-being. For the family, the strain can be great.
It begins with a hostile workplace that features an aggressive, intimidating, verbally abusive bully singling out a Target for systematic, deliberate destruction. The cumulative nature of bullying erodes the Target's defenses and begins to traumatize the person. At first, the Target keeps the shameful secret private. The workplace psychological violence goes home with the Target and affects the family. Let's assume that the home is a stable, safe place. The Target initially has a strong, mutually respectful relationship with the spouse or partner.
Bullying affects domestic stability and tranquility in two principal ways:
The first effect of bullying is the direct emotional or physical abuse of the spouse or partner by the Target. It can trigger an inexplicable "need" for the Target to hurt loved ones at home. It's the classic "taking it out," or displacement of aggression against people not responsible for the feelings of being out of control of one's life. Work is controlled by the bullying tyrant and striking back is believed to be impossible. Bullying creates extraordinary pressure that can drive otherwise calm, non-violent Targets to act in extraordinarily negative ways. So, kicking the proverbial dog (or more likely the mate or children) siphons off the pent-up aggression built up at work. The enemy is the bully, but family members pay the price for the Target's inability or unwillingness to fight back at work. Once the abuse starts, few couples manage to explore its workplace origins. The disintegration of families begins.
The second type of effect workplace bullying has on home life involves the presence or absence of support by the spouse or partner.
In the best of homes when Targets do not resort to violence against family members, relationships are strained long before the Target shares the extent of bullying faced at work. The Target sends nonverbal messages about troubles. Sleep disruption, anxiety and depression affect everyone who cares about the Target.
When the ugly realities are finally revealed, spouses have predictable reactions. Spouses either immediately support the Target and want to fight the bully and the enabling employer, or they paradoxically blame the Targets for bringing on the trouble and admonish them for wanting to fight back, thus jeopardizing a job. Sadly, unresolved bullying cases, exhaust the patience of the most supportive spouses. Over the long haul, families are torn apart over the workplace-caused violence.
Domestic violence may be sparked in relationships where the spouse or partner fails to emphathize with the Target. Those individuals may convert into violence their resentment and inability to understand the pressures the Target is experiencing. The violence may be verbal or physical. It is clear, that if left unchecked, it will escalate.
Consider the plight of a bullied Target in double danger who finds no respite or peace at home, but instead goes from terrorization at work to assaults from an angry partner. Is this not the ultimate trap?
Copyright 2011, Gary and Ruth Namie, Excerpts from The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011)