November 02, 2008

The Fundamental Question: Do You Side With Bullied Targets or With Perpetrators?

We are a blame-the-victim nation. Part of this is human nature. Cognitive psychology teaches us that when faced with two conflicting internal beliefs when bullying strikes a friend -- "I like my co-worker friend" and "Bad things happen only to bad people" -- there is a tendency to want to reduce the conflict, the dissonance, by changing one of those beliefs.

The result is that we individuals are more likely to abandon the bond we feel for our friends in order to support the internalized twisted worldview that if tragedy visits someone then that person must have deserved it. Sounds bizarre, right? But this distortion, called the fundamental attribution error, is our tendency to overestimate the role individuals play in their fate.

Under the artificial cover of "toughness" or "responsibility," we humans rationalize remarkable cruelty perpetrated senselessly against others. Though domestic violence is now criminalized, it is still rampant because of the insipid belief that if a spouse gets battered, the batterer must have rationally acted on the basis of something the battered one made him do. Poppycock!

When we learn that Americans now torture others in violation of all international and moral laws and against our traditions, too many of us justify the torture because we believe that innocents would not be tortured if it was not necessary. This blame-the-victim trend is becoming all too American!

Similarly when we witness a peer being bullied in the workplace, it arouses such negative emotions in us, that too often we make ourselves feel better by ostracizing the victim and ending our historical relationship with him or her. We turn our backs on our fellow human beings out of the selfish desire to not feel empathy for them when we see their pain. Empathy causes us to feel the pain ourselves. The deliberate distancing from others probably explains a growing alienation that drives epidemic levels of depression and social dysfunction in our society.

As a society, we discount or diminish workplace bullying and psychological violence with hollow, dehumanized phrases like "managerial prerogative must be ensured" "don't interfere with the ability of businesses to be competitive" or "this country was built by mean, aggressive sons of bitches ... some people may need a little appropriate bullying in order to do a good job ... they are really just wimps."

For the first decade of the U.S. movement against workplace bullying, we have applied rationality to the irrational process of destructive interpersonal bullying. We appealed to businesses with bottom-line fiscal impact. Bullies are too expensive to keep. Employers did not care. If they are in business ostensibly to make a profit or to sustain quality government services, they should care. However, our experiences on-site with employers as consultants as well as the empirical data we gathered in a series of surveys expose employer indifference to workplace bullying. Without a specific law posing a litigation threat, employers blithely carry on as if bullying never happens, even denying it when it is reported to them.

As for "personal responsibility," there is a double standard. Victims are responsible, but the bullies-perpetrators never take responsibility. Their explanations are always some form of the target "made me do it." Weak employers allow the bullying to happen with impunity, without accountability, as if helpless to stop the abuser on their payroll.

According to the 2007 WBI-Zogby poll, in 44% of cases of reported bullying, employers did nothing. (In an additional 18% of cases, they worsened the situation by turning on the victim-complainant.) Rationally, employers can afford to do this because 80% of bullying is legal.

Bullying is morally wrong.

Doing nothing is not a neutral act when an individual pleas for relief from the emotional misery bullying inflicts. Doing nothing is denying the person credibility as an adult. Doing nothing is sustaining the status quo and defending the perpetrator, however implicitly or indirectly. How dare HR, the primary agent responsible for implementing or blocking the employer's response to reported bullying, side with the bully (most often in management, 73%) against the employee who naively came to HR for "help"!

So at the beginning of our second decade, we must not be reticent about calling perpetrators and those who support them immoral. It is not our subjective morality that is violated, but the deeper sense of human dignity that is undermined when victims of bullying are not supported. We need to rekindle our compassion for those less fortunate than us whose fate was not their own making. Bully apologists have an indefensible, unconscionable position of favoring abuse.

Once we are bullied and feel the full force of a laser-focused campaign of interpersonal abuse, we drop the smug justifications for the bully. If we work long enough in enough different places and encounter enough incompetent bosses, we are likely to be bullied ourselves in our work life (37% of U.S. workers are). The only people who still doubt that bullying happens are the ones who have never suffered an unexpected, univited disaster or catastrophe. Events humble arrogant superiority known only to those lacking experience in bullying, direct or witnessed. But we should not have to wait for everyone to be personally bullied so that they understand how destructive bullying can be to personal health, careers, families, and employers.

Paraphrasing comments from a recent U.S. president: you are either with us or with the perpetrators. The fundamental question is to which side are your willing to commit?

There are not two equally compelling morally equivalent sides to the violence at work dilemma. No one targeted by bullying invited or wanted the intolerable misery. There is no "win-win" amicable mediated settlement possible in bullying situations. To tolerate a little bit of abuse, to appease perpetrators, is unacceptable. It is a moral compromise that leads to societal decline. It triggers retrospective questions such as, what have we allowed ourselves to become?

The choice is simple, actually. Do not squirm to make it complex. The ethical human choice transcends corporate or institutional needs.

Either side with the perpetrators of violence and rationalize and excuse the escalating trend toward hostility and abuse in the workplace


side with the targeted individuals who asked for nothing more than to be left alone to do the jobs they once loved.



Anonymous said...

This article forgets one fundamental thing about human nature: "Better him than me." Silence may give consent but it may prevent one from becoming a target through calling attention to oneself.

Anonymous said...

yes, the jobs they once loved

Mary said...

That was so well said, thank you for posting it.

I have seen documentaries that show the injured animal left alone by the pack to die and thought humans are only a thumb away.

If you choose to side with the targets and want a better economy (yes, this has a huge effect on the economy) please sign the Anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill petition. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

A year ago this was posted on the blog....

'I faced public humiliation' - Higher and further education are failing to tackle bullying among staff, a new survey indicates

Roger Kline, Tuesday November 6, 2007 - The Guardian

Tomorrow is Ban Bullying at Work Day; a message that doesn't appear to have got through to all parts of further and higher education.

Academics at a major northern university claim that 42% feel intimidated at work, 37% feel their work is belittled and 24% feel they have been humiliated by bullying incidents.

The University and College Union survey of members at Leeds Metropolitan University (with a 41% response rate) suggests a management culture at odds with the university's goals of challenging received wisdom, encouraging students to think and promoting collaborative inquiry. Some 96% of respondents said they felt inhibited about positively criticising policies of Leeds Met and 63% reported witnessing bullying at work.


As one respondent put it: "There is an atmosphere of fear and a feeling that decisions cannot be challenged constructively - it is tantamount to treason"...

It is clear that some institutions struggle to acknowledge that bullying is a problem. At one institution, HSE findings of bullying in the vice-chancellor's own department led to the report being shelved until the vice-chancellor left. Another university can't be named because the allegations of bullying are themselves a possible source of litigation by the university...

O'Dell, in her original grievance, had the courage to capture the experience of many who have experienced bullying. She wrote: "Several other witnesses who have given statements to me are unwilling to share them with management, for fear of their continuing employment. Unfortunately, my faith in this organisation, and in this profession, is destroyed. The thought of working in this department fills me with dread. It is not just the treatment I have received, but the way management have condoned it through doing nothing."

Posted by Peter Kropoktin at 11:05 PM


Where are we now - Nov 6th 2008?

UCU have spoken out...Sally Hunt has finally acknowledged in public that wpb exists

... there is a conference in London organised by UCU on November 27th at the UCU Conference Centre


...the silence from the UCU reps in my university - who are aware of my case - is deafening - they are unable to speak with me about my experiences - they pass me uneasily in the corridor in the full knowledge of the issues that I have been raising patiently over years... what should I say to them tomorrow Sally as I sit here in searing pain... in disbelief at what continues to happen as yet more colleagues hand in their notice... and I wait for my lonely voice to be heard... and acknowledged and for someone to say 'this must stop'.

Aphra Behn