Gary and Ruth Namie: An interview by Bob Morris

Gary and Ruth Namie


Gary Namie (Ph.D., Social Psychology) and Ruth Namie (Ph.D., Clinical Psychology) started the U.S. workplace bullying movement in mid-1997 after Ruth’s personal experience at the hands of a tyrannical woman supervisor in a psychiatry clinic.

The Drs. Namie began the first and only U.S. research, education, advocacy and consulting organization — the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI, now in Bellingham, Washington. Their current books areThe Bullying-Free Workplace  (2011, Wiley) for employers and The Bully At Work (2009, Sourcebooks) for bullied individuals. WBI regularly conducts research, including the scientific 2010 & 2007 U.S. Workplace Bullying Surveys and online large sample studies. As the go-to experts, WBI has been featured on U.S. and Canadian network and local TV, national and local newspapers, business magazines and radio, with nearly 1,000 interviews.

Two important additional types of work the Namies undertake are (1) to direct the national campaign to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in states (, and (2) The Work Doctor® ( the Namies’ firm that originated the field of workplace bullying consulting for employers in 1998. Gary was the expert witness in the nation’s first “bullying trial” in Indiana with the verdict upheld by the state Supreme Court.

Prior to their 24/7/365 immersion in workplace bullying, Gary’s university teaching in psychology and management spanned 20 years. Ruth had counseled substance abusers. Both were corporate directors of organizational development and training – he in healthcare, she in the hotel industry.

The Namies’ professional preparation, consulting experience, and unwavering focus on workplace bullying give them an unrivaled, comprehensive perspective of the phenomenon that they introduced to the U.S.

*     *     *

How do you define “workplace bullying”? What isn’t it?

It is a pattern of repeated personalized attacks by one or more people against a targeted (our preferred term for the victimized) employee. It’s always repeated, chronic. The resultant health harm derives from the repeated exposure stressful work conditions completely out of the target’s control.

Bullying takes the form of verbal abuse, behaviors (physical and nonverbal gestures, space invasions & paralinguistic cues (interruptions, loud hostile volume, speech rate)) that are threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, and work interference or sabotage that prevents work from actually getting done.

We often refer to it as a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction launched by bullies against targets who neither invited nor deserved the assaults.

We speak of abusive conduct at work as bullying. Contrast it with the less intense and less harmful negative actions — incivility and disrespect. These euphemisms are favorites of American employers who want to act like they are addressing bullying. Bullying is not rudeness or simply inappropriateness.

We frame bullying as a form of violence, albeit non-physical and sub-lethal (NIOSH agrees with this characterization).

The most important distinction to draw is with conflict. Conflict is a clash of intellectual differences between two equal-powered parties that can be resolved using time-tested strategies. Mediation is the preferred tool. But research and our experience find that mediation applied to serious bullying only compromises the previously compromised target. They begin the process as relatively powerless (the vast majority (72%) of incidents are perpetrated by bosses who outrank their targets). The so-called “middle ground” can never benefit, or ensure safety for, the target. To ask a bullied target to further yield to the bully is unconscionable.

The closest phenomenon analogous to workplace bullying is domestic violence. The interplay between abuser and abused victim mirrors the bully-target interaction.  Bouts of explosive violence are followed by pseudo-nurturant interludes before a resumption of the violence. Witnesses do not interfere out of fear. Society (akin to the employing organization) remained aloof until pressure mounted to outlaw the practice. Prior to its proscription, apologists rationalized doing nothing because they felt it “inappropriate” to get involved in private family matters.

A final reason to compare bullying to domestic violence is that mediation is an inappropriate tool to stop it. There is no acceptable middle ground in abusive relationships — not in domestic violence and not in workplace bullying.

When and why did you two begin to work together?

That was in 1985. We started The Work Doctor consulting firm while Gary was teaching overseas for the University of Southern California. His graduate management students were military officers who sought guidance on real world organizational problems. So, we started the family-run consulting company, aptly named by Ruth. She and he worked together from the beginning. From its inception until 1998 Work Doctor provided a wide variety of consulting solutions, including lots of fun topics (e.g., strategy sessions at California beach towns with CEOs). However, when bullying so intensely interrupted normal life for us, we knew at the start what employers needed to do to correct and prevent workplace bullying. Work Doctor has focused exclusively on bullying in organizations since then. Services include professional speeches (done by Gary and son Sean who just joined the company), training on-site for caring employers, and, of course, the systemic solution we devised to stop bullying — Blueprint. Of course, market awareness has lagged in the U.S.

We married in 1983. Ruth’s separate career began after her graduate training in clinical psychology was completed in 1992. She was bullied in 1995. The situation resolved in 1996 and by mid-1997, we decided that to import workplace bullying from Britain was our destiny. So we started what became WBI.

By then had either or both of you already become especially interested in the problems that bullies create in the workplace?

We began collecting, at the Work Doctor website, tales of workplace mistreatment — the dark side of the world of work — thanks to inspiration from our friend Daniel Levine, host of the website and author of the book with the same title — Disgruntled!  But it had not yet personally invaded our family in the early 1990’s. We understood the phenomenon only slightly and from the safe distance enjoyed by consultants. We had empathy for targets, but not intimate knowledge of its impact. We probably also confused serious abusive bullying with unethical or uncivil conduct (we were naive way back then).

Please explain when and why the Workplace Bullying Institute was founded.

Ruth’s pre- and post-doctoral career was spent in clinics treating individuals with chemical dependency problems. She was an effective clinician. She moved seamlessly across locations within a large HMO and enjoyed respect from her supervisors. In 1995, she voluntarily transferred to a clinic that allowed her to treat families and end the substance abuse specialty. Oops. She suddenly met the boss from hell, a woman clinical psychologist named Sheila. The demise of her happy career followed the predictable stages we have come to document over the years.

Like all targeted individuals and their caring partners, we did not know what to call the irrational thunderbolt that struck Ruth without invitation or deservedness. Ruth called it harassment as per HR instructions. However, we learned the legal lesson that most bullied targets learn — when the harassment is same gender or same race, it is legal and considered unactionable by HR folks who lack policies with teeth when no law exists to compel action. We hired and fired a lawyer and learned the first of many legal lessons.

After an 18-month recovery period, we surfaced emotionally and searched for the name for Ruth’s wretched experience. We found that the Brits called it workplace bullying; the Scandinavians called it mobbing. We assumed that given America’s size there must be a movement led by an organization we could support and help. In June 1997, there was none. So, we decided at that point, while living in the San Francisco suburb of Benicia, to start the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying.

The modest beginning was represented as a part of The Work Doctor website. We began writing about every aspect of bullying that we could find. We relied heavily on the European and Canadian research that had a decade head start on Americans.

The Campaign got its own website on Jan. 3, 1998 ( It had grown to be rather encyclopedic. After all Gary was an academic (still teaching in No. California to pay the rent) and determined to teach. Ruth saw the need to reach out to people harmed like she had been. We established a toll-free crisis line for those seeking validation and advice. We answered the number day and night weekdays and weekends. It consumed us, both emotionally and financially. However, before we abandoned the goal of giving advice at our expense, Ruth and Gary had heard over 6.000 stories, most told in one-hour blocks.

Later, we would become known for our empirical quantitative research, but those first eight years when we lived on the phone with others we gleaned rich anecdotal information that no survey could yield. We had heard every conceivable variation of bullying that exists.

Oprah called and we worked for seven weeks to develop a November (1998) show for her. We were abruptly cut out of the show itself when Gary had the audacity to recognize the stupid idea a show producer had — to “rehabilitate a bully on stage” — and to call it just that. It’s still a stupid idea that TV shows still try to plug. Telling Dr. Phil “no” was easier after insulting the Oprah people back in the beginning. But sacrificing the dignity of the movement that stands against abuse is too great a price to pay for TV titillation.

Because of a pending Oprah appearance, we hurriedly wrote and published our first book — BullyProof Yourself At Work. We sold over 5,000 copies and quickly tired of buying bubble wrap in 6-foot diameter rolls and stuffing envelopes. In 2000, we attended the booksellers’ convention, BEA, and the publisher Sourcebooks discovered us and bought the book that became The Bully At Work. Its second edition was released in 2009.

Our first national press coverage came from the Washington Post, then USA Today as a special 1998 Labor Day feature. The Campaign first inhabited a kitchen nook, then a bedroom, finally overwhelming both the living and dining rooms. Callers flocked to us. We recruited volunteers to help with logistics and helping us respond to the hundreds of e-mail requests for confirmation that the sender was not crazy. Ruth ran a local support group and, under supervision, offered counseling to bullied clients.

We moved from Benicia, California to Bellingham, Washington in late 2001 to replenish family funds used for the Campaign. Gary again taught university for two more years, capping a 21-year career. For Western Washington University, he designed and taught the first U.S. college course on bullying — Psychological Violence At Work.

In Bellingham, the Campaign became the Workplace Bullying Institute because a team of volunteer research students made possible more surveys. Institutionalizing the name made it seem more academic. We consider the production and dissemination of research by WBI and others the activity that distinguishes us in the field. In America, WBI remains the first and only organization that integrates all aspects of workplace bullying:  self-help advice for individuals, personal coaching, research, public education, union assistance, training for professionals, employer consulting, and legislative advocacy.

To what extent (if any) has its original mission changed?

The scope of our work grew from a narrow focus on bullied targets and their families to include a national campaign to enact state laws prohibiting malicious, health-harming abusive conduct at work (a.k.a. workplace bullying), and an extensive repertoire of consulting services for employers. Listening to, and advising, individuals in the throes of being bullied evolved to professional coaching (for a low fee) by a licensed counselor on staff, Jessi Brown. The public education work has expanded to include contributions of research — by WBI and by others — to inform all work. WBI, since 2008, trains professionals in its Workplace Bullying University, to extend the message beyond what a small group like WBI can achieve by itself. WBI also works extensively with unions striving to help their members restore lost power from bullying. In 2011, we are offering the first-ever union-only WB University. And in an oblique way, Gary educates courts and arbitrators by providing expert witness services in lawsuits.

The three domains of our work are related as follows. Individual targets are powerless to stop bullying by themselves and should not be held personally responsible to do so, regardless of how much knowledge they possess. Mighty organizational forces are assembled to block corrective action. To apply the ubiquitous “personal responsibility” mantra to bullied individuals is to blame victims for their fate, as if they wished upon themselves severe abuse.

Employers are responsible for the work environment — bullying or its absence. So, while we currently serve employers (and unions), voluntary steps are typically modest and ineffective without being driven by the CEO. That has happened but is rare since 1998 when we focused exclusively on bullying consulting ( In 2009, we launched the nation’s first anti-bullying program for adults in schools (Sioux City, Iowa, Community Schools), melding protections for children as well as for adults (

Abdication of responsibility by employers to address bullying within their organizations is not currently punishable by law, and is even perceived as an indication of an employer’s command over its workforce to deny relief from abusive supervisors and managers. Nearly all employers choose to not give workers additional rights or protections in the U.S. unless and until compelled by laws to do so. Laws are the motivation.

Thus we began legislative advocacy in 2001. It led to the introduction in 2003 in California of the first of over 70 versions of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. The HWB has been introduced in 21 states since. Suffolk University Law School professor David Yamada contacted the Campaign in 1999. At the time, he was writing the seminal treatise on the need for workplace bullying laws (published in the Georgetown Law Journal in March, 2000). He shared the goals of what was to become WBI and offered to write language for the requisite legislation. It is called the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB, Ruth and I took it to Sacramento, and the journey began.

We learned how to lobby state lawmakers the old fashioned way — without money. In the years since, we perfected and teach the methodology to citizen advocates who volunteer as State Coordinators in the Healthy Workplace Campaign. Currently, we have Coordinators in 36 states. We are a focused and successful group numbering 70 that challenges the Chambers of Commerce and other highly compensated business lobbying groups in each state. Our small but powerful team has 16 concurrent versions of the HWB active in 11 states in 2011. In 2010, both the Illinois and New York state Senates passed versions of the HWB, respectively. According to a 2011 New York Law Journal article, passage of the HWB seems inevitable. We believe this to be true, but cannot predict when or where. No state has yet passed the HWB.

Enactment of state laws will capture the attention of employers. The message will spread. Employers will eventually have to treat workplace bullying as seriously as they currently consider illegal forms of discrimination. Under threat of litigation, employers will create, and be compelled to enforce, policies specifically prohibiting bullying as we define it. In this way, and only in this way, will the millions of Americans afflicted by bullying at work be believed and protected.

Our enlarged mission now incorporates this tautological relationship:  laws lead to employer actions that lead to protections for bullied workers that lead to diminishing (if not eradicating) workplace bullying.

Why has relatively little research been completed – at least until recently — on bullying in the workplace, given the nature and extent of its destructive and expensive impact?

The first English-language research journal article by Heinz Leymann, founder of the international movement, appeared in 1990. Leymann called the phenomenon mobbing instead of bullying. In 1996, a special Workplace Bullying edition of the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, collected papers by Leymann, Norwegians, Germans and others. Bullying was a mainstream academic topic by then. The Bergen (Norway) Bullying Research Group, led by psychologist Staale Einarsen, produces more studies than any other single university or group. Norwegian transplant Helge Hoel completed his doctorate in England and from the University of Manchester is quite prolific. European researchers began to hold small biannual meetings to share new findings back in 1998. That group became the International Association on Workplace Bullying & Harassment. The group by self-definition remains a scholarly group. It holds its 8th meeting in 2012 in Copenhagen.

Laws followed research. The first law is Sweden’s, enacted in 1994. All Scandinavian countries have national anti-mobbing/bullying laws.

Reporter-turned-activist Andrea Adams in the UK launched the movement with her 1992 book, Bullying At Work. She defined the term we borrowed at WBI. Her legacy was extended after her death in 1995 by the Andrea Adams Trust, which closed its doors in 2010. UK unions are fierce anti-bullying advocates. The huge federal public sector union, UNISON, commissioned one of the first UK surveys on bullying done by Charlotte Rayner in 1998. Rayner has been a prolific researcher since. At universities throughout the UK and Ireland, doctorates were awarded in workplace bullying. This leads to a substantial body of peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Australians joined in 1994 with the staging of a conference in Queensland. Laws in various states followed culminating in June 2011 with the passage of a law in Victoria criminalizing bullying. It is only the second in the world to do so, but is the more prominent piece of legislation.

American researchers Loraleigh Keashly at Detroit’s Wayne State (a Canadian by birth) wrote a 1998 review of the literature about bullying, calling it emotional abuse at work. Subsequently, she published results of a Michigan scientific survey that stood as the best estimate of bullying’s prevalence in the U.S. (1 in 6 workers) until the WBI national surveys years later. She often teams with SUNY, New Paltz social psychologist Joel Neuman who applies his knowledge of aggression to the workplace and to bullying. In 2005, NIOSH convened a meeting of workplace bullying researchers. Only a handful of Americans were dedicated to researching the topic back then.

To answer your question about the apparent invisibility of research requires us to contrast the burgeoning international scientific literature with public awareness of research being conducted. Careers of academics depend on publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals. Journal readership numbers in the hundreds, and then only among others competing to publish in the same field. Rarely are articles translated for public consumption. At WBI, we are proud of translating and disseminating significant, but obscure, findings into useable information for the public. We feature such research in our training for professionals and at the website.

The other limitation of research is that it necessarily relies on the perspective of the targeted person. Thus, they are the ones who are researched heavily. Impact on their health, their perceptions of the bullies’ motives, leadership styles of managers involved, etc. The first studies of bullies’ perceptions come from Australia in 2011 where violators of employers’ law-dictated policies have been identified. To date, only their opinions about the injustice of the system that held them accountable for their behavior have been queried.

What are among the most common misconceptions about bullying in the workplace?

Misconceptions by executives: it doesn’t happen here and my trusted and accused colleagues are not capable of being abusive as alleged. Some executives genuinely believe these myths. The national statistics refute the first myth. Clearly the prevalence of bullying across all industries shows that it does happen nearly everywhere. The reason for disbelieving the subordinate who dares to accuse the manager is that that manager used years of ingratiation (butt-kissing) to curry favor with the executive so that accusers are not believed when they come forward with reports of bullying.

Misconceptions by the public: bad things happen to those who deserve it, so when people are bullied, they must have done something to bring the consequences upon themselves. This blame the victim rationalization allows the one believing it to feel protected against future personal harm. Of course, if they have the misfortune (not of their own doing) to be assigned to work with a predatory, toxic bully, they will learn firsthand that it is the bully who chose them, the method of torment, the timing of assaults, and how to convince teammates to betray the target. The target is not responsible for her or his fate any more than a battered spouse.

Misconception by HR-type workplace “experts”: targets are responsible, they actually owe it to themselves, to confront their bully with snappy comeback lines that will make her or him stop. What a joke! And how cruel to add this twist to the myth of “deserving or provocative victim.” By definition, a target is an individual who cannot defend him- or herself when subjected to a surprise character assassination. In other words, if she could have bounced the bully, she would have

Misconception by workers:  all harassment and a hostile workplace are illegal for everyone and HR will ride to the employee’s rescue when the call for help is made. Unfortunately, this is a costly myth. Only in very narrowly defined circumstances where the target is a member of a protected status group (on the basis of gender, race, religion, disability, etc.) and the perpetrator is not similarly protected do federal and state anti-discrimination laws apply. Hard to understand because the details require nuanced public education that does not exist. After a person is bullied, the legal lesson is learned. Part of WBI’s educational mission is to alert employees that most workers have no such legal protection.

Misconception (older and less frequently heard now): bullying happens in blue collar workplaces only to non-supervisors. According to the WBI 2007 U.S. Survey, 55% of targets are not supervisors, but 35% of all targets are managers — first-line supervisors, middle managers and non-executive managers aggregated. Managers are sandwiched between org layers that provide ample opportunities for bullies to emerge. Don’t forget, according to the national WBI surveys, 10% of bullies are subordinates who bully up the ladder.

Do those who are bullies in the workplace tend to be bullies at home and in the community, also?

The worst of the worst are abusers in every domain of their lives — in restaurants, when driving, at work, in church, at home. We cannot know the proportion, but we assume it is small. In worst cases, the person might actually be a psychopath (be diagnosable with an antisocial personality disorder). Robert Hare, the psychopath expert estimates that 1 in 100 executives are psychopaths. They would be excessively controlling and intimidating at home as well as at work.

However, to account for the 35% of adult Americans who have been bullied at work, another factor must be operating. Our preferred explanation subordinates personality as the prime causal factor in favor of powerful work environment cues that suggest to anyone paying attention that aggression is the key to higher status and advancement. When those are the operating rules, regardless of some lofty mission-vision-values language proclaiming that all individuals are respected, it only takes an astute observer willing to test the system to understand bullying. That is, a person who is kind, generous and wonderful outside of work can be transformed, with or without awareness, into a viper and predator at work. When asked why, the answer would be that certain conduct is expected of them at work and they are complying with that expectation. They would be saying that they were only doing what others had been doing all along, and they would be correct.

To what extent (if any) does confronting a bully in the workplace make it much less likely that the bully will be a bully elsewhere? Please explain.

Make no mistake. Bullies are confronted, just not as frequently by targets as they are confronted by bullyproof people. The confrontation conveys clearly to the bully that tormenting those who repel initial attacks will not deliver enough satisfaction to justify the effort required. Those people will not be targeted again.

Ironically, when a bully’s aggression is countered with equal or greater aggression, the respondent is often befriended, and, at the least, respected.

But bullies do renew their attempts to dominate others until they find a target who does not fight back immediately. With a target the benefit/effort ratio is high and the toxic relationship begins.

When coping with a bully, are group efforts much more effective than an individual’s efforts are? If so, why? If not, why not?

Theoretically, group interventions are the most successful. However, we know from studies, our and others, this is a too rare event. In a 2009 online survey, targets reported a joint confrontation in less than 1% of cases.

We could write an entire book describing the many ways coworkers fail their targeted colleagues. The despicable actions range from ostracism to estrangement to abandonment to siding completely with the bully. Many social psychological theories explain why, but the factor in common to all reasons is coworker fear. Fear of retaliation, fear of being the lone person to help, fear of being the next target for the bully.

When coworkers do nothing to help, it is imperative that the employer do something. We discussed elsewhere how dismal is the record of employer intervention, too.

In a way, our legislative advocacy is a way to mobilize the largest group possible – society – to declare the unacceptability of workplace bullying and to demand relief be given to those who request it.

Now please shift your attention to the book. When and why did you decide to write it…and write it together?

We have had the employer book outline on the shelf for years since we started WBI. There was no market for it. American employers showed little to no interest until recently. Corporate employment attorneys started writing about the pending success of our legislative campaign, warning employers to stop bullying voluntarily in preparation for the new law.

Since we started the national movement, drive the legislative campaign and originated the workplace bullying consulting field, we agreed to write the book when Wiley called saying that the market may be sufficiently mature for our employer-specific message.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from what you originally envisioned?

The Bully-Free Workplace is a business book written for managers and organizational leaders.

Wiley editors did an expert job of contrasting the goals for this reading audience with the business professionals who attend our 3-day immersive training on workplace bullying. For the latter group, we devote much attention to the science and theories that shed light on the phenomenon. The brief book cannot cover so much material without losing the audience. This was a lesson we had to learn.

So, we wrote the book in our most direct consulting voice. What should managers do? We tell them. What should executives do?  We tell them. What problems arise when you engage in the wrong activities at the wrong time? We’ve been there and we tell them.

It’s not a coddling and comforting voice to put in an executive’s ear, but given their pay grade, they should be able to handle truths about bullying in order to be best informed. If they don’t care about long-term sustainability of their organization and retaining the most talented people who ensure that future, they should not be executives.

Thanks to our book, employers can no longer say they want to do something about bullying but don’t know where or how to start. We tell them.

Are there bully apologists? If so, what specifically is their rationale for defending/justifying bullies?

Yes. Bully apologists defend heinous actions by perpetrators based on one or more of the following reasons:

• He’s no bully, he’s following my orders (I see myself in the mirror when I see him)

• His personality may be grating to some, but they have to learn to live with him as he is. (“I’m as afraid of him as others are, just keep your distance and maybe he will ignore you/m

• A little bullying is a good motivational tool (learning theory in reverse)

• People can’t handle criticism, he (the bully) is simply trying to make the employees better workers (workers are thin-skinned, bullies build character)

• He (the bully) needs to be left alone to manage in ways tailored to the workers only he knows how to manage (the unlimited managerial prerogative models

In the book, you observe, “Trying to change bullies is a fool’s errand.” Please explain.

There is little hope that another person will ever alter another person’s personality. By definition, personality is stable across most situations. People marry with the foolish notion that they will change their partner. They leave the relationship disappointed.

Rather than change bullies – as the expensive and wasteful option of sending them to anger management or communication skills training implies – the more realistic goal is to simply constrain their behavior when they are in the workplace. That can be done with new rules, strictly enforced, and constant monitoring.

The behaviors change and how they act outside the workplace need not concern the employer. (Pity the spouses, pets, children,  and restaurant waitpersons who run afoul of them daily.)

What are the dominant characteristics of a workplace culture in which there is little (if any) bullying?

A non-bullying workplace is one clearly free of abuse. Workers do not dread the possibility because if it happens, it is squashed immediately and the perpetrator is somehow branded anti-social and unacceptable. A fear-free place is the normal expectation of most workers new to any organization. When bullying surfaces, it always surprises people.

Some characteristics of a respectful workplace (a higher standard than the mere absence of abuse)

• Personally confident, curious, truth-seeking leaders

• Established channels of communication to leaders from staff that are trusted and used by workers without fear of reprisal

• Sick day and off-work policies that reflect an inherent trust of workers (not designed with cheaters in mind)

• Few, if any, secrecy mandates (e.g., compensation)

• Small CEO pay to lowest paid worker ratio

How specifically can bullying “kill” an organization?

We know the word “kill” sounds strong and hyperbolic, but right from the beginning of the movement, Heinz Leymann referred to employee death as the ultimate outcome from repeated mistreatment. Death comes from the onset of stress-related diseases traceable to the unremitting exposure to stress that bullying creates. And death can be by disease or suicide. Those are the literal ways that bullying kills.

It also undermines (kills) profitability, productivity, morale, team cohesion, employee trust and loyalty, and perceived effectiveness of leadership. All of these lead to sabotage, theft, sharing the flaws with external groups, and a tarnished reputation for the employer as one of the “worst places to work.”

Finally, bullying leads to the death of the organization’s vitality and ability to innovate and compete because the culture is understood by those on the inside as one that pits workers against their peers. There is no integrity, an ethical collapse, rendering employee engagement in any bold initiative necessary to keep the company solvent impossible.

Executive calls to purposeful action are met with sullen, disheartened, cynical employees.

Prior to what you characterize as an “epidemic” of bullying, are their any early-warning signs? Please explain.

The “red flags” missed by most organizations include:

• Not believing bullied individuals when they report the misconduct (disbelief from either the descriptions that sound too outrageous to be true or defensiveness of the first responders eager to protect the bullies)

• Simultaneously believing the alleged bully’s dismissal of the accusation as frivolous (who would confess to doing it?)

• Mislabeling bullying, aka psychological violence, as a simple “personality clash” and therefore not worthy of the organization’s attention

• mounting financial losses from lawsuits against the same few individuals who are inexplicably retained and never questioned

• C-suite mindguards who believe their role to be to block bad news flowing upward to executives

• A culture that prizes quiet (the absence of reports about potential interpersonal troubles) and considers conflict abhorrent, to be avoided at all costs (delusion accomplishes this goal)

What are the essential components of the “model of preventable causes of bullying” that you discuss in Chapter 8?

We agree that bullies bully because they can. Employers make it possible and some exploit the opportunities. It’s also true that personality has to be at least a small factor because not everyone sees the chances to hurt someone else.

However, our model states that bullying is primarily dependent on organizational learning. Bullies are excellent learners about, and interpreters of, cues in the work environment that signal openings to harm others. When there are situations in which others can be obliterated and one’s personal career advanced (a zero-sum competitive opportunity), it is because the employer has made the competition possible. (In Jack Welch’s world, the competition is by deliberate design in a twisted social Darwinistic way.)

When exploitation opportunities surface, only a few people willing to exploit need exist. With sufficient numbers of employees, a couple of Machiavellian types are bound to exist. Additionally, there must exist a pool of employees to serve as prey for the predators. In some fields (education and healthcare), the pool is vast. In workplaces where people with a pro-social orientation can be found in abundance, targeting is an easy task for bullies.

Third, the employer’s response to bullying when detected or reported is critical. If the actions are frowned upon and stopped, bullying can be suppressed. If bullying is rewarded, explicitly with promotions or recognition or implicitly by being treated with indifference or denial, bullying thrives. It’s simple learning theory in operation. Rewards reinforce and strengthen the likelihood of repeated actions, even in the case of negative conduct like bullying.

Thus, it is the employer’s responsibility to alter conditions under its control. Employers can stop deliberate zero-sum gamesmanship and even stop inadvertent destructive interpersonal strategizing with careful planning. Secondly, employers can shift the response to bullying from positive to negative in order to extinguish the undesirable conduct.

Bullying cannot continue unless employers want it to continue. If employers want to stop it, they can. And it would stop nearly instantly. Bullying is bringing value to employers; it continues unabated.

When contending with bullying, what are the specific leadership responsibilities, not only in the C-suite but at all other levels and in all other areas within the given organization?

Great leaders know that fostering trust among those purported to be led is critical. Leadership is earned, bestowed by the followers, not dictated or automatically granted to a position holder in the org chart. With respect to bullying, leaders and managers must have a modicum of the following abilities:

• Self-awareness:  the ability to accurately read how others respond to them and be realistic about others’ perceptions

• Sufficient emotional maturity to allow that personal flaws do not preclude effectiveness in all tasks (a healthy, resilient ego vs. narcissism

• Insight turned inward to recognize if they are bullies themselves

• An insistence on being told truths, however negative, by those who surround them – be explicit in your instructions and demonstrate that you can handle the truth when delivered

• Relationship-building with peers so that when others are caught being abusive, you can confront them safely, and in private, to compel them to change because unfettered abusive conduct shapes the workplace culture

• Empathy toward individuals who provide evidence of unconscionable psychological violence directed at them

• Desire to include the impact on employees’ lives and health of business decisions as a serious component of routine processes

By what process should bullying be addressed?

Bullying is rampant partly because nearly everyone is afraid to confront strong-willed, blustering bullies. Choosing to see bullying as the result of a few “bad seeds,” misleads leaders to personalize both the problem and solution. They mistakenly dive into the pointless task of personality re-engineering. It is a band-aid, short-term illusionary fix. Bullying recurs.

Relying on our explanatory model, leaders are guided to solutions that are impersonal. They apply to any organization and any bully, regardless of rank, personal abrasiveness or personality. Our Blueprint to Prevent and Correct Workplace Bullying does not ask executives to betray friends. The system, when in place, snares offenders. The system compels executives to act, rather than relying on personal motivation.

The systemic approach is not rocket science. In many ways it mirrors steps currently taken to address illegal discrimination. We do add our special variations to account for differences between bullying (legal, status-blind harassment) and illegal harassment.

1. Measure baseline prevalence. It stuns us how few clients actually want to know the starting rate prior to taking steps to reduce bullying. The fear of this metric runs counter to businesses’ obsession with tracking relevant data.

2. Create an explicit bullying prohibition policy. The ideal process is completed by a cross-disciplinary, cross-rank writing group assembled especially for this task. The group writes the policy, integrates it with existing ones, creates both informal and formal complaint and enforcement procedures, and, most important, designates a team of employees to be trained as peer experts in workplace bullying at a later time.

3. Train the Expert Peers Team. We find that disembodied policies that are introduced to employees once or twice are not inculcated into the company. Bullying generates self-doubt and personal uncertainty. Individuals need to be able to seek help without fear of repercussions. Peer team members provide the valuable services to colleagues of clarification of the experience, validation of their personhood, and information about how to resolve the problem given the new policy and systems put into place. Team members are volunteers. Teams decide which services they agree to provide.

4. Educate everyone. Peer Teams can provide the training. This is the classic program rollout.

5. Integrate the anti-bullying initiative with management training, performance evaluation, employee orientation, and staff re-training each year.

6. Ensure policy compliance. Hold accountable everyone, at all levels, for any misconduct. Skeptical employees will gauge the success or failure of the program based on the credibility of the first “trial.” If it is perceived as unfair or fraught with interference, the program could be untracked.

7. Continuity is guaranteed with a fully-functioning Expert Peers Team and endorsement by the C-suite.

Morris: To what extent must those involved receive training to prepare for response initiatives and whatever resistance they may encounter?

The primary training is for Expert Peer Team members. They need to become internal resources for all employees on the topic of workplace bullying and the organization’s new policy and enforcement procedures.

They are the first responders. Conversations with them constitute the first response that is an informal, non-punitive step towards resolution. They are trained in intervention and resolution alternatives.

Some become trainers. Some become personal coaches. All become ambassadors for the anti-bullying initiative.

When Team members encounter resistance from bullies and managers, it is imperative that their supervisor or leader intercede and mandate cooperation with the Team activities. Resistance should be considered insubordination and grounds for termination. That’s how we define executive commitment to the success of the anti-bullying effort. Anything less is timid and easily defied by bully managers.

Given your response to the previous question, what seems to be the most serious problem that most organizations encounter when attempting to sustain their bully-free workplace? Why?

We have found new executives unwilling to sustain their predecessors’ commitment to the prohibition of bullying. It reveals a lack of the necessary abilities we said executives should possess to comprehensively tackle bullying.

It can take years to overcome resistance within organizations so that anti-bullying efforts can be started. Sadly, with the stroke of a pen, in an instant, all those efforts by so many people can be eliminated and bullying instantly restored.

That’s the American way of doing business.

*     *     *

You are cordially invited to check out the resources at these websites:

Workplace Bullying Institute:

The Healthy Workplace Legislative Campaign:

The Work Doctor®:

Posted in


  1. CJ on September 5, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I want to print what you wrote here and give it to my HR department. I want them to hear what we are saying about the multiple workplace bullies that keep doing there thing and how the company seems to either over look it or reward those who are the bullies, hardly seems fair.

  2. […] See the original article […]

Leave a Reply Cancel Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.