Psychologists launch all-out war against bullies in the workplace

Published: Sunday, Oct. 25 1998 12:00 a.m. MDT

Anita Hill turned sexual harassment into a front-burner issue in workplaces across America.

Gary and Ruth Namie want to do the same thing for harassment that has nothing to do with sex or gender.The Namies, a husband-and-wife team of psychologists in Benicia, are trying to ignite a national campaign against what they call "workplace bullying" - hurtful and repeated mistreatment of people by their bosses, co-workers or even subordinates.

"Workplace bullying damages people's self-esteem, just like schoolyard bullying," said Gary Namie. "But schoolyard bullying doesn't impact your whole family, your livelihood, the course of your career. The consequences are much more severe."

Skeptics deny that bullying is a widespread problem at work and question how far companies should go in trying to police the interactions of their staff.

"We can't even define sexual harassment: How are we going to define what a bully is?" asked Michael Lotito, a lawyer who represents employers with Jackson Lewis in San Francisco.

But the Namies, who run a counseling and consulting business called the Work Doctor, seem to be hitting a nerve with the public.

Their Web site logs 40,000 hits a month. They've counseled more than 2,000 people by phone, e-mail or in person since opening their doors two years ago. They even got a call recently about appearing on that barometer of the American zeitgeist - "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

There is also a small but growing cadre of academic researchers who are studying workplace bullying and how it affects both employee well-being and corporate productivity.

"We're starting to define this as a social problem - not merely a case of two people who can't get along," said Loraleigh Keashly, an organizational psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit.

What does workplace bullying look like?

One Bay Area grocery worker who asked to remain anonymous contacted the Namies because of a supervisor who constantly told her she was a "nothing" and said things like, "I could do your job in two hours, but it takes you eight hours."

And Helen King, a federal employee from Orinda, turned to the Namies because of a boss who she says constantly interrupted her, berated her in public, set her up to fail and once even threatened to bring his gun to work and "use it."

"I'd start work at 6:15 a.m., and by 7, I'd be in tears," said King.

Bullying can be a pattern of condescending remarks, arbitrary rages or efforts to sabotage someone's work. It can include physical acts - slammed doors, raised fists - but is more often verbal.

Unlike sexual harassment or racial discrimination, bullying is typically legal. The victim may have trouble convincing superiors or co-workers that anything unusual is going on. But psychologically, experts claim, it can still be devastating.

"I started sleeping less and less because of stress," recounted King, who ultimately changed jobs to get away from her boss. "I'd go to sleep and then after 45 minutes I'd be up - bam! - wide awake and worried. I started getting asthma attacks and headaches.

"People don't want to believe that someone at work can make you feel this bad," King said. "So when I found Ruth and Gary, I was so relieved. I said to myself, `My goodness, I'm not alone! I'm not making this up!' "

The term "workplace bullying" actually comes from Europe, where psychologists and labor unions have sounded an alarm about abusive managers for several years.

In the United States, researchers use a variety of terms such as "emotional abuse in the workplace" or "workplace aggression."

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