Speakfully Insider: Drs Ruth & Gary Namie

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Welcome to Speakfully Insider, a weekly series featuring thought leaders on important topics surrounding workplace mistreatment, company culture, workplace safety, social justice and more. 

Please introduce yourself.

I'm Gary Namie, co-founder and director of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Most importantly, I have been married for the last 38 years to Dr. Ruth Namie, whose personal experience with bullying was the spark that led to the US movement. By training, I'm a social psychologist, a former university professor, and she was a clinical psychologist. The pairing of our complementary backgrounds allowed us to craft the WBI approach that couples personal experiences of afflicted individuals with empirical research. That's how we introduced the phenomenon of workplace bullying to North America 23 years ago. 

What was the driving force for you to pursue a career in equal rights and social justice? 

The impetus was Ruth's mistreatment at the hands of a woman supervisor in a psychiatry clinic. That woman it was so irrational and destructive to ruth's ultimate career that we became enraged. We saw the workplace bullying movement in the UK and the mobbing movement in Scandinavia preceded any work in North America. There was no one doing the work in the US at the time. So, we believed it fell to us to begin and sustain the research-driven educational enterprise that became WBI. To date we are still the only organization of its kind.

There is intersectionality with the MeToo, anti-sexual harassment messaging, Women's rights in general, non-discrimination movements such as Black Lives Matter, labor rights, and advocacy to eradicate social inequalities that stifle the voice of underpowered and under-advantaged people.

How would you describe workplace issues involving mistreatment decades ago to the current environment? 

Sadly, I believe not much progress has been made. Part of my work as an expert witness in legal cases has taught me that American employment law which reflects old British laws still refers to the relationship between employer and employee as master and servant. It would be too harsh for me to characterize employment as feudal. the truth is that all power reverts to owners and employers and management in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement. The unionization rate in the US is a paltry 6.2% in the private sector and rises to 10% when unionized government employees are added. The highest rate approached 40% of workers in unions and that was decades ago. Decline began in the 1960s and has steadily fallen ever since That means that currently few employees have rights beyond benefits extended by the rare benevolent employer.

If states were to an act the WBI Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), legislation design 2 redress workplace bullying, abusive conduct, it would be the first major advance in US employment law in 40 years. The only "protections" Against mistreatment require that the aggrieved person be a member of a protected status group who can claim discriminatory misconduct. The non-discrimination laws that compel compliant employer policies are very limited. And the general public overestimates the breadth and efficacy of those laws. For that reason the national NAACP has endorsed our advocacy for the HWB that extends protections for workers beyond status group membership. Through our WBI network a volunteer lobbyists, we have been able to introduce the bill in 30 states and two territories. Puerto Rico made the bill law in 2020. California and Utah modified the bill into employer training mandates. The fight for full enactment continues. 

Describe the typical series of emotions a victim of mistreatment experiences. 

First, we call recipients of workplace bullying targets not victims. The label victim connotes  a permanence of misery and powerlessness. In fact, when targets escape the crosshairs of pursuit by their perpetrators they reclaim their dignity and a majority are able to move on.  

There is a predictable set up emotional stages through which nearly all bullied targets pass. In the acute early phase, there is a sense of disbelief about how their bullies characterized them. We call it the big lie. The most competent are targeted for their emotional or technical skill which triggers jealousy in their perpetrators. To be called incompetent is gaslighting. For targets this triggers dissonance. Self- blame and self-doubt follow. The principal emotions our shame and guilt. During this time there is a decline in physical health due to the onset of stress-related diseases. Unfortunately for targets the recognition of their health decline is difficult. 

Next is a hopeful stage when targets find support. It may be a supportive union officer, a coworker, or a legal person who gives them confidence. This typically is a temporary positive state.

Reality expressed in the unified opposition to the targets' descriptions of incidents crashes their world with disbelief. Opposing them is management, the executive team, and HR. Targets understandably feel isolated. With no escape route apparent to them and an employer unwilling to provide the requested psychological safety, targets fall easily into despair. The experience is the equivalent to that of a battered spouse suffering partner violence. Workplace bullying can be considered a form of psychological workplace violence.

Finally targets need to decide whether to leave and preserve (and restore) their health or attempt to convince their employer to change their circumstances. Research shows that 7 in 10 bullied targets lose the job they once loved through no fault of their own. Some targets never escape and take their lives believing they had no options.

In your opinion, what attributes to the growing proportion of workplace mistreatment cases becoming public?

Workplace bullying cases rarely go public in the US. Currently there is no legal standard available to bullied targets to take their employers to court. In America, when mistreatment is legal, It is invisible. This is not true in other industrialized western nations. Only the US fails to have applicable laws.

In Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Australia and most of Europe, cases of employee mistreatment make the news even when neither sexual harassment nor racial discrimination are involved. In the US, thanks to the MeToo movement cases of employer denial, coddling of abusers, and dramatic court cases the public learns about workplace mistreatment. But those cases are the ones based on violations of the law. Even with sexual harassment, the proportion of victims who complain to their employers who then go on to file lawsuits that survive procedures that's quash those cases is infinitesimally small.

Workplace mistreatment is one of many of America's silent epidemics.

What steps do you believe will help in making workplace mistreatment and fear of retaliation a thing of the past?

The mundane response would be for me to say pass a law, compel employer policies, require faithful enforcement of those policies, and slowly accomplish workplace culture changes. However finding progressive, benevolent employers who Understand the basic conditions that defined respectful workplaces takes too long. Despite the demonstrable costs of bullying, American employers are resistant to the "business case" to stop bullying.

We have found the factor that most reliably predicts the maintenance of bullying is ingratiation. That is, bullies form personal bonds with their executive sponsors That those sponsors consider more important than the mission of their organizations, fiscal responsibility, or the health of employees targeted by those bullies. Ingratiation is the root of retaliation. Targets bring to executives proof that the bullies are much different than they have portrayed themselves to their sponsors. That conflict between sponsors' perceptions of their favored bullies and reality is typically resolved by punishing or terminating targets, who are essentially whistleblowers.   It sounds irrational that protecting a bully is more important than mission-critical responsibilities, but this simply demonstrates how irrational a process bullying is.

Based on all of our experiences since immersing ourselves in the phenomenon of workplace bullying, I have a much more radical idea. Changes are already afoot thanks to younger workers as a cohort raised with the expectation that no one has the right to treat them with disrespect. Much of this is due to the decades of anti-bullying initiatives in K-12 schools. You see it is primarily the oldest generation, the baby boomers who are leaving the workforce, who were willing to exploit their with command-and-control style management along with a willingness to demonstrate loyalty and stability to employers, whether or not the loyalty was reciprocated. With each generation that followed the boomers bullying became less likely. Therefore, the conversion of workplace culture may simply involve the dying off of older workers who possessed unrealistic expectations about work itself. The burgeoning intolerance of bullying by the youngest workers is the most encouraging sign imaginable.

If you could sit down with a historical figure to discuss equal rights and social justice, who would it be, what would you discuss, and why?

With Mark Twain I would love to discuss our original American Gilded Age. We could compare and contrast the greediness of that era with the current inequities in our society. And purely for entertainment I would love to hear him swear as he famously did and to wax eloquent about his beloved life on the Mississippi River as a young man.

Depending upon their availability, I would like to meet Henry Wallace, FDR's vice-president before Truman. Wallace wasn't unabashed liberal who helped craft aspects of the new deal as a response to the Great Depression. In his time, he scared establishment Democrats. I think his progressivism and ideals or what we now need more than ever.