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Anti-bullying advocacy: an unrealized EAP opportunity: educating executives about the impact of workplace bullying can help EAPs define their role as productivity tools.

The original plan for this article was simply to make readers aware that a U.S. and international movement exists to combat workplace bullying, a problem EA professionals routinely encounter. However, strategies for repositioning EAP services detailed in Sheila Monaghan's article ("Developing an EAP Strategy") in the previous issue of the Journal of Employee Assistance compel us to suggest that EAPs can best serve their employer clients by embracing workforce health advocacy as a unique niche, or "brand." Solutions to the workplace bullying dilemma might partially define the "cause for action" that EA professionals are uniquely qualified to deliver to organizations.


EA professionals are familiar with individuals who present a host of stress-related complaints caused by their work environment. We refer here to cases in which an employee identifies ongoing exploitative or abusive interactions with a boss or co-worker as the source of his/her stress. Remarkably, one in six U.S. workers suffers such relationships, which damage psychological health while eroding overall workforce productivity.

We call this phenomenon workplace bullying when the mistreatment is repeated, health-harming, and illegitimate. Bullying is a sub-lethal, non-physical form of violence, psychological in both its execution and its impact on targeted individuals (of those self-identified as bullied, 41 percent are clinically depressed, while 30 percent of women and 21 percent of men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder). Bullying's illegitimacy refers to the use of destructive interpersonal tactics that interfere with work performance--that is, bullying undermines accomplishment of the employer's business interests. Bullies put their need to control others above the employer's genuine goals.

In the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, the vast majority of bullies (70 to 90 percent) are supervisors and managers. Researchers in one U.K. study credited the importation of American command-and-control management style for the rise in bullying, but some people are predisposed to mistreat others, regardless of workplace culture. For the majority of otherwise good people who become bullies, however, title power elicits the darker, crueler side we all possess but few manifest. When pressure is on to meet profit goals or efficiencies (especially in cases with fewer staff), managers are expected to deliver results without regard for human consequences. The fiscal bottom line is paramount.

A minority of bullies choose to humiliate their targets in public settings. Though these "Screaming Mimis" fit the stereotypical image of a bully, they are statistically rare. More dangerous and insidious are the tactics employed by the "Constant Critic" who distorts the performance appraisal process behind closed doors, attempting to reconstruct the target's personality and competence. Critics are masters of plausible deniability--with no witnesses, they can lie about their misconduct with impunity.

Most bullies at one time or another adopt duplicitous maneuvers, terrorizing their prey while ingratiating themselves with higher-ranking people. One federal agency executive, for example, refused to terminate an acknowledged division chief bully, saying, "He's a great conversationalist and lunch buddy." Bullies' targets, on the other hand, generally are not believed when they complain. They are denigrated as "whiners" and accused of being "thin-skinned" or "provocative" and thus deserving of their fate.

Adult targets of bullying are different from their schoolyard counterparts. Our research shows that targets are selected because of their refusal to be subservient ("insubordination" is the most frequent complaint about them), their superior work or social skills (which threaten the bully who lacks emotional intelligence), or their ethical whistle-blowing. Women are the primary targets of bullies (in 77 percent of cases), though charges of sexual or racial harassment would apply to only about a quarter of bullying cases. While women are as likely as men to be bullies, female bullies are more likely to target women (in more than four of five cases) than are their male counterparts (who target women 69 percent of the time).

Responsiveness to accusations of bullying increases when complainants enjoy protected status as defined by federal or state anti-discrimination laws, but if both the perpetrator and target of harassment are protected or the target is not a member of a protected group, these laws do not apply. Even when bullying conduct is verified and EA professionals recognize the harm it is creating in the workplace, harassment that is not illegal often is ignored. Thus, most bullying is not addressed by current law, though it is two to three times more prevalent than illegal forms of harassment and significantly more damaging to a target's mental health than sexual harassment.

Despite bullying's prevalence, severity, and impact on workers and work organizations, internal investigations nearly always conclude that it is merely a clash in personalities between bully and target. Apologists for bullying mouth a variety of glib justifications--e.g., "that's why they call it 'work'" and "it's just tough management." Remarkably, the targets alone bear the costs of their unsolicited misery by experiencing stress-related complications. In 75 percent of bullying cases, targets either leave their jobs to stop the bullying or are "constructively discharged" as part of the bullying.


EAPs can play a major role in alleviating the distress of bullied individuals. What's more, by leveraging workplace bullying in organizations, EA professionals can attain the strategic influence the EA field is seeking. EA professionals are uniquely able to work with targeted individuals to restore their health and productivity, which are at the core of employee assistance. Others in the work organization cannot do this. Unless the EA profession's roots are an undesirable anachronism, the bullied person is your client.

Unfortunately, a few EA professionals seem to have difficulty believing that work can traumatize individuals. We receive hundreds of anecdotal reports at the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute of EA professionals belittling self-referred individuals seeking relief from workplace trauma. It is disappointing when we hear of EAPs refusing to listen to targets' experiences, insisting instead that sessions be devoted to discovering what attributes the targets possess that could have led to their mistreatment. This practice of victim denigration harkens back to the unenlightened days when battered wives were seen as provoking and being responsible for the abuse they suffered from their husbands.

In August 2000, an independent panel that had spent two years assessing the incidence of violence toward and by U.S. Postal Service workers released a report that included results of a survey of employee perceptions of EAP services. The survey results showed that Postal Service managers were more likely to be satisfied with the organization's EAP than non-supervisory workers (83 percent vs. 62 percent). Perhaps the most disturbing finding was that roughly one in five mail handlers and carriers did not trust the EAP, seeing it as a management tool to punish employees.

Gaining employees' trust depends on consistently demonstrating impartiality as well as maintaining clinical confidentiality. Programs that allow sharing of any clinical information in supervisor-referred cases obviously become tools for management. The seeds of some EAPs' roles in sowing confusion have been planted for some time. According to the USPS report and our anecdotal evidence, employee clients sense the ambiguity.

It seems to us that the EA profession is at a crossroads. Some fear becoming obsolete or irrelevant if employee assistance remains in its counseling, healthcare-related role. EA professionals should be consulted by management, but the domain of their expertise should remain psychological health, which others in the workplace cannot call their niche.


We believe that organizations need EAPs as workforce health advocates more than ever. Threats to employee health are on the rise. The U.S. Department of Labor has just promulgated new roles that preclude overtime pay for overtime work for millions of workers. More than 3 million jobs have been cut in the last three years, and the prospect of further cuts causes some workers to stay in their jobs even when bullying begins to endanger their health. Union membership is shrinking from federal consolidation and private sector anti-organizing tactics.

In addition, employee privacy protections are disappearing, and the few that remain are being eroded. Employees are being subjected to a variety of screening tactics by employers, ranging from psychological assessments for violent predispositions to checks for credit-worthiness to DNA analyses of hair and saliva for evidence of drug use. By its very nature, screening connotes a basic distrust that poisons the workplace.

Traditional workplace ethics are being overwhelmed by extraordinary pressures in companies striving to meet investors' unrealistic profit demands. The shenanigans of Enron, WorldCom, and other firms show that business executives will lie to please Wall Street analysts. The competitive marketplace has been internalized in the American workplace to render cutthroat, zero-sum competition acceptable among management and employees. Complainants face retaliation, even in cases where the mistreatment breaks laws.

There are human consequences that accompany the simultaneous escalation of workplace aggression and diminution of workers' rights and protections. The EA profession has to choose whether to be a part of the solution or a co-designer of the problem. Traditional corporate consultants, both those who are independent and those who are internal to the organization, serve the needs of the executive team and often are so immersed in their roles that they do not or cannot communicate news about the deleterious impact some executive decisions have on employees. And because these consultants are not mental health professionals, they often do not even perceive the harm that executive decisions sometimes cause. EA professionals, on the other hand, are trained and positioned to predict and ameliorate consequential harm.

One lesson we have gleaned from our experiences in both internal and external consulting is that you must have the ear of top executives and be able to circumvent management and human resources staff. By dissociating from management, you increase your credibility with employees who turn to you for assistance when bullied. We suggest that EAPs elevate their visibility and influence by removing themselves from the human resources function and reporting directly to either the chief executive officer or board of directors. EA professionals would comment on the anticipated psychological impact of planned initiatives on employees and work teams, create response contingencies for change initiatives (e.g., mergers, reductions in force, and new technology implementations) then implement these plans by deploying EAP staff.

In their role as workplace health consultants to executives, EA professionals can lobby to stop all workplace bullying. The rationale for this strategy is twofold. First, bullying affects the fiscal bottom line by increasing turnover, hurting recruitment and retention, encouraging litigation, and imposing a host of intangible employer costs. The relevant data that illustrate these reactions are gathered by human resources and risk management specialists, but rarely surface at the executive level. EAPs could be the conduit for such information.

Second, EA professionals can educate executives that an abused, injured, fearful workforce is not productive and instead is likely to undermine all legitimate business interests. An additional charge of an EAP would be to rehabilitate bullies through fitness-for-duty psychological testing and emotional intelligence coaching coupled with strengthening their commitment to the organization (rather than their personal interests).

EA professionals can be uniquely positioned to educate work organizations from the inside while maintaining their commitment to helping employees. Workplace bullying and its impact on organizations is the passion--the cause--that can drive a new EAP strategy that creates value for employers. Work shouldn't hurt, but only EAPs, not management consultants, can make that point from inside the modern American workplace.

Gary and Ruth Namie founded the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute, an education, research, and advocacy organization (, and wrote The Bully at Work (Sourcebooks, 2000/2003). Gary served as an organizational development director in two healthcare systems and currently is a professor of management at Western Washington University and a social psychologist. Ruth has a doctorate in clinical psychology and formerly was training director for Sheraton Hotels in Hawaii. The two have helped introduce legislation in the California Assembly to address workplace bullying.
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Title Annotation:employee assistance programs
Author:Namie, Ruth
Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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