Workplace abuse refers to harassment or discrimination that is not triggered by someone’s race, religion, gender, or other legally protected characteristic. Abusers often feel threatened by target’s strengths. Targets tend to be highly competent, forthright, and empathetic.
Workplace abuse is common at most employers: at least one third of workers in the United States will face workplace abuse during their careers. Workplace abuse is especially common at universities.
Brandeis does not escape this pattern, as we learn from the Ombuds reports. Community members express strong “concern about how people in places of power (supervisors, tenured professors, and leadership) treat staff and students with disrespect, sense of hazing, and many inappropriate ways” (p. 3). Faculty members are definitely targets of abuse, especially junior and OTS faculty members.
Workplace abuse occasionally involves loud arguments and rudeness, but usually it is more insidious. Subtle-but-common approaches to harming someone’s dignity include:
- excluding and ignoring them and their contribution
- overloading them with work
- spreading malicious rumours
- unfair treatment
- picking on or regularly undermining them
- withholding necessary information
- denying training or promotion opportunities.[i]
These subtle behaviors are serious because they usually persist – at universities they persist for years. Persistent workplace abuse is directly analogous to domestic violence: the target is trapped in a relationship that is belittling, insulting, intimidating, humiliating, or disempowering. Targets know that further degradation is always on its way, so their lives become “… miserable. You can lose all faith in yourself, you can feel ill and depressed, and find it hard to motivate yourself to work.”[ii] The severe emotional, psychological, economic, and physical harms include feelings of shame and humiliation, anxiety, depression, insomnia, hypertension, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, heart disease, stress-induced illnesses, suicide, workplace violence, and job loss.
Do you, or someone you know, need protection from workplace abuse? If so, the Faculty Senate recommends the following:
1. Document everything.
2. Either respond courteously or don't respond. If you respond in kind the abuser or the administration can claim it was just a “personality conflict” rather than one-sided emotional violence. It’s easier for authorities to dismiss a “personality conflict” as pettiness. Dismissing abuse cases can be preferred because they are messy, emotionally draining, and time consuming.
3. Speak with the Ombuds. Get informed.
4. If you decide to speak up, be very careful. At the vast majority of US employers, seeking protection from supervisors or the administration usually backfires. The Faculty Senate may be your best option.
Experts agree about how those with authority should respond to concerns of workplace abuse.
1. Take it seriously.
2. Listen more than you speak.
3. Respond with empathy. Remember, most targets do not speak up until they have tolerated the abuse for a very long time. It’s rarely a “personality conflict”; it’s one-sided psychological violence.
4. Do not assume you know much about workplace abuse. Most conventional wisdom is wrong. The expert consensus, and the research behind it, are summarized here.
5. Get the perspective of the alleged perpetrator, maintaining an open mind.
6. Investigate all claims.
7. Don't make excuses for powerful colleagues.
8. When abuse occurs, hammer it. Remember: If you mistakenly dismiss or downplay the abuse, the target is likely to quit or disengage and the abuser will, in all likelihood, abuse new targets.
9. Maintain strict confidentiality.
10. Ask the target to report any signs of retaliation.
Why are those facing workplace abuse recommended to consult the Senate? Because requesting support or protection from US employers normally backfires.
At most US employers, including US universities, most targets who seek protection from workplace abuse do not gain it, and are instead subjected to a new form of abuse known as “organizational bullying,” “corporate violence,” or “institutional betrayal.”[iii] The Brandeis Ombuds reports that Brandeis community members commonly express “concern about policies and retaliation for using formal processes to report harassment” (Ombuds report, p. 3).
Why is it dangerous to follow standard grievance procedures at US employers?
- Supervisors (e.g., chairs, deans, program directors):
- The chance that the supervisor is the bully is in the range of 55% - 80% across studies.
- The supervisor might accept conventional wisdom, and
- mistakenly focus on the individual low-intensity acts rather than the overall pattern? or
- assume that workplace abuse looks like schoolyard bullying (open, aggressive, verbal)?
- The supervisor might be friends with the abuser.
- The supervisor might prefer to avoid these complex, emotionally difficult, and time-consuming challenges.
- HR or senior management
- HR and senior management could adopt the standard employer approach to concerns about workplace abuse: suppression.[iv] Common suppression strategies include: settlements with NDAs; sham investigations; endless delays; outright refusal to act; misinforming targets; repeated promises of action with no follow-through; administrative claims that the administration has no leverage to address a problem that it belatedly solves.
- HR/senior management could choose to protect themselves or certain special employees.
- HR/senior management could accept conventional wisdom and
- focus on the individual low-intensity acts rather than the overall pattern, or
- assume that workplace abuse must look like schoolyard bullying (open, aggressive, verbal).
[iii] The idea that targets rarely get protection from their employer may sound extreme, but the research invariably confirms it. This presumably explains why Brandeis created a new group (ODEI) to handle concerns about discrimination and harassment.
[iv] The policy of suppression reflects a common assumption among attorneys: suppression minimizes legal costs. However, this assumption has been belied by empirical analysis. Research now confirms the assessment of informed legal experts: addressing workplace abuse forthrightly and fairly reduces legal expenses and amplifies institutional success.