A Short History of Workplace Bullying
The Story of an Emerging Field
Bullies present in diverse forms across both human and animal life. Perhaps workplace bullies take their cues from their early evolutionary nature. Nobel Laurette, Konrad Lorenz (1968), researched the ethology, or science of animal behavior, in the realm of aggression, noting that animals, birds in particular, have a propensity to fly aggressively toward a predator, flanked by bird co-conspirators, with the mob rapidly increasing and sharing in the goal of eliminating the target. Lorenz later connected these animalistic behaviors to schoolyard bullying and workplace abuse when people gang up with the shared intention to drive the target out.
Around the same time Lorez was doing his work, Swedish physician, Peter-Paul Heinemann (1972), conducted extensive research on childhood bullying and its similarities to emotional abuse in the workplace. Later, the psychologist and anthropologist, Dr. Carroll Brodsky (1976), brought the study of workplace bullying to the United States with his book The Harassed Worker, which pulled stories from the files of The California Workers’ Compensation and The Nevada Industrial Commission regarding employees unable to work due to the psychological terrorism they suffered on the job.
Beginning in the 1980s, German born, Swedish citizen, psychologist, Heinz Leymann (1990, 1996) revolutionalized the field of workplace bullying, highlighting the detrimental impact of workplace abuse on targets’ health and organizations’ wellbeing, referring to the phenomenon as “mobbing” (Yamada, 2009).
On the heels of Leymann’s seminal work, British journalist, Andrea Adams (1992), popularized the term “workplace bullying” in the United Kingdom, in her book Bullying at Work: How to Confront and Overcome It.
In the early 1990s, Dr. Stale Einarsen (1999), organizational psychologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, conducted studies on workplace bullying through the Bergen Bullying Research Group which developed the Negative Acts Questionnaire, the most widely used inventory for assessing employees’ perception of their exposure to workplace abuse.
In addition to heading the Bergen Bullying Research Group, Einarsen helped to found The International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment.
In the late 1990s, Dr. Ken Westhues (1998, 2005), Canadian sociologist and professor at the University of Waterloo, carried on Leymann’s (1990) research, zooming in on mobbing inside higher education.
Back in the United States, Davenport, Schwartz, and Elliott ( 1999 ) published their book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace highlighting the trauma and impact of emotional terrorism on the job.
The campaign against workplace bullying was officially launched in the United States by Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie (2009, 2011), organizational psychologists, fierce advocates, authors, and founders of The Workplace Bullying Institute. WBI has repeatedly partnered with Zogby International to conduct large scale studies on workplace abuse.
In 2010, the National Workplace Bullying Coalition was founded in New Jersey by a diverse group of activists, professional, and scholars and quickly expanded across the United States with the mission to ensure dignity at work. Today, Jerry Carbo (2017) leads the organization as President.
In the 2000s, Dr. Pam Lutgen-Sandvik (2013), professor at North Dakota State University, wrote extensively about the impact of workplace abuse and distilled a large body of complex research for lay readers in her comprehensive text, Adult Bullying – A Nasty Piece of Work: Translating a Decade of Research on Non-Sexual Harassment, Psychological Terror, Mobbing, and Emotional Abuse.
That same year, Janice Harper (2013), a cultural anthropologist and target of workplace bullying, published Mobbed: What to Do When They are Really Out to Get You.
Dr. Maureen Duffy, a practicing family therapist specializing in trauma-informed care, and Dr. Len Sperry, a professor of Mental Health and Counseling at Florida Atlantic University and Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical College of Wisconsin, co-authored two leading books in the field, Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions (2012) and Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014). The books take an integrative approach, examining the role, impact, and intersection of the individual, group, and organization in workplace bullying and mobbing, while providing targets with practical advice for healing.
Lastly, there is the parallel and sometimes intersecting field of psychopathy lead by Dr. Robert Hare (1993), author of the seminal work Without Conscious: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us. Hare later applied his study of psychopaths, much of which was conducted in prisons, to the boardroom, examining work cultures that attract, hire, and promote corporate or “successful” psychopaths and how these predators’ behaviors impact the health of organizations and cause detrimental harm to targeted employees. Hare partnered with his colleague Babiak (2019), an industrial organizational psychologist, to share that research in their book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work.
In closing, workplace bullying and mobbing is a fairly young area of study when compared to other research specialties with century-old histories. The above offers only a brief overview of a budding field starting in the 60s and ballooning over the last decade (Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2020).
Building awareness of workplace bullying, advocating for protective legislation, providing trauma informed cares for targets, and pushing back on oppression and psychological terror in the workplace are all basic prerequisites for creating innovative workplace cultures that foster human dignity and provide innovative solutions to institutional and global problems.
Adams, A. (1992). Bullying at Work: How to confront and overcome it. Virago.
Babiak, P., & Hare, R. D. (2019). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. ReganBooks.
Bergen Bullying Research Group (June 2, 2020). Retrieved from https://www.uib.no/en/rg/bbrg/44487/about-group.
Brodsky , C . ( 1976 ). The harassed worker. Lexington Books.
Carbo, J. A. (2017). Understanding, defining and eliminating workplace bullying: Assuring dignity at work. Routledge.
Davenport, N., Schwartz, R. D., & Elliott, G. P. (1999). Mobbing: Emotional abuse in the American workplace. Civil Society Publishing.
Duffy, M., & Sperry, L. (2012). Mobbing: Causes, consequences, and solutions. Oxford University Press.
Duffy, M., & Sperry, L. (2014). Overcoming mobbing: A recovery guide for workplace aggression and bullying. Oxford University Press.
Ellis, A. (2011). Andrea Adams, British pioneer: Bio and text of 1994 speech. Retrieved from http://workplacebullying.org/multi/pdf/adams.pdf
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Einarsen S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C. L. (Eds.). (2020). Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Theory, research and practice (3rd ed.). CRC Press.
Hare, R.D. (1993). Without conscience: The Disturbing world of the psychopaths among. Pocket Books.
Harper, J. (2013). Mobbed!: What to do when they really are out to get you. Backdoor Press.
Heinemann, P. ( 1972 ). Mobbning – Gruppvåld bland barn och vuxna [Mobbing: Group violence by children and adults]. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.
Hoel, H. and Cooper, C. L. (1999) The role of ‘intent’ in perceptions of workplace bullying. Presented at the 9th European Congress on Work and Organizational Psychology: Innovations for Work, Organization and Well-being, 12–15 May, Espoo-Helsinki, Finland.
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Leymann, H. (1996). The content and development of mobbing at work. In D. Zapf & H. Leymann (Eds.), Mobbing and victimization at work (pp. 165–184). Hove, England: Psychology Press.
Lorenz, K. ( 1968 ). Aggression: Dess bakgrund och natur [Aggression: The background and nature]. Stockholm: Norstedt & Söner .
Lutgen-Sandvik, P. (2013). Adult bullying – a nasty piece of work: Translating a decade of research on non-sexual harassment, psychological terror, mobbing, and emotional abuse on the job. ORCM Academic Press.
Namie, G., & Namie, R. (2009). The bully at work. Sourcebooks.
Namie, G., & Namie, R. (2011). The bully-free workplace: stop jerks, weasels, and snakes from killing your organization. John Wiley & Sons.
Valvatne, S., Einarsen, H., Hoel, H., Zapf, D, & Cooper, C. (2020). Bullying harassment in the workplace: Theory, research, and practice (3rd. ed.). CRC Press.
Westhues , K. ( 1998 ). Eliminating professors: A guide to the dismissal process. The Tribunal for Academic Justice/Edwin Mellen Press.
Westhues , K . ( 2005). The envy of excellence: Administrative mobbing of high-achieving professors. The Tribunal for Academic Justice/Edwin Mellen Press.