Before becoming the executive director of MSU’s WorkLife Office, Dr. Barbara Roberts held the title of human rights director at the University of New Brunswick, where she was charged with addressing workplace bullying.
Brought to the public consciousness in large part by former University of New Brunswick (UNB) faculty Marilyn Noble and Dr. Judith MacIntosh, “workplace bullying” is a phenomenon in which people psychologically damage or manipulate their colleague(s) through personal diminishment — making people feel incompetent, incapable, and unwanted — in a professional setting. Through their research, Noble and MacIntosh found that oftentimes this bullying will continue unless a bystander intervenes.
The findings on bystander intervention led Noble and MacIntosh’s research to its crux: there needed to be a space where people could learn how to intervene and prevent workplace bullying. This realization was the genesis of the UNB team’s Toward a Respectful Workplace website, which MSU’s WorkLife Office has reconstituted over the past year.
“I found it an amazingly useful and instructive tool on so many levels that when I came to MSU, I really wanted to bring that resource with me, because MSU was just in the beginning of defining bullying and harassment in a way that would be useful to targets and supervisors,” says Roberts. Since Noble and MacIntosh had retired, Roberts saw an opportunity to bring the site under the stewardship of MSU. “As part of our research on bringing the site here, former Research & Educational Program Coordinator Dr. John Girdwood got a Science and Society at State (S3) grant, which included the relaunch costs,” she says.
The website is a way for MSU to demonstrate its anti-bullying commitment; it’s also a great resource for people in any workplace to learn about definitions and healthy coping strategies.
“When I talk to people who are being bullied, I always give them some very specific supportive strategies, then direct them to this website for education, and to contextualize their experience,” says Roberts.
Combating bullying myths and obstacles
Noble and MacIntosh identified psychological and institutional factors that contributed to the bullying cycle as part of their research, which Roberts breaks into elements that are discrete and easy-to-understand — myths and obstacles. Examples of myths include:
Myth: Bullying is a matter of the target’s perception.
Roberts says: “What matters in bullying is not the intention but the impact. Whether you intend it or not, the impact of hurting someone’s feelings, or undermining their success, or interfering with their ability to do their job still has an impact. That’s not just a question of perception.”
Myth: We are free to say anything to anyone under either the precepts of freedom of expression or academic freedom.
Roberts says: “Those terms have specific meanings. We debate vigorously in the academy, of necessity. But freedom of expression and academic freedom don’t mean freedom to harass or demean people.”
Obstacles to preventing bullying
When looking at why individuals hesitate to come forward about being bullied, Roberts notes the following obstacles:
Victims feeling they must be responsible for getting bullied, or that bullying isn’t what’s happening to them.
Roberts says: “People who are targeted often don't really believe they’re being bullied. They’re often very hard workers and high achievers and they have high expectations of themselves, which is often what threatens the bully in the first place. People don’t want to bring it up. They feel like they must be weak, or it must be them, when in fact something harmful is being done to them.”
Fear of retaliation.
Roberts says: “People need to understand that retaliation itself is harassment. You can’t have an effective system if there is retaliation for using the system.”
Victims feeling like there is no process that will adequately address the problem.
Roberts says: “This is not only a fear of a lack of agency on your own behalf, but a fear the system won’t support you or do anything effective about it. It keeps people from speaking up. That’s one of the reasons visible support is crucial.”
The lack of a clear definition of workplace bullying.
Roberts says: “This idea keeps us from making progress as a community — the notion you can’t define it, that it’s different for everybody. Fundamentally, it isn’t actually different. The dynamic of a power differential and the abuse of another person is the same, no matter what department, college, or level of employee you are. The notion that you can’t capture it is just erroneous.”
Roberts is very optimistic about the future of the site, which she hopes will help others around the world, not just at MSU. She sees it as part of a larger cultural conversation about creating a society where everyone can flourish.
“Writ large, I think our society needs a better understanding about how our behavior impacts one another,” says Roberts. “When we can capture and conceptualize behavior as harmful or supportive, it helps the entire community. Then we take this down to the level of the workplace and ask how the concept of supportive behavior can manifest in our community.”
Robust definitions, research findings, and strategies for combating workplace bullying can be found on The Toward a Respectful Workplace website. For questions, comments, or concerns about workplace bullying, you can reach the Worklife Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.