Employment Bullying and the New Figurative Disablement of Workers

There is a new “old” outbreak in America which for lack of a better term can be described as “workplace intimidation” and can also be called organizational bullying. One of the best online websites devoted to the problem is workplaceintimidation.com which has many resources and tips for how to respond to work day abuse and abusers. The site offers consulting services as well as information and is the brain child of Judith Munson. Judith calls work place bullying the “silent epidemic.”

Speaking as a disabled person I must say I’ve experienced lots of inappropriate behavior in the work place as “the disabled” are generally imagined to be workers of sufferance—that is, so the thinking does, we’re lucky to have a job and we should therefore shut up about our needs for accommodations or, gadzooks, our wish to be respected. Talk to people with disabilities who work (we’re about 30% of the disability population, on a good day) and you’ll hear stories of maltreatment that will curl your hair. One of the best books to tackle the subject is Ruth O’Brien’s groundbreaking volume Voices from the Edge which pairs trenchant legal analysis alongside first person stories of disability employment discrimination. (Disclosure: I have a short story in the book.)

What interests me is that discriminatory practices within management, which have always been directed at child laborers, women, people of color, and those few lucky disabled who actually land a job, are now widening out, becoming a tacit style, a matter that encourages thoughts of social contagion. Judith Munson explains this may have something to do with the recession of 2008 and writes:

Financial experts claim that the current recession and slow recovery has been extremely stressful on employers and managers. This might be to blame for the upturn in people using intimidation to get better performance and more productivity from their employees.

A lot of people these days are being overrun by more and more responsibilities where they work and they might not realize that they are actually using intimidating behavior on other co workers.Unfortunately, the people that use intimidation and bullying tactics in the workplace usually get away with the abuse. They will usually receive good periodic evaluations from their superiors and end up climbing the corporate ladder ahead of others.

I don’t think there’s a better description of the neoliberal workplace than this. From universities to manufacturing plants, from financial services companies to auto repair shops, contemporary employment centers on demanding fewer people do more and more. Because this is only nominally possible in most cases intimidation is the incentivizing dynamic of choice. Bonuses are out. Teamwork is severely limited. Transparency has gone down the drain. As the folk singer Greg Brown once sang: “You’re at pink slip’s mercy in a paper universe…”

In other words you’re lucky to have a job at all. Don’t talk back. Which leads me to my point: neolib work environments have successfully transformed able-bodied employees into disabled ones.Of course not literally but still, consider what’s generally being seen and reported across a wide landscape. Being asked to do more with less is eerily similar to being asked to do a job without the accommodations one needs. If the employee asks for help, she’s tagged as incapable. In disability circles we know all about this. It’s a very old story.

But the similarity doesn’t stop there. If you work differently, have a unique style, have opinions of any kind that are not in step, then you’re uppity. (This figurative re-wrapping of employees happens nowadays at dizzying speed. One minute Gladys was respected for her candor, the next, she’s a malcontent.) Moreover once personnel, whether they’re college faculty or accountants are told that their righteous indignation at being overworked or ignored is a character flaw, then bullying is OK—don’t “difficult” people need to be put in their place?

In order for this management charade to be widely accepted people must broadly fear for their jobs. Fear in the work force is what they used to call in the insurance business “the incitement premium”—you’ll buy anything if you’re properly scared.

Bullies must have buddies to rule the playground. Me? I’m not buying. But I can say what I think. I have tenure. At least today.