Retrospective on the Workplace Bullying Conference, Montreal, 2008

Workplace Mobbing in Academe

K. Westhues Homepage



Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo

Three things will get a Norwegian professor fired, the University of Tromsø’s Floyd Rudmin told me: stealing, sexual harassment, or smoking in your office. This was among the tidbits of knowledge offered in earnest or jest that I carried home from the sixth international conference on workplace bullying, held at the University of Quebec in Montreal on June 4-6, 2008.

Of the scores of scholarly gatherings I have attended in the past four decades, this one would surely rank in the most stimulating decile.

One reason, I suspect, is that virtually everybody there had witnessed or experienced first-hand the horror of extreme humiliation at work. Visceral repugnance of the subject matter of the conference forged a mostly unspoken bond among participants, a common gentleness that overrode abundant differences in analytic approach.

More than 200 researchers and activists showed up, twice as many as expected. There were 170 presentations, as compared to 40 at the fifth biennial conference, held at Trinity College in Dublin in 2006. Research on bullying is clearly on a roll.

French-English translation was in place for all sessions, but the event was more polyglot than that. For a presenter fluent in neither French nor English, I heard a question translated from Spanish to English to Japanese, then her answer translated back from Japanese to English to Spanish. The patience, humour, and respect in this exchange was marvelous.

Most of the world’s big names on workplace bullying were on hand. From France came Marie-France Hirigoyen, author of the influential 1998 book, Le Harcèlement moral. From Norway came Ståle Einarsen, successor to Dan Olweus as leader of research on bullying at the University of Bergen. From England came the University of Portsmouth’s Charlotte Rayner, who conducted for the BBC the first national survey on bullying in the UK. A half dozen leaders of the anti-bullying movement in the United States were present in Montreal, including David Yamada of Suffolk University, Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik of the University of New Mexico, and Gary and Ruth Namie, founders of the international Workplace Bullying Institute. At least one major figure was on hand from Wales, Finland, Mexico, Japan, Portugal, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, and other countries, too.

With some justification, New York psychologist Israel Kalman has criticized today’s anti-bullying movement as a witch-hunting crusade, heavy on zeal and politics but light on reason and evidence. But even Kalman would have been impressed by the scholarly sophistication of most of the presentations in Montreal, and by the ambience of intellectual openness, doubt, and questioning.

Carlo Caponecchia and Anne Wyatt, University of New South Wales, gave a sensible paper that Kalman would have applauded, on “Victimising the ‘Bully’: Problems with the ‘Workplace Psychopath’ Approach.” This was among many papers that emphasized situational aspects of workplace conflicts, instead of focusing on allegedly pathological characters.

Michael Sheehan, University of Glamorgan, called on organizational leaders to quit treating employees as human resources, cannon fodder for achievement of system goals, instead to recognize their humanness in its variety and autonomy. Sheehan urged a paradigm shift in management, toward creating workplace cultures wherein people can develop for themselves, in their own respective ways, their human capacities.

In his concluding plenary address, Helge Hoel, University of Manchester, called for a “broader, contextualized, interdisciplinary research agenda, informed by historical, cultural, and socio-economic factors.” His aim, he said, was “to inspire, not quell debate.”

Against the background of the general postmodern priority on the socially constructed quality of human affairs, I was surprised that at least two of the plenary addresses sought to understand bullying in a more fundamental way, as not just a cultural but a natural phenomenon, rooted in the externally given conditions of earthly life.

Dutch psychologist Evert Van de Vliert, University of Groningen, reviewed cross-national variation in bullying and destructive leadership, then sought to explain it by the interaction of climate and wealth. When combined with relative poverty, he argued, an extremely hot or cold climate breeds negative acts. I was not convinced, pondering instead other explanations of the survey datum he reported of a high value on destructive, authoritarian leadership in many oil-rich countries of the Middle East. Even so, I could not help but admire Van de Vliert’s imaginative effort to connect workplace social relations to their geographic, climatic environment.

American psychologist Kipling Williams, Purdue University, offered what struck me as a more compelling effort to get at the natural roots of bullying. Williams summarized his clever experiments on the effects of ostracism – which he said is even worse than bullying in its effect on the target, since it takes less time and effort and makes the target feel unworthy even of negative attention. In the manner of evolutionary psychologists, Williams traced ostracization tendencies among humans to survival needs.

Williams ended his presentation with remarks on school shootings, most of whose perpetrators had prior histories of extreme ostracization. I was wishing that public discourse on this topic were better informed by Williams’ conceptual frame and research findings, instead of dwelling so simplistically on school shooters’ personalities.

The focus of my own research, what brought me to the conference in Montreal, was not precisely bullying, instead the related but distinct phenomenon of mobbing, which is to some extent a competing conceptual frame. Even from the aspect of this narrower interest, the conference had much to offer. Florencia Peña and her colleagues from Mexico’s National School of Anthropology and History presented brilliant analyses of collective aggression against targeted professors there. About a dozen scholars from Europe couched their presentations directly in terms of workplace mobbing.

One of the most remarkable things about this conference is that like all the preceding ones on workplace bullying over the past dozen years, it was mounted ad hoc by a small network of dedicated researchers (led this year by the unflappable, indefatigable UQAM sociologist, Angelo Soares), without the backing of a learned society.

A meeting Thursday evening aimed to change things and give this research community a solid institutional form. With skill and humour, Duncan Lewis of the University of Glamorgan chaired the large session for creating the International Association on Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace. When debates over fine points and longwinded interventions threatened to derail the agenda, Lewis pleaded, “I love you all, but dinner is getting cold.” An unanimous vote then brought the new organization into existence and a board of directors was elected, with Charlotte Rayner as the founding president.

This event took place in UQAM’s well-appointed conference centre inside the gothic shell of what was once the Church of St. Jacques, built in 1891, now not only desacralized but surrounded by sex shops and sleaze along Maisonneuve Boulevard. Quebeckers have lost their formerly rapt interest in worshipping and embraced secularity. The latter has flaws of its own, workplace bullying not least. It was a treat to be part of a conference aimed at making sense of it.