I have spent nearly a quarter of a century studying and trying to eliminate workplace bullying. I have seen terrible outcomes of workplace bullying, including being informed that a target of bullying committed suicide by ingesting anti-freeze. I have seen bullies tear apart organizations. I have seen targets flee their jobs and their careers. I have seen and heard from targets who have retired early and others who have been rushed to hospitals with panic attacks and even heart attacks. I know targets who have questioned their own worth for years and even decades as a result of their bullies.
However, what I see now in the heart of a pandemic is that the worst form of bullying and the worst forms of bullies are emerging. At a time when we all, as a society, should come together to prevent further death and harm (over 170,000 Americans have died as a result of this virus at the time I am writing this), these bullies are running amok in areas of our lives that we should expect so much more and so much better. Many of these bullies will never admit that they are bullies, but they are. Many try to justify their bullying with some higher-level cause, but they can’t because at the end of the day they are violating the most basic of human rights and their most basic responsibilities to society.
“Who are these bullies?” you might ask. Many are the people running our schools and our universities. Others are even doctors, who have sworn first to do no harm (my own daughter was bullied by an awful doctor/COVID denier). They are often union leaders who at the very least should be expected to protect the lives of their members from unnecessary hazards in the workplace. My own union president has come out in full support of administrators putting faculty, students, and staff in direct harm.
Parents, school boards, and school administrators in response to the pandemic have become the worst form of bullies, at least the worst I have seen in my 23 years of studying bullying. They are currently engaged in a practice of forcing teachers and staff into not just unsafe working conditions, but into known deadly working conditions. They ignore the scientific evidence and engage in moral self-justification, gaslighting, and projection along the way. These bullies engage in systemic violation of the human rights of educators and staff and they do so without hesitation. They deny the basic limited legal rights to educators, students, and staff knowing how difficult it is for these individuals to enforce those rights.
Workplace bullying is the unwanted abuse of any source of power that has the effect of or intent to intimidate, control, or otherwise strip a target of his/her right to esteem, growth, dignity, voice, or other human rights in the workplace. There can be no real argument that exposing and forcing workers into preventable dangers in the workplace is a clear form of bullying. When we start knowingly calculating the number of workers who will die, not out of unavoidable accidents, but as a result of easily preventable exposure, there is little doubt this is the worst form of bullying.
The most basic of our human rights is of course the right to live, to meet the physiological needs as described by the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When we talk about the worst forms of child labor, we define these as violating this bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, and this is exactly what these bullies are doing. Some will tell you that everything is safe – but the science shows it is not. Some will tell you that you are overblowing this – hard to imagine overblowing a 100-hundred-year pandemic that has already infected 5.5 million Americans. Some will use anecdotal evidence – “my family has not contracted it” – to justify their putting the lives of others in danger. Some will argue kids are safe (they are not) while ignoring they are putting adults into danger along with the kids.
All the while they justify their terrible bullying behaviors, they force educators and staff into dangerous, deadly school buildings (“if you don’t like it, quit” – and of course end up losing your home and everything you have built and abandoning the profession you have spent your career building). They deny educators and staff members the few legal rights they have in the US. The deny telework as an accommodation while offering virtual education to any students who choose to engage in it. They deny telework, despite the support of such from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Job Accommodation Network, OSHA, the CDC, state and county health departments, the WHO, and epidemiologists across the globe. They try to deny leave requests under the FFCRA and the FMLA. They refuse to assure that they will meet the OSHA guidelines for safe working conditions for educators. They refuse to supply the PPE suggested under OSHA guidelines for educators while hiding behind exemptions from these regulations. While telling educators the work is safe, they either openly or behind closed doors work with their attorneys and legislators to assure immunity from wrongful death suits.
Covid-19 will eventually be brought under control. Most of us will survive, but the reality is that many of us will not. However, the bullies who exacerbated this problem, the bullies who said (explicitly or tacitly) that the lives of teachers, staff, even students really do not matter, and the bullies who denied educators and staff their basic legal rights will still be around. They will still be bullies. They may not bully when things go well, but we will know how they will behave when things get tough. We will know and should not forget how they viewed our lives and the lives of those around us and we should respond accordingly. We can perhaps forgive (although I will not) but we should not forget.
Dr. Jerry Carbo, JD/PhD
President, The National Workplace Bullying Coalition