Office Bullies: The Big Business of Battling Them
With his goatee, Darth Vader-sized bald head, and an NFL lineman's build, Gary Namie doesn't look like someone to mess with. And in his case, appearances do not deceive. Namie has carved out a tough niche—he's the guy who bullies the office bullies. Two weeks ago in San Francisco he and his wife, Ruth, were set to give a keynote address at a seminar hosted by a group called California Healthy Workplace Advocates. They were scheduled for a similar event the next day in Sacramento. At $10,000 per appearance, the Namies are becoming the Sarah and Todd Palin of the rapidly expanding office bullying universe—a universe that owes its existence, in large part, to the Namies.
In 1995, Ruth Namie, then a clinical physician at a health maintenance organization, found herself in the crosshairs of a vicious female superior named Sheila. Namie mentions Sheila every time he tells their story, since, he says, she "tormented," "traumatized," and "tore apart" Ruth's confidence, using the classic bullying techniques like berating her skill in front of co-workers, spreading rumors, disrupting her work, and screaming at her. After consulting an attorney, the Namies discovered there was little legal recourse for non-discriminatory bullying. By 1997, the passage of such legislation became Namie's white whale. As he says, Sheila "messed with the wrong guy," even though, technically, she messed with his wife.
More than a decade later, the former University of Southern California management professor has become the Erin Brockovich for workers tired of their boss's hysteria. And in the American worker, Namie has the perfect client. According to a survey conducted by business research association the Conference Board, employee satisfaction is sinking. Last year, only 45 percent of workers claimed to be satisfied with their jobs—a significant decrease from 61 percent in 1987. Pollster John Zogby reported in August that 34 percent of American workers said they'd been bullied at the office. The data reinforce 2009 University of Phoenix findings that the recession has given bullies an excuse to mistreat co-workers.
In a classic chicken-and-egg twist, the purported rise of the office bully has turned anti-bullying experts into well-paid gurus. Valerie Cade, an anti- bullying coach in Ontario, gives 40 speeches a year for up to $7,500 apiece. A rise in demand, she says, has forced her to decline multiple invitations. Calgary-based Anton Hout, the founder of Overcomebullying.org, offers a selection of anti-bullying- inspired posters and fine art prints. The site also hawks his most recent book, the artfully titled What Every Target of Workplace Bullying Needs to Know. Fellow Canadian Chris Hinkle, the creator of Firm Foundations, offers a self-service package for $350.
Still, Namie occupies a rarefied position in the anti-bullying hierarchy. The co-founder of the Bellingham (Wash.)-based Workplace Bullying Institute, he's hoping to leave his fingerprints on history. With his help, on Oct. 19, El Paso, Tex., declared the first ever Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, which was celebrated with events in four states and an anti-bullying conference—entitled Powerless to Powerful—in anti-bullying hotbed, Saskatchewan.
The big week was more than a decade in the making. After Ruth Namie's bullying experience, the couple founded the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying in San Francisco in 1998. Two years later, they helped establish the inaugural U.S. Hostile Workplace Survey. The poll coincided with the release of their book, The Bully at Work, which has since sold 80,000 copies and remains the magnum opus of the genre. In 2003 they renamed their group the more important- sounding Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, later boiled settling on the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), which still sounds pretty important. In 2008, they took the bold step of establishing WBI University, the first college of its kind, in Bellingham. The university's three-day seminars cost $4,600 for individuals and $6,000 for corporate representatives. Next semester is already sold out.
Namie focuses his energy these days on "interventions"—which require on-site bullying assessments and anti-bullying training—for companies, unions, and universities at $45,000 a pop. While he once landed three such gigs per year, he says, he now averages three per month. On 10 or so other occasions each month, Namie explains to an audience of business owners or executives how bullies are eroding their organizations from within, undercutting capacity and destroying lives. It's not easy to identify a bully in your midst, he warns. It takes a professional to spot, as his literature states, "the overly ambitious snakes willing to hurt others."
With more than 900 media appearances under his belt, Namie has successfully established himself as the main conduit for the anti-bullying business. In the last year and a half, the WBI has added three employees, not including an in-house therapist who mans the crisis hotline. Such success has not gone unnoticed. According to Matthew Holt, vice-president and publisher of John Wiley & Sons, between 20 and 25 business books on workplace bullying were published in the last two years. Next year will see the release of Murder by Proxy, a documentary that focuses on the conditions that make workers go postal. The film is following the lead of New York independent filmmaker Beverly Peterson, a former bullying victim who devoted herself to telling others' stories. Her ongoing Web series, There Oughta Be a Law, debuted to raves at the 2008 International Association on Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace conference in Cardiff, Wales. "It was like my Sundance," Peterson says.
Despite the surge in his business, Namie remains intent on spearheading anti-bullying legislation. Along with Boston-based Suffolk University Law School professor David Yamada, he presides over a small army of coordinators in 33 states—so-called Healthy Workplace Advocates, many of whom are WBI University alumni. So far 17 "Healthy Workplace" bullying bills have been introduced across the country. Namie and Yamada expect to cross the "20-state barrier" next year. In preparation, Yamada recenly held a Freedom Week conference in Boston to strategize for the 2011 legislative season.
The bills, which seek to offer legal options for bullied employees, have triggered opposition from numerous business associations who fear the potential for future worker litigation. However, it's nothing compared to the clash taking place within the anti-bullying industry itself. "I will say there are several people who want all anti-bullying related activity to go through them," says filmmaker Peterson. The anti-bullying industry had a contentious moment in August, after Kevin Morrissey, a 52-year-old managing editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, took his own life amid allegations of psychological abuse by Ted Genoways, the magazine's top editor. (Genoways denies the allegations.) The suicide prompted soul-searching in the publishing world and finger-pointing in the anti-bullying one. In April 2009, Valerie Cade was asked to speak at the University of Virginia, which operates VQR. During the following year she served as a consultant to the school. Namie is still stinging from not landing the gig. "They should have had our damn program. The guy wouldn't have killed himself," he says disturbingly.
"I would describe what Gary is doing as bullying," says Cade, noting that Namie has repeatedly disparaged her work when discussing the tragedy. (The University of Virginia declined to comment on the matter.) However, bygones are bygones when people are willing to pay thousands to hear you speak. "I'll just take it as a compliment," Namie says of his growing competitors. "We've created the field in a way that could be lucrative."