What Is "Workplace Bullying?"

What Is "Workplace Bullying?"

What Is "Workplace Bullying?"

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Aug. 23 2010 3:04 PM

What Is "Workplace Bullying?"

Kevin Morrissey, an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review , committed suicide last week , and the incident is being called a case of "workplace bullying" in the press; the "bully" in question would be his boss and once-friend, Ted Genoways. (I once gave a poetry reading with Genoways.) I don't understand the particulars of this situation, and it seems no one does yet, so I don't want to speculate about it. What is worth noting, though, is that based on what has been released so far, the word bullying seems to bear more investigation; indeed, the case and its discussion in the media raises interesting questions about what "workplace bullying" constitutes. Bullying among kids is quite different from strife among colleagues. After all, there is a fundamental difference between bullying in a school and in a workplace, which has to do with the fact that you're getting paid to work, and a company doesn't have to hire or keep every person who applies. A boss should be allowed-indeed, needs to be able to say-"You're not doing a good job. I need more; I don't want to deal with you." What I take bullying to be about is something secret, something about trading on someone's embarrassment and powerlessness. Thus, one imagines, bullying in a workplace would have to be about making threats and personal innuendos. But, as several news outlets have noted, strife in the workplace may feel more traumatic now because employees fear that they won't be able to find another job if they leave. So is bullying circumstantial? Is any mean or disaffected boss a bully? How does one usefully begin to draw circles around what constitutes bullying and what just constitutes a bad match? Morrissey's death is clearly a tragedy, and deeply upsetting to read about. It may or may not be a case of workplace bullying. But the vagueness of the discussion surrounding it points to the fact that we need to come to better terms with what, exactly, workplace bullying is.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.