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Media Portrayals of Workplace Bullying

  • Maria GeorgoEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks of Workplace Bullying, Emotional Abuse and Harassment book series (HWBEAH, volume 4)

Abstract

Workplace bullying is a complex global phenomenon, as are the effects of media. This chapter provides the reader with an introduction to media depictions of workplace bullying by asking one simple question: How is workplace bullying represented in media? The chapter takes a closer look at media depictions of workplace bullying in the news, social media, television and movies. We hold media literally in the palm of our hands, and it has the power to both shape perceptions about bullying and provide a platform through which bullying can occur. Media research suggests that what we see can be confused with what we know and, moreover, what we do. It supports the notion that media representations have influence and have the capacity for harm or for education. While the indicators are strong, the proof is still disputed. This chapter raises attention to the abundance of portrayals of workplace bullying in our midst and the conceivable propensity for impact on lived experiences. It highlights the possibility for study of all formats of media and the opportunity for isolating and examining depictions of bullies or targets or bystanders in media and then in turn considering linkages with lived experiences. This chapter provides a synthesis of current literature and examples of depictions and further establishes evidence and justification for the exploration and study of media depictions of workplace bullying. The reader should be prepared to experience a change, perhaps an urging to delve deeper and more urgently into the predilection for media and the doggedness of workplace bullying.

1 Introduction

The purpose of this chapter is to serve as a catalyst for the exploration and study of media depictions of workplace bullying. By providing readers with a unique look at media portrayals of workplace bullying, the aim is to raise questions while recommending pathways for further research. The primary question that provides the framework for this chapter is: How is workplace bullying represented in media? Media is a vehicle of diverse capacity, a means for communicating, and, like work, it is central and prominent in our lives. Its importance is difficult to comprehend, and yet it is deeply rooted in all facets of society (Couldry, 2012, p. 3). Media depictions of workplace bullying appear in non-fiction stories or reports of lived experiences, as well as in fictional stories or what is otherwise considered entertainment. The portrayals discussed in this chapter are primarily through the lens of four types of media: news, social media, television and films—specifically Hollywood movies.

Couldry (2012) has described media as being “ambiguous”, “unevenly shared consciousness” and “powerfully transmitted and mediated” (Couldry, 2012, p. 4). Media depictions influence the attitudes and practices of their audiences. Research making connections between workplace bullying and media is limited (Planalp, Metts, & Tracy, 2010). An online search for “media depictions and workplace bullying” yielded 688,000 titles (google.com, 6 April 2018), of which only 3 were scholarly references. They were followed by a myriad of separate and distinct search results about workplace bullying and/or media depictions. Research on the topic of media depictions of workplace bullying may be uncommon, but media depictions themselves are innumerable. These depictions may contribute to an erroneous understanding of acceptable behaviours at work. Media sources are in a unique position to teach their audience about “social issues of which they have little knowledge, through a variety of mediums” (Osborne, 2016, p. 17). They also reach “a wide audience of people and influence public opinion” (Osborne, 2016, p. 1). Research of media has suggested its capacity to stimulate perceived realism that in turn can cultivate aspirations, imitation and beliefs (Behm-Morawitz, Lewallen, & Miller, 2016). While not specific to workplace bullying, much research has linked media representations to adverse results, providing a substantive basis for considering the same for workplace bullying. Sumner, Scarduzio and Daggett (2016) suggest “that repeated exposure to media narratives of workplace bullying might influence audience perceptions and normalize bullying behaviors” (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016, p. 2).

Studying media depictions of workplace bullying can provide pathways of insight. Media has long been a facilitator or connection for information—the integrity of the source often questioned but the reliance often solidifying complicit acceptance. Media coverage of workplace bullying educates not only those unfamiliar with the phenomenon but also those who have suffered through it (Osborne, 2016). Media reporting has been faulted for unwarranted coverage placing blame on the targets or compassion for the perpetrators (Judd & Easteal, 2013). Given the power of media to shape perceptions of social issues, the connection between workplace bullying and its depiction in media is important to explore.

2 Media and Violence

Marshall McLuhan, a noted scholar of media studies, has asserted that there cannot be “a universal definition of media”, because media is an “extension of man” and it is “forever in a state of flux” (Giles, 2003, p. 15). As an extension of man, McLuhan has stated that “media is the message” (McLuhan & Lapham, 1964/1994, p. 7). Media messages are metaphors with power to render altered understandings or meanings (McLuhan & Lapham, 1964/1994), enigmas based on perception and then transformed as messages (Giles, 2003). Media is a constructed vehicle, a means for communicating or transferring a message. Granados (2016) posits that attempting to “define media in the digital space is like shooting at a moving target because it is evolving so rapidly” (Granados, 2016, p. 7). Media has played, and continues to play, a central and prominent role in our lives. Media has been defined as an extension of ourselves. Ultimately, the term “media is used quite broadly to include technologies, artifacts, and even words and scientific theories of human discovery or invention” (Sandstrom, 2012, p. 1). According to Shearman (2017), the lines between work and home are hazy because technology has infiltrated our every thought, action and deed (Shearman, 2017). Media is a curious riddle and questions persist regarding its influence, leaving no doubt that studying the effects of media depictions of workplace bullying is important.

While bullying is a form of violence, it is missing from research related to media violence. Studies about violence in media generally focus on physical forms of abuse. A longitudinal study of television programming spanning 22 years (1967–1989) found “that 80% of all shows in the study (mostly prime-time viewing) contained some element of physical violence” (Giles, 2003, p. 50). A second study during the 1970s examined verbal aggression and other forms of antisocial behaviour and found that on average there were 14.6 violent acts shown on American television every hour (Giles, 2003). Considering and acknowledging media effects is essential. Researchers should resist inclinations to prove or disprove theory and instead focus on continued exploration (Neuman & Guggenheim, 2011).

3 Theoretical Perspectives

Media is thought of as a sort of paradox, a system that destroys systems. There is twisting and distorting, propagating a dialectic tension between collective engagement and complicit silence. It is difficult to comprehend media’s reach or our capacity “to imagine what powers of deception, absorption, or of deviation” are at work (Baudrillard & Maclean, 1985, p. 583). We are compelled to divert our attention from uncomfortable depictions while risking absorbing unwelcome attitudes and actions. Media is blurred, intertwining the message, the means and the source (Granados, 2016). It has access to all strata of society and serves a myriad of purposes: It educates, provokes, captivates, comforts and entertains. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, media was believed to have a bullet or a hypodermic role, a direct effect on societal problems (Kellner, 2004). Media has context and it shapes, frames and influences meaning. The viewer is presumed to be an almost defenceless target immediately affected or persuaded—the message not only framed but propagated and rooted—not unlike a target of workplace bullying. Bullying is the result of several different variables interacting: a desire to hurt, a harmful action, a power imbalance, repeated harm and a target aware of being abused (Akella, 2016).

Workplace bullying has been defined by Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf and Cooper (2011) as “negative acts that occur in a persistent and systematic way” (Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2011, p. 179). Workplace bullying is “a phenomenon grounded in an organizations culture”, “a special case of aggression” and “repeated and prolonged hostile treatment of one or more people at work” (Keashley, 2010, p. 10). “Work shouldn’t hurt” (Akella, 2016, p. 8), but all too often, it does. Work has no boundaries; technology overlaps and infiltrates our time, our place and our resources (West, Foster, Levin, Edmison, & Robibero, 2014). No longer are conversations at work limited to offices, corridors, break rooms or meetings but rather extend to the World Wide Web. These advancements have provided greater connection and flexibility but come with a price (Shearman, 2017).

Behaviours depicted in mass media become symbols for the ways people think and behave, providing affirmations, limitations or guidance. Thus, media drives nearly every aspect of our life (Bandura, 1999). Cultivation theory proposes that the greater the exposure to or the consumption of media, the greater the likelihood of mimicking what has been consumed (Behm-Morawitz, Lewallen, & Miller, 2016). Social cognitive theory posits that “through the medium of symbols, people give structure, meaning and continuity to their experiences” (Bandura, 1999, p. 27). Behaviours observed repeatedly, which are rewarded, are more likely to become adopted behaviours, whereas those that are disciplined are not (Taylor, Alexopoulos, & Ghaznavi, 2016). Sink and Mastro (2016) have stressed the seriousness of the function of media intertwined with learned behaviours. Social cognitive theory together with cultivation theory underscores how media influences our constructions of reality (Sink & Mastro, 2016). Smartphones, tablets and laptops facilitate access for consumption and delivery of media instantly and constantly (Busching, Allen, & Anderson, 2016). We are intricately connected, and these theories are relevant to considering the depictions of workplace bullying.

4 Media Depictions of Workplace Bullying

Media continues to be complex—an extension of hands, eyes and ears—leaving society nothing short of wired. Media is now revolutionized, no longer simply a channel or path for communication, but rather it has become the message. “Portrayals legitimize, glamorize, and trivialize human violence” (Bandura, 2009, p. 103). Media depictions are representations with many influences; they are multifaceted and sometimes convoluted and complicated (Monaci, 2017). Technological advancements are an integral part of the prevailing presence and power of media depictions (Helfgott, 2008). Media has the power to both shape perceptions about bullying and also provide a platform through which bullying can occur. The Internet and social media have us constantly connected; boundaries between what is personal and what is professional are increasingly difficult to discern, leaving targets more vulnerable (Shearman, 2017). Media portrayals are often studied for their effect on a myriad of issues and beliefs. Media means “different things to different people” (Granados, 2016, p. 2). Identity is a critical connection between who the individual is and how individual actions are socially shaped (Berger & Luckmann, 1966), both of which are integral perspectives in studying the phenomenon of workplace bullying.

Media has and continues to play a central and prominent role in our lives. From long-existing forms of media such as newspapers, films, television and radio to the newer emerging technologies such as social media, blogs, text messaging and the Internet, media “reflects the pattern of value in any society” (Kumari & Joshi, 2015, p. 44). These symbols shape our thoughts and actions and can be likened to contemporary fables (Helfgott, 2008). Media is a powerful entity and provides a new vehicle for studying workplace bullying. Whereas research of media depictions is extensive, exploring gender, poverty, ageing, immigrants, race, violence and more, research related to media portrayals of workplace bullying is sparse (Georgo, 2016). According to Judd and Easteal (2013), “media reporting may be simplistic, misleading, and overly reliant on clichéd and archetypal characters as ancient as they are inflammatory—the seductress, the victimized man, and the man-hating woman” (Judd & Easteal, 2013, p. 91). Research infers that media is complicit in perpetuating stereotyping (Behm-Morawitz, Lewallen, & Miller, 2016). The next sections in this chapter provide an overview and, in some cases, a sampling of depictions of workplace bullying in four significant media platforms: news, social media, television and movies.

5 Workplace Bullying Depictions in the News

Defining what is meant by “the news” is not a simple task. There is television news, radio news, print news and digital news. To say “the news” is not saying much, as the duplicity of sources is difficult to sift through. The search for depictions of workplace bullying in the news resulted in one scholarly study and then a myriad of headlines. This section provides an overview of the research found, but then primarily focusing on third-party sources, essentially excluding what is referred to as social media, which is discussed later in this chapter. I have made a distinction between news and social media, the difference being news is considered from a third-party source and social media conversely is more often derived from self-reports. To accomplish this distinction in seeking out “news” (newsbank.com), NewsBank, Inc. (newsbank.com), a provider of comprehensive data around the world for more than 40 years, was utilized. NewsBank, Inc., collects, consolidates and archives current and historical information from “thousands of newspaper titles, as well as newswires, web editions, blogs, videos, broadcast transcripts, business journals, periodicals, government documents and other publications”; the results are powerful and impactful (newsbank.com). To explore how workplace bullying is depicted in “the news”, a search was launched on infoweb.newsbank.com, 26 July 2017, with the search term “workplace bullying”, spanning 1980 to the present day. This search yielded 39,467 results representing 77 different countries. Of the 77, five countries stood out from this long list, with remarkable preponderance of the total: the United States (USA), 17,247; Australia, 8,715; Canada, 3,157; the United Kingdom (UK), 5,697; and New Zealand, 1,263. The results spanning nearly a four-decade period relating to “workplace bullying” revealed an exponential growth. In 1980–1989, there were only 26 results overall as compared to more recent results of 27,706. Newspapers were the primary source, with 88% of the reports, and the other 12% from audio, blogs, college/university newspapers, journals, magazines, newswires, transcripts, videos and web-only sources (newsbank.com).

Despite the plethora of media news reports related to workplace bullying, the paucity of research is alarming. The one recent study that emerged is “An Exploratory Study on How Workplace Bullying Is Conceptualized in the Australasian Media” (Osborne, 2016). This research focused on 200 media reports, derived from a wide range of sources, 100 each, from New Zealand and Australia related to some representation of workplace bullying (Osborne, 2016). The incentive for selecting this media format was based on the understanding that anyone and everyone can read them, “be they victims of workplace bullying or policy makers” (Osborne, 2016, p. 17). According to Osborne (2016), this medium has a great capacity for educating and perhaps contributing to the demise of workplace bullying. The study utilized a keyword analysis; the three top words in news reports related to workplace bullying were “complaint”, “harassment” and “culture” (Osborne, 2016). The findings reported that news media depictions of workplace bullying focused on “the acts of bullying rather than the influences of the work environment or the processes used to resolve instances of workplace bullying” (Osborne, 2016, p. 21). This researcher suggests that the portrayal of workplace bullying is diminished by its focus on interpersonal differences, rather than larger organizational culture. Many questions emerge and remain ready for further study, as depictions in the news remain unstudied.

5.1 Headlines

Much of what we consider news is derived from the headlines. Headlines alone have influence, the depths of the news stories are often never read, or when read, the headlines have already left their effect. Themes of headlines related to depictions of workplace bullying are varied, including, but not limited to, corporate protection, trauma, suicide and positive influencers, like new legislation and activism. The images are persistent and powerful, for even with a glance we can decide so much. For example, a headline reader of the Australian Daily Mail, 24 September 2015, would discover: “Unfriending a Colleague on Facebook Can Now be Workplace Bullying” (Tozer, 2015). One simple line can create a barrage of questions and assumptions, such as: Can one simple headline have the influence to diminish a claim of workplace bullying? In this story, the Fair Work Commission rules this social media snub as foolish and irrational (Tozer, 2015). One could conclude that bullying has thus become more covert, utilizing news reports as a weapon. It is painful and traumatic; targets are shamed, and their plight is diluted (Shearman, 2017).

Headlines are powerful; they grab our attention and often frame a story for us. They provide immediate influence and affect our beliefs, or what we believe to be true. Sometimes it is all we see or read, a quick glance as we scroll our social media news feeds, leaving us with an idea about the rest of the story. Headlines about workplace bullying include, but are not limited to, a myriad of depictions: corporate protection, trauma and suicide. The few examples discussed herein reveal thought-provoking potential for further study and understanding of media depictions and workplace bullying. If there are patterns and outcomes, they are unknown presently, simply for lack of study.

5.2 Corporate Protection

Headlines have subtle but potent influence. This headline, “Wells Fargo to Claw Back $75 Million from 2 Former Executives” (Cowley & Kingson, 2017), personifies corporate struggle, after a whistleblower revealed the toxic and abusive culture, systemic violence and the requiring of employees to commit fraud to boost profits. The depiction focuses on the suffering of the company, not the victims of the bullying. In another headline, “Now That Workplace Bullying Was Front Page News, Will a Workplace Harassment Policy Sufficiently Protect the Company?” (Yermash, 2014), the focus is on the fiscal impact to the company. By contrast, this headline, “Barclays CEO Investigated for Trying to Unmask Whistleblower” (Katz, 2017), reports of an executive (the bully) being investigated for wrongdoing and seems more representative of both sides. In another headline, “Workplace Bullying Prompts $30K Pay Out” (Middlemiss, 2016), the depiction focuses on a payout. The imagery is either impeding or helping education about workplace bullying, something only thorough and varied research can reveal.

5.3 Trauma

Media coverage of workplace bullying has never been more prevalent. Workplace violence is not new, but connecting it to workplace bullying, and catching it in the headlines, is. Some headlines are making connections between the patterns of abuse in workplace bullying and the elements of shame, silence and trauma linked to it. In the 16 November 2016 issue of the Sun Herald, of Biloxi, Mississippi, in an article titled, “Workplace Bullying: A Scourge That’s Hard to Define, Harder to Root Out”, editors characterize victims of domestic violence and workplace bullying as both feeling captive and left to be silent (Stafford, 2014). Both more typically urged to dismiss the harm and rise above it. In the Weekly Standard, the 22 October issue, the headline declared, “Workplace Bullying is like Domestic Violence”, detailing similarities that include the use of manipulation and intimidation to get what the bully wants and then proceeding to offer advice on how to handle it yourself (Bier, 2013).

Conlan (2016) zeroed in on the toxicity of workplace bullying and how this phenomenon directly affects nurses: “Reduce Stress for Nurses with a Healthy Workplace Culture”. In this story published in the Daily Sun, the Lincoln Journal Star and the Star Tribune, incessant workplace bullying and persistent abuses are exposed (Conlan, 2016). According to Conlan (2016), the headline provides clues to abuses that nurses face at work; the story discusses a recent survey that found 50% of nurses have been bullied and 42% by a person in a position of authority. Another headline reads, “When Women Bully Women at Work” (Park, 2014). From emails directing hateful bias against co-workers to covert methods, woman-to-woman bullying at work is prevalent. Park (2014) posits that acceptable gender roles facilitate bullying at work, men being verbally aggressive, while for women, social pressure to be always compassionate and supportive leads to more covert methods of attack (Park, 2014).

5.4 Suicide

The seriousness of workplace bullying is also being told with headlines related to death or suicide. The headline in The Guardian (2017), 30 September 2017, reads, “Workplace Bullying and Stress Led to Death of Employee: Compensation Board” (Ross, 2017). The workers’ compensation board was found in favour of Eric Donovan’s complaint related to workplace bullying. Eric had worked for the Queens County Residential Services for 17 years, and his wife fought for 3 years to prove that his heart attack and death was a result of workplace bullying. Other headlines connect suicide and workplace bullying, with some associated reports standing as a form of protest and giving voice to a tragic phenomenon (Waters, 2017). According to this researcher, suicide has often been considered something private, regarded with shame, and therefore kept private and disengaged from study related to the workplace. This, however, is no longer the case, as seen in this headline: “Review of Fairfax Co. Fire and Rescue Finds Workplace Bullying” (Uliano, 2017). Nicole Mittendorff, a 31-year-old firefighter paramedic, committed suicide after being harassed and bullied at work according to reports. An independent firm confirmed that 37% of the department experienced bullying or witnessed it. The investigation also confirmed that poor leadership had a role in the toxic work environment; furthermore, employees attested to fearing retaliation for whistleblowing. Another tragic suicide headline story: “Cops: Ex-Fox Producer Kills Himself Outside NYC Headquarters” (Tribune Wire Reports, 2015). Philip Perea, 41 years old, shot himself in front of his former employers’ building. His suicide note attributed his death to management decisions, and in a video, he described his past year as his most horrible and wishing the same for his former employer (Tribune Wire Reports, 2015). This last headline perhaps captures the pervasive role of media. The close relationship between news reporting, headlines and social media is more and more frequently overlapping. Social media has evolved to become not only the source but also the purveyor of all that is news.

6 Workplace Bullying Portrayals in Social Media

Social media has the power for evil, but also the power for good, as this headline in the Rockford Examiner suggests: “Social Media Holds Potential for Support Among Targets of Workplace Bullying” (Mitchell Front Page, 2015). The emergence of social media has compelled change, increasing self-reports, and insists on accountability and more accuracy from media (Serisier, 2017). Social media has transformed what we have previously known as media; it places direct influence in each of our own hands. Whereas the “nightly news” previously determined what was most important to report on, today minute by minute, each of us has direct power to report and share our thoughts, ideas and observations to the masses. Social media is a format wherein the source of the content is primarily from the user, with “social” referring to the need for personal connection and “media” referring to the technology for dissemination (Custin, Britton, & Yarak, 2014). This is a primary shift in what we know as media and, more importantly, a major shift in influence. The media shifting from a third-party source to a social and therefore subjective source has immense implications. Current media is now almost synonymous with social media. Social media has transformed the way we share about our personal and professional lives. With the plethora of positive advantages also comes harassment and persistent distress (van Laer, 2014). “Social media is used both formally and informally in organizations” (West, Foster, Levin, Edmison, & Robibero, 2014, p. 608). When British music retailer HMV was conducting lay-offs, a fired employee tweeted: “We’re all being fired” (Allen, 2014). It is difficult to discern latitude of freedoms; social media is expansive and powerful, and some would even say dangerous. According to Allen (2014), social media is a double-edged sword in the workplace; employers send mixed messages, both encouraging and discouraging its use by employees.

Social media continues to expand into the workplace at an accelerated pace. What is considered public or private is confusing at best. The creation of policy is being considered, but its reach is debatable (Custin, Britton, & Yarak, 2014). Privacy is dead. Social media has transformed the way we communicate personally and professionally. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media formats have become a mainstream method of communication. Employers’ efforts to have jurisdiction over employees’ use of these platforms are complex and continue to be heavily debated (West, Foster, Levin, Edmison, & Robibero, 2014). A search for “workplace bullying” in social media returns endless stories and resources; in an instant, a connection is made with a global community impacted by this insidious phenomenon. In discussions connecting social media and workplace bullying, the topic is typically cyberbullying. Cyberbullying, like all types of bullying, is an intent to harm achieved using technology, that is, social media, email and texting (van Laer, 2014). For more on cyberbullying, refer to the chapter in this series.

Beyond the circle of pain, those exposed to workplace bullying are beginning to find support through social media. A quick glance at four popular sources of social media, LinkedIn.com, Facebook.com, YouTube.com and Twitter.com, returned some interesting data. While the information changes by the minute (denoted in-line as estimates with an asterisk*), the findings are compelling and provide a plethora of possible directions for research. A search for the topic “workplace bullying” returned from LinkedIn.com a list of 30* different support or advocacy groups and a total of 8,275* followers (LinkedIn.com, 22 April 2018). The same search term in Facebook.com returned 106 pages and 99 groups dedicated to the discussion of workplace bullying and a total of 34,921* followers (Facebook.com, 22 April 2018). In a search for workplace bullying on YouTube.com, 117,000 results emerge. More specifically, in a search of YouTube channels related to workplace bullying, a filtered search returned 900* results, 28,012* subscribers and 2,302* videos (YouTube.com, 22 April 2018). A search of Twitter.com for the same topic, workplace bullying, retrieved 18* broadcasts, 33* news items, 22* top stories and 32* people to follow (Twitter.com, 22 April 2018). The sources varied and include, but are not limited to, the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, Tasmania, India, Ireland and Wales.

Topics varied from direct and explicit “stop workplace bullying” to related issues of silent epidemic, social justice, survivors and victims, women, gender, disability, trauma, legislation, policy, healthcare, etc. Industries involved in these topics spanned broad corporate environments and healthcare, religious organizations and higher education; more specific examples involved nurses, teachers, IT professionals, oil rig wives and more. Two samples at the top of the list of results from the LinkedIn.com search include the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment (IAWBH) and Workplace DETOX: A Coalition Against Workplace Bullying & Toxic Organizations. IAWBH is striving to “promote fairness, justice, and dignity at work for all” (linkedin.com/groups/4516551). With membership from over 30 countries, IAWBH is dedicated to “research and evidence-based practice in the field of workplace bullying and harassment” (linkedin.com/groups/4516551). Workplace DETOX: A Coalition Against Workplace Bullying & Toxic Organizations, a more personal group, is dedicated to providing “a safe space for people to share their stories about bullying and toxic workplaces” (linkedin.com/groups/4516551). The search of Facebook.com reveals groups and pages dedicated to the support of victims and to education related to workplace bullying experiences and solutions. Workplace Bullying in Education, Bully Free at Work and Workplace Bullying Solutions are the top three pages that return in a search for workplace bullying (facebook.com/search/workplacebullying). All three are dedicated to stopping workplace bullying and helping targets persevere. The top three findings in a search of YouTube.com related to workplace bullying were The Four Workplace Bully Types, How I Survived Workplace Bullying and Workplace Bullying. The Four Workplace Bully Types is a video from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), where the executive director, Dr. Gary Namie, discusses four main types of workplace bullying. Sherry Benson-Podolchuk gives a harrowing personal account of surviving workplace bullying in a TEDx Talk in the second result, and from www.bullyonline, the third result is an animated depiction of how workplace bullying destroys lives (youtube.com/results/workplacebullying). Twitter has options to search for top stories or the latest stories, news, people, videos, photos or broadcasts. In a search for broadcasts, the top result is a live video on “Overcome Workplace Bullying by Quitting Your Job Today!” In the news, the top result is, “Investigation needed into workplace culture at Calvary Hospital”, and the top result in the latest stories is, “Did You Know 43% of Workplace Bullying Victims Reported That Harassment Stemmed from a Line Manager?” (twitter.com/search/workplacebullying).

In addition to these four social media sites, there are also websites or blogs dedicated to the topic of workplace bullying, some international in scope; examples include, but are not limited to, culturesafenz.co.nz, workplacebullying.org, healthyworkplacebill.org, safetyatworkblog.com and newworkplace.wordpress.com. Culture Safe (culturesafenz.co.nz) of New Zealand provides education and support related to workplace bullying. They posit that workplace bullying is a “serious hazard” and that employers “have an obligation to provide a safe working environment” (culturesafenz.co.nz). They have partnered with the Workplace Bullying Institute of America (workplacebullying.org), noting that there are similarities in the occurrences of workplace bullying in both countries (Farrow, 2017). They learned of the Workplace Bullying Institute (workplacebullying.org) and consider their work to be “massive”, noting that Dr. Gary Namie, its founder, has been interviewed extensively in the media, therefore viewing him as an expert (culturesafenz.co.nz). The Workplace Bullying Institute (workplacebullying.org) based in the USA hosts a website dedicated “to research and understand, to educate the public and to teach prevention and correction of abusive conduct at work” (workplacebullying.org). Safetyatworkblog.com is an award-winning independent blog, hosted in the UK by Kevin Jones, a workplace safety consultant. Another blog, titled Minding the Workplace (newworkplace.wordpress.com), is hosted and written by internationally recognized David Yamada, Professor of Law and Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. There is a plethora of media depictions related to workplace bullying in social media that are understudied at best, if studied at all. These examples provide immense inspiration and opportunity for exploration and study.

7 Workplace Bullying Portrayals in Television and Films

The news reports and headlines depict workplace bullying as something to worry about or something to overcome, and the social media depictions range from infliction of harm to circles of support and healing, education and advocacy. Depictions of workplace bullying in television and movies are quite different. In fact, they typically are dismissive and comedic, as discussed later in this chapter. As already emphasized, research on media depictions of workplace bullying is limited, and when considering representations in television and films, presently, only one study for each has been forthcoming. What these two studies demonstrate in their findings is consistent: Workplace bullying is predominantly represented as something to laugh about. Further research is necessary to confirm or discredit this assumption. Both studies are also American grown, so that limits the scope of representation for a horrific phenomenon of global proportions. That said, what has been learned has both impact and relevance while reiterating the critical need for more research.

7.1 Television

In a study by Lampman, Rolfe-Maloney, John, Mandy, Nick, McDermott, Winters and Davis (2002), findings showed a relationship between employee expectations at work and television viewing (Lampman, Rolfe-Maloney, John, Mandy, Nick, McDermott, Winters, & Davis, 2002). In another related study, connections were found between sexual messages in workplace scenarios depicted in television programmes and conduct at work (Taylor, Alexopoulos, & Ghaznavi, 2016). These are monumental in linking workplace bullying depictions in television and the capacity for affecting behaviours.

The one study specific to television and depictions of workplace bullying, Drama at Dunder Mifflin: Workplace bullying discourses on The Office (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016), “examined the prevalence and discursive framing of workplace bullying behaviors on The Office” (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016, p. 2). The Office as an American television sitcom was an adaptation of an also widely popular British programme of the same name. This infers the global nature and identity of depictions of workplace bullying, confined to humour. Depictions of workplace bullying in The Office permeate the show (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016). It portrays workplace bullying as something funny, something to be dismissed in jest, and may contribute to its then being diminished as a problem in the real work environment (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016). Questions remain regarding its role in promoting or combating, shaping or shaking this phenomenon (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016). The Drama at Dunder Mifflin study focused on 54 episodes of The Office, spanning the show’s nine seasons (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016). “Results revealed 311 instances of workplace bullying, for an average of 6.13 bullying behaviors per episode” (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016, p. 1). The top five categories were sexual jokes, public humiliation, practical jokes, belittlement and misuse of authority, with sexual jokes being the most persistent (p. 8). Consider these depictions and then the lived experience attitude of “let it go”. Targets are dismissed as being too sensitive and are not taken seriously (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, & Alberts, 2006, p. 149). The persistence of these behaviours can have disturbing significance.

When workplace bullying persists, it is correlated with causing traumatic harm, personally, professionally and organizationally (Burton & Hoobler, 2006). The question persists: Do these portrayals “reinforce the discourses that stigmatize workplace bullying”? (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016, p. 2). When watching the television programme, the evidence of bullying may seem to pass the viewer by, seemingly without notice, under the cape of comedy. However, when revisited in this discussion of media depictions of workplace bullying, they are impossible to miss. This is more than evident in this example from the Sumner, Scarduzio and Daggett (2016) study, describing a prank, in which the bully is telling one character, the target, that she has been fired, after which she bursts into tears. After some time passes, the bully says, “You got x-punked!”, yet he is the only one laughing (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016, p. 13). Humiliation goes unaccounted for, and public name-calling is common communication; examples include, but are certainly not limited to, “idiot, dumbass, little girl, stupid son-of-a-bitch” and “the anti-Christ” (p. 11). Another poignant example is in an episode portraying a co-worker’s method of celebrating a win in a paper airplane flying contest; the bully “proceeded to humiliate him by getting in his face and yelling ‘eat it pig’” (p. 11). When you begin to count, you notice that after 65 occurrences of practical jokes, and/or 68 of public humiliation (p. 11), as compared to lived experiences of workplace bullying, one may begin to ask, what is so funny (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016)?

It is well documented that media can influence people’s beliefs (Bandura, 2009), and that would include representations of workplace aggression and bullying. The research demonstrates that the narratives in media become what we retrieve later in real-life experiences (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016). A message that is regularly portrayed via media becomes more accessible in the viewer’s memory and is therefore more likely to be drawn upon to explain real-world events. Depictions of workplace bullying in The Office are disturbing, permeating the show (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016). The Office portrays workplace bullying as something to be laughed off, which may in turn contribute to it being dismissed as less than a serious problem in the real work environment (Sumner, Scarduzio, & Daggett, 2016). It is unfortunate that there are no other studies related to depictions of workplace bullying and television programmes to discuss here. It is a good guess that there are many more depictions out there, and not limited to comedy, but found in all genres of television programming. Analysing additional television programmes that depict bullying would go a long way towards gaining an understanding of how media may influence our attitudes towards workplace bullying.

7.2 Hollywood Films

Film, like television, continues to be a powerful tool for media and has an even more enormous possibility for exploring depictions of workplace bullying. Movies are a big deal; research confirms that they become a dialect for expressing our identities, cultures and experiences (Turner, 2006). Film is recognized as more than “make-believe” but actually “a vehicle for suggestion” (Petersen, 2013). Researchers have been curious about the influence of popular films and social roles for nearly 100 years; films are more than entertainment, they are purveyors of versions of life (Sutherland & Feltey, 2013). Films help us make sense of our world; they tell stories that have international reach or what is referred to as “the transnational cycle of influence among filmmakers around the world” (Olsen, 2013, para. 11). In a sense, the “age of global cinema” (Olsen, 2013, para. 12) has become a simulation of Hollywood. The first evidence was in Bengal, India, in the year 1932, when the name Tollywood was adopted in reference to its film industry. This theme of replication has continued since; herein is a sampling: Bollywood (Mumbai, India), Pollywood (Punjab, Pakistan), Ghollywood (Ghana), Nollywood (Nigeria), Hallyuwood (South Korea) and Riverwood (Kenya) (worldatlas.com). Questions persist related to the effect of media on real life. While there are cultural influences that vary from one country to another, the American effect persists, crossing boundaries, not only in production but also, more simply, that “people watch American movies all around the world” (Olsen, 2013, para. 10).

“Films provide an orderly and scripted version of our social world, embedding versions we can refer to or from which we can retrieve information” (Helfgott, 2008, p. 369). Movies “tell stories that, in the end, we find satisfying” (Sutherland & Feltey, 2013, p. 60). It is a common agreement that movies help us make sense of the world. They are often equated with a story that conveys a sense of familiarity or clarity with one’s lived experiences (Fearing, 1947). Film provides a transferable platform for studying workplace bullying. Metaphor analysis captures the depth of pain and devastation experienced from lived experiences of being bullied at work (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, & Alberts, 2006). Delving into lived experiences is not easy; it can risk repeated trauma and distress for those already victimized and provide affirmation for perpetrators. As we watch movies again and again, their stories become our stories. Indeed, workplace bullying is portrayed in movies across the world; however, due to the paucity of research, this section is limited to the only study found related to this topic: “Hollywood Depictions of Workplace Bullying” (Georgo, 2016). It is a safe leap to consider that the findings in this study are relevant internationally and, most certainly at a minimum, as a starting point for further inquiry.

In the study, “Hollywood Depictions of Workplace Bullying” (Georgo, 2016), 100 films released between 1994 and 2016 revealed 453 scenes, with 1,844 depictions of workplace bullying. Results revealed a preponderance of the films studied using comedy as the weapon for inflicting harm predominantly through the actions of Caucasian men. Results also revealed that depictions of workplace bullying are entrenched in the opposing forces of intentional harm and on making this harm seem humorous. Work is represented repeatedly as “stressful or demanding and bullying as a sort of distraction or comical remedy” (Georgo, 2016, p. 155). The films Swimming with Sharks (Alexander & Huang, 1994) and Horrible Bosses (Ratner & Gordon, 2011) depict characters struggling with workplace bullying—two films with titles that provide the viewer with a hint at elements of toxic work environments. Swimming with Sharks (Alexander & Huang) features a suffocating, pervasive and demeaning representation of workplace bullying. The storyline is centred on a new assistant and his abusive boss, who tosses his toxicity around like a rubber ball: “If you were in my toilet bowl I wouldn’t bothering flushing it” (and then starts throwing pencils, pens and a notebook at him); “You have no brain, what you think, feel means nothing, you are here to protect my interests and serve my needs”; and “Excuse me, I just need to yell at my mongoloid brain-dead assistant for a second! Get in here!” are just a few examples (Alexander & Huang, 1994). Horrible Bosses (Ratner & Gordon, 2011) is another movie with one scene after another portraying workplace bullying, the title alone almost normalizing this travesty. It follows the lives of three different individuals who are experiencing persistent bullying and abuses at work. When the three friends cannot take another day of abuse, they conspire to murder their bosses. Another example focusing on a supervisor and a subordinate is in a scene when the bullying peaks, after persistent jabs and nags; belittlement with humiliation is the theme. In this example, the subordinate who has endured endless bullying in expectation of a promotion questions his supervisor when he is not promoted and questions why he should stay, to which the boss replies that “he would have to write that Nick is an insubordinate, dishonest drunk”; then, getting right in his face, he adds that he “owns” him and can “crush” him anytime. This again is just one scene of many and yet is loaded with representation of a bullying boss and what happens when a target stands up. What seems isolated bullying between a supervisor and a subordinate is so much more; there are bystanders and organizational systems also depicted as unengaged or complicit in its perpetration.

In Joe Somebody (Milchan, 2001), Joe is an easy-going, hard-working, company man. The film title does not provide any clues to the embedded nature of workplace bullying, which the viewer experiences with the film through its entirety. After Joe reports being physically assaulted and publicly humiliated and mocked by a co-worker, the human resource response sounds like this: “I’m gone for three days and employees are fighting like school kids in the lot”. The depictions of workplace bullying are powerful, due to the lack of support and the public embarrassment; then, we see scenes of him at home, unshaven, stains on his shirt and drinking a beer. The story also shows depictions of a bystander who stands up for Joe and ultimately resigns her position rather than be complicit with corporate belittling. These examples barely scrape the depth of representations of workplace bullying depicted in today’s Hollywood movies.

While most depictions of bullies in the Georgo (2016) study were Caucasian men, bullies were not exclusively men. In The Devil Wears Prada (Rosenfelt & Frankel, 2006), Miranda Priestly is the editor-in-chief for a top fashion magazine. This demanding job seems to serve as rationalization for her bullying methods of leadership. At the mere hint of her arrival to the office, the employees seem to be in a state of panic and chaos, from putting make-up on, cleaning off work spaces and straightening up magazines. In one scene, Miranda, aloof and self-assured, walks into the office. She makes no eye contact with her staff and speaks dramatically and disparagingly, saying, “I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to confirm an appointment”. She is dismissive to her assistant and to everyone in her path. Her assistant tries to explain, to apologize, all which Miranda dismisses, saying, “Details of your incompetence do not interest me”.

Another flagrant example of a woman as the bully boss is in the film Wanted (Barber & Bekmambetov, 2008). Janice, Wesley’s boss, almost makes Miranda seem tame. In one scene, she comes up behind him with a stapler in her hand motioning as if to staple his ear and then laughing says, “Oh, my fucking God, I hope that’s not my billing report sitting on your desk”. Wesley sits back and turns towards her, looking down at his hands in his lap, and then reaches for some papers, not saying anything. She continues to shout, “Holy shit on an altar, it is. I want that report on my desk in one hour”. She then turns and, as she is walking away, is shouting, “Okay, everybody, we’re all going to stay an extra hour”. It isn’t too long before Janice is right back in front of him shouting, “Good God almighty, you’re over here like its spring fucking break, I still don’t have that billing report, why do I even keep you around, Wesley?” Wesley says, “I’ll get it done Janice”. She begins mocking him, echoing, “I’ll get it done, I’ll get it done”. With each “I’ll get it done”, she is snapping the stapler, and there is a sound effect of a heavy iron door slamming every time. His heart is racing, his anxiety increasing and the veins in his neck popping. The camera shot and the sounds become distorted, slowing down what she is saying. The sounds are indistinct, chatter slurring in the background, his face is tight, and he is sweating. The veins are popping on his forehead, his mouth is clenched. She is still shouting, but it is diffused, “Why don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

He tries to reply, but it sounds like a monster in slow motion, distorted, “I’m sorry”.

She is relentless and says, “You’re worthless, I’m the one who’s sorry I hired your ass”, and walks away. This scene is startling and disturbing and includes depictions of the bully, the target, the bystanders and the overall culture of the workplace.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005) is another example from the 100 films studied in the Georgo (2016) research. This one portrays workplace bullying, not simply between two individuals, not just between a boss and a subordinate, not just between men, or women bullying women as in the previous samples, but as a mob that includes all the above: co-workers, supervisors and even customers. In one scene, the store is closed, and some co-workers are playing poker; four guys are sitting around a table in the back of the store, three with a beer and wearing T-shirts. Andy is different, wearing a button-down shirt and a V-neck sweater; he is drinking an orange Fanta. The conversation quickly devolves around sharing sex stories and Andy is visibly uncomfortable. He is reluctant but wants to fit in. His efforts fail to redirect their attention to the game, “Why don’t we just play? Or why don’t you just deal the cards?” They persist, and when he resists, they accuse him of being gay. From here, it digresses further, as his co-workers guess that he is a virgin. Together (except for Andy), they agree that they want to get Andy laid. Andy is horrified and embarrassed.

The next morning, things escalate; it quickly becomes apparent that the conversation at the poker game has now been shared with every employee at Smart Tech, even the manager. As Andy walks through the store, he is greeted with jeers, laughter and a barrage of comments and physical moves all related to his virginity and sex from other employees and in front of customers. What follows goes from bad to worse; they are not only undermining his work and using offensive communication but also isolating, intimidating, threatening and belittling, until Andy runs out of the store. These moments of horror for Andy are depicted as comical, something Andy should “let go” or know “it’s just a joke”, when it is apparent that it is not, especially to him.

This is just a small sampling of the 1,844 depictions of workplace bullying found in the Georgo study (2016). Hollywood versions of reality have challenged everything from the John F. Kennedy assassination to the plight of the Sioux Indian tribe, American slavery, the launch to the moon, war, adults’ work, the treatment of women, homosexuals, people with disabilities and much more (Storey, 2015). It has been said “that the act of viewing a film plunges the spectator into a world of endless self-references and permutations” (Dixon & Foster, 2011, p. 12). According to Dixon and Foster, Hollywood is calculated, seducing viewers into a sort of trance (Dixon & Foster, 2011). Film portrayals too often reinforce stereotypes of what workplace bullying looks like, depicting targets as weak, nerdy or odd (Stafford, 2014), whereas research on lived experiences reports that victims are often highly skilled and high achievers, viewed as a threat to supervisors or co-workers (Stafford, 2014). Films can provide a unique lens through which to explore difficult issues at work and finding possible solutions (Georgo, 2016). They can serve as a tool for understanding and education, rather than perpetuating the concept of workplace bullying.

8 Opportunities for Change

Telling the true stories with news, headlines, social media, television and film can lead to legislation, campaigns and activism regarding the humiliation and injustice of workplace bullying and be an effective and intentional way to get attention and to impact positive change (Garbin & Fisher, 2012). Three such examples are the development of “Brodie’s Law” (Malkin, 2012) in Australia, 16 days of activism targeted at gender-based abuse in Zimbabwe (newsday.co.zw) and the story of Jonathan Martin, a former NFL (National Football League) player who committed suicide in the USA (Victor, 2015).

“Brodie’s Law” in Australia honours the suicide of Brodie Panlock, a 19-year-old waitress, making Australia one of few places with legal protections from workplace bullying. She had been subject to persistent bullying at work by four co-workers where she waited tables in Melbourne. The law is part of an amendment to the Crimes Act, to extend its reach to include incidents in which a perpetrator incites harm that leads to suicide ideation or self-harm (Malkin, 2012).

The headline in the News Day Zimbabwe, 2 December 2016, focused on “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Abuse” and drew attention to the linkages between workplace bullying and domestic violence, emphasizing the often invisible and yet damaging psychological violence. News Day editors have thereby made a connection between prevalence of violence against women and reports that women are targets, 63% in reported incidents of workplace bullying (newsday.co.zw).

NFL players are often depicted in media as “larger than life”, and here in this short story, we learn how a toxic work environment leads a player to consider suicide “on multiple occasions” (Victor, 2015). The headline reports, “Jonathan Martin, Former N.F.L. Player, Says He Attempted Suicide”, and Victor (2015) cited workplace bullying as a factor (Victor, 2015). Jonathan Martin shares his pain by becoming vulnerable about the trauma he experienced from being bullied at work. It is a stigma breaker at several levels, an NFL football player harmed from bullying. The Dolphins (his employer) deny all claims of bullying. Another headline related to this same story, “Workplace Bullying More Common Than Most Think” (Brown, 2013), presents a question to think about. If it can happen to Jonathan Martin, a “Stanford-educated, 200-pound NFL offensive tackle”, Brown asks, can it happen to anyone? It can happen; it is happening. This investigative story revealed workplace bullying in the NFL’s Miami Dolphins organization; Jonathan was suffering at the hands of bullies (Brown, 2013).

The connections are clear, with workplace bullying increasingly depicted in the media, news reports and headlines; these depictions are concurrently revealing the risk for pain, suffering and death. At the same time, recent increases in media coverage have heightened employer awareness of workplace bullying as well. This awareness, however, has been accompanied with some confusion about what, if anything, should be done to better address the abuses and whether harassment policies are sufficient enough to protect the employers or employees. As the depictions range in focus from victimization, first of the target, then the bully and, finally, the larger company, there is a wide-open field for research, activism and policy change. In the hurried pace of news and social media, much can be determined, much can be missed. Research can help to answer many questions about the influence of media on perceptions of workplace bullying.

9 Directions for Future Research

Research can provide important understanding about what imagery and beliefs are being perpetuated in media representations of workplace bullying. This chapter provides an overview of the topic, as well as some vivid samplings of media depictions of workplace bullying.

Perhaps the most powerful place to begin research is with television and movies. The depictions are extraordinary and provide not only opportunities for content analysis but for some intriguing audience participatory studies as well. An area within these two media formats for further study is the role of comedy in the depiction of workplace bullying. Workplace bullying is a devastatingly harmful phenomenon, and yet the examples discussed in this chapter reveal that the predominant depictions in Hollywood films and television involve comedy. The idea of laughter from witnessing the suffering of others, no matter how ridiculous, persists (Bardon, 2005, p. 2). This is plain to see in portrayals of workplace bullying in movies and television; the question remains: Is this then subsequently played out in real life? This is an important direction for future research, connecting workplace bullying to media depictions and the imitation in lived experiences of workplace bullying, exploring the phenomenon of “it was just a joke, or is it?” Further research is recommended to more closely examine comedic depictions of workplace bullying in television and movies.

Research related to depictions of workplace bullying in the news and social media is crucial as well, and currently almost non-existent, although these two platforms of media saturate our lives. Research could be conducted with focus groups to determine any effects from headlines, for example, stigma or bias based on the various perspectives of industry, bullies, targets or bystanders. Broader research can also examine economic and demographic patterns of depictions. For example: Does workplace bullying sell? Does it sell newspapers, subscriptions, tickets? Patterns can also be investigated pertaining to the depictions of workplace bullying. Exploring avenues for use of media depictions as a tool for professional education and training, as well as targeted treatment for survivors, is also recommended. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc. provide vast data and opportunity for tracking patterns of language that facilitate bullying or promote advocacy and support (Wilson, Gosling, & Graham, 2012). The prolific nature of information explosion portends much to be studied about workplace bullying. As headlines depict connections between toxic work environments and suicide, further study could reveal patterns and influences as well as help to propose preventative interventions. Researchers could look for themes of blame or victory, cost or policy, gender or race, promotion or destruction. This chapter serves as a springboard for future research.

10 Summary

Curiosity about media depictions and their meaning in our lived experiences has perplexed researchers for more than a century. After more than 25 years of research studying the phenomenon of workplace bullying, a closer look at media depictions is scant. This chapter began with one question: How is workplace bullying represented in media? “Despite vast amounts of empirical data apparently showing a clear relationship between watching violence onscreen and behaving aggressively in real life, both sides of the media violence debate remain as entrenched as ever” (Giles, 2003, p. 51). As workplace bullying persists, it is crucial that we continue to ask questions and seek new methods for research to bring about needed change (Georgo, 2016). Fuelled by this understanding, significant social change can be accomplished by conscientious leaders. The immediate accessibility of media now gives a voice to anyone at any time. On a more positive note, media’s symbolic representations of lived experiences of workplace bullying offer a new path for much-needed research. Overall, we need to become more careful consumers of media content about bullying. Critical analysis will reveal emerging issues and research gaps. The time for exploration and study of media depictions of workplace bullying is now.

11 Cross-References

12 Cross-References to Other Volumes

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Consulting, Research, & TrainingTalking Hearts ProjectLongwoodUSA
  2. 2.Peace and Justice InstituteValencia CollegeWinter ParkUSA
  3. 3.College of Continuing Education, Social SciencesSouthern New Hampshire UniversityManchesterUSA
  4. 4.Human Capital Development & Instructional Technology ManagementLaSalle UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

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