Quiet Intimidation

 (Previously published in the Workplace Violence Prevention E-Report)

©2014 Gail Pursell Elliott

“No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed.” – William James

Of course when people are noticed in ways that are less than flattering or when only their shortcomings are noticed or taken into account, it is another form of intimidation that often crosses the line to abuse. People have a tendency, especially evident in the media, to jump on some information and begin to expand the possibilities for negativity.  I call this being ready, willing, and able to be offended and to spread that idea far and wide.  Actually, this is a form of mobbing and one which I find deeply disturbing, not only because of the correlations that I see but also the willingness of others to believe, participate and expand the possibilities in a destructive way.

The case being made for new laws addressing workplace bullying and mobbing is becoming stronger and more noticeable. While having laws with which to work, to define what mobbing and bullying look like, sound like and feel like are important, as well as the opportunities for legal recourse that they will  provide, they will have limited impact without training and reporting systems that work, in place.  Many workplaces have a serious disconnect between what should be happening in terms of law and policy and what is really happening on a day to day basis between coworkers and the attitudes which support inappropriate conduct.

A case in point is the recent situation at a cotton factory in Memphis, TN where a supervisor actually told an employee not to drink from a water fountain because the employee was black, among other racially motivated offenses.  The supervisor was quoted as saying that he should put up a whites-only sign, reminiscent of circumstances occurring over half a century ago, and made verbal threats as to what would happen if the employee used the fountain.  This supervisor was an equal opportunity abuser, as this was not the only employee to receive such treatment. Although the supervisor was terminated when this came to light, to the horror of the factory owner and the management company for whom the supervisor worked, it had been happening for quite awhile before anyone reported it or anything was done.  The employees reporting the situation along with all of the other staff were intimidated into silence.  In times when decent paying jobs are scarce and people have family responsibilities, they can be reticent about reporting abusive situations that are clearly against the law.  Let alone other situations that are extremely inappropriate but which no law addresses. 

People who may be bullied or harassed within your own organization may feel intimidated to the point of silence and for the same fear of making the situation worse or losing their livelihood.  I recall one person with whom I consulted, telling me that when seeing management staff mistreating an employee, she whispered to a co-worker, “This is wrong.”  The remark was overheard by a supervisor who said, ‘You’ll keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your job.”

 However bizarre this may seem, such things do happen and may be happening under the noses of professionals who mean well but do not have their “fingers on the pulse” of the organizational climate. The difficult part for many organizations to realize is that ethical studies have shown that the reluctance of staff to report inappropriate conduct has a direct correlation to the ethical climate perceived or otherwise, within the organizational culture itself.  The employee in the case described did not report the abuse to EEOC until after he was no longer employed.  This is not a rarity.  It is wise for organizations to periodically review the interactions of people and the organizational climate even when there seems to be no pressing reason to do so.  After all, most of us do not wait until the oil light goes on in our vehicles before having the oil changed.  It is simply an accepted, periodic maintenance task for taking care of our vehicles.  So it can be with a periodic behavioral risk management assessment combined with other basic safety checks that are customary. 

This type of preventive maintenance is not only positive for employee morale and productivity it also impacts the bottom line in terms of reduced turnover, increased motivation, and enhanced company reputation.  When the organization is paying attention, people notice and respond. 

*  *  *  *  *

Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and is co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace.  Her Food for Thought articles are read by people around the world.   Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio. 

For Civility, Communication, Respect and Dignity programs, Consulting, Assessments, and Training contact Gail through her website:



3 comments on “Quiet Intimidation

  1. Reblogged this on blogbymichele and commented:
    All to often, when employees do report bullying and harassing situations at work, they have not just previously been intimidated into silence, but experience retaliation and a worsening of the situation following their report. More needs to be done to protect people from this, as well as to issue consequences to people who do it.

  2. Here in the UK, a whistleblower who criticised a Midlands Health Authority cannot return to the town where she lived for fear of action by employees of the Health Trust. Itseems that people close ranks even when it means that failure to provide the health care to the possible standard is thereby defended.

    Some years ago, a Minister of the Crown ( ie a cabinet minister ) lied to Parliament ( a crime ) about Cruiise missiles on UK soil. His secretary blew the whistle and was imprisoned, under the Official Secrets Act. This same law is now a threat to victims of historic child abuse, alleging involvement of establishment figures.

    Years of mobbing at school led me to become Union Representative – not politics so much as compassion. There will always be struggle against human weakness and wickedness. That there is JUST enough compassion and moral courage is shown by the fact that civilisation still exists.

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