What the Royal conflict illuminates about workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is common, yet under-recognized, and can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health.

Credit: CBS/Harpo Productions

“Were you silent or were you silenced?” Oprah Winfrey asks, alluding to mistreatment in a dramatic preview that first aired last Sunday, for an upcoming CBS special (airing tonight) with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. This harkens back to a 2019 ITV documentary, where interviewer Tom Bradby asks Markle if she’s ok, a theme she later expanded upon in a Times Op-ed. Now, timed ahead of the CBS interview, the British Royal Family themselves are fighting back with allegations (though there may be more to the story) against a pregnant Markle. On Thursday, a new preview showed what many have suspected: that the mistreatment and bullying Markle alleges to have experienced wasn’t just restricted to the tabloid press, but from within the Palace, known as “the Firm.” This effectively makes it a workplace issue, one merely complicated by family dynamics, not dictated by it. While Markle’s “work” happens on the world stage, others suffer devastating impacts of workplace bullying in fields as diverse as medicine, law, nursing, journalism.

While reporting on my forthcoming book about healthcare and healing, I was surprised to discover that, given how much time we spend at work, workplace culture is possibly the single most crucial determinant of our well-being. Indeed, toxic workplace cultures, of which bullying is a part, are harmful to our physical and emotional health. Here are seven other things I learned:

1.Bullying and Mobbing are on a spectrum, and the reasons vary

Over a third, and up to 90%, of Americans experience bullying or mobbing in the workplace, and it’s on the rise, which can cost an organization up to $2 million dollars per year. Yet workplace bullying is often not reported. Bullying is usually peer-to-peer, even if a more powerful individual instigates it, and the dynamics involve the target, bully, and bystander. Mobbing, on the other hand, involves an ‘elimination mindset’ with malicious energy “shared among many.” Both bullying and mobbing can take a variety of forms: from the legitimization of unfair criticism and setting impossible expectations, to false accusations and sabotage, to weaponizing ‘professionalism,’ and finally: launching baseless campaigns against the target. Mobbing has five discrete stages that usually begins with a minor dust-up perceived as ‘critical’ by the perpetrator, progresses to aggressive acts against the victim, management involvement, branding the victim as ‘difficult’ or mentally ill, with the last stage being either dismissal or the victim being forced to resign. Perpetrators usually bully and mob secondary to feelings of threat and insecurity. Research on Tall Poppy Syndrome runs against the “big fish little pond” research: small ponds may amplify the skills or potential of supposed ‘big fish,’ which then sets them up to be a target.

2.Women of color are particularly at risk, and often the perpetrators are other women

Organizational psychologists have known for years that women of color are less supported at work and suffer both racial and gender bias, and are more likely to quit. A diagram of the ‘tokenized’ women of color who enters primarily white workspaces (coincidently this was a storyline on the HBO show Insecure) is a concerning pattern: initially the woman is welcomed and celebrated, but after she identifies concerns she may be blamed and retaliated against (so the woman is left with no choice but to leave), often disrupting their career trajectory.

Disturbingly, the perpetrators of this bullying and mobbing may predominantly be other women, and often white women. In her 2020 book, White Tears, Brown Scars and op-eds in the Guardian and the Times, scholar, Ruby Hamad traces the cause to the weaponizing of white feminist privilege. In general , the dynamics of bullying of women, by women, are complex, and relate to envy, a scarcity mindset, and internalized misogyny. As such, allies may in fact be found among men (as evident in Markle’s case), such as organizational leaders, perhaps because of the influence they wield. That said, by leaning into difficult conversations to understand each other’s points of view, women can be allies for one another.

3.The next wave of #MeToo movement could expand to include other forms of harassment and bullying

The #MeToo movement has been criticized for refusing to validate the experiences of visible minorities, but it has also failed to address other forms of workplace harassment: that which occurs without the threat of sexual assault. Reported incidence of workplace bullying is almost double that of sexual harassment, but research shows that women of color are disproportionately affected by both forms. Sadly, if Markle had been sexually harassed publicly, as opposed to receiving harassment explicitly or implicitly based on the intersection of gender and race, it would likely have been more widely condemned. If #MeToo encompassed bullying and mobbing, and worked to advocate for safer workplaces in general, for all genders, it would help build accountability across the board. Perhaps a sign of change to come: recent coverage of a revered New York Governor has been more inclusive of all forms of mistreatment, of all genders.

4.Workplace bias is a close cousin of bullying, and may be more covert

Bias is a close cousin of bullying and may be more widespread. The consequences are particularly devastating in workplaces where the leadership and management lack diversity in age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability; tokenism doesn’t count, as can paint a mirage of diversity to attract talent, who then may become a target for abuse. Recently, unconscious and conscious bias have come to the forefront primarily in the discourse of anti-Black racism which occurs in the workplace, and men of color can also be affected, often by blocks to promotion.

Yet, bias is difficult to prove, so the legal standard in most jurisdictions is the ‘reasonable apprehension of bias.’ A litmus test to decide if criticism or feedback is “fair” in a workplace as opposed to biased, is to examine whether those in the dominant group are judged as harshly. In Markle’s case, several writers have pointed to the fact that she is attacked more than other royal family members, including Prince Andrew and other Firm members who have made harmful public flubs. As well, if the heavy criticism of the victim is “unique” to one specific work environment, but not seen in others, it should raise red flags.

5.As reprisal for reporting, perpetrators may use the tactic of “DARVO”

While in an organization, perpetrators may gaslight the victim. However, once the victim reports, either from within or outside the organization (after resignation or dismissal), the perpetrators may use the tactic some have alluded to of DARVO: “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” The DARVO tactic also includes pointing to any normal defence mechanisms used by the victim as a primarily behavioral issue, as opposed to the victim’s response to harassment and bullying, which can then excuse further mistreatment by the perpetrator(s).

6.The solution for most victims is to leave the toxic workplace, but organizational change requires an objective (third-party) workplace investigation, as well as enforceable policies and legislation

In many toxic workplaces, the lack of psychological safety (meaning the ability to speak up about workplace concerns without the fear of reprisal) and bullying go hand-in-hand. Since witnesses are often too fearful to report, the validity of an internal investigation is slim, compounded further by bias and conflicts of interest. A third-party organization with expertise — as was seen in a recent Canadian investigation — is key to sustainable change, provided that the resulting recommendations are followed and the perpetrators removed. In other words: if a big (or just ‘different’) fish is bullied in a little pond, it might be worth investigating the pond.

Legislation against workplace bullying and mobbing in most jurisdictions in North America is limited, especially as compared to sexual harassment or assault. In February, Massachusetts introduced a bill to tackle this, and hopefully other states (and provinces in Canada) will soon follow. As well, over the long-term, given the links between bias, bullying, and the lack of a diverse and inclusive workforce, aiming for at least 30% of underrepresented minorities in positions of leadership may help offset tokenism, and thus help hamper bullying, if it’s combined with other measures of accountability.

7.The health consequences of workplace bullying are immense, and often long-lasting, while work productivity and quality also suffers

As a physician, I’ve cared for children with complaints such as anxiety to bed-wetting to stomachaches to migraines, only to learn that the root cause was traced to being bullied in school. Later these patients would inspire me to explore how the health consequences of bullying manifest in adults. In the 2019 ITV interview Markle was forthcoming about the mental health impacts of mistreatment, and is poised to do the same tonight. Research shows that anxiety and depression are the most common health consequences for the victim, though suicide may also be a tragic result. Physical health also suffers, often manifesting as pain, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular issues. Psychological first aid by an ally in the workplace may help, but most victims require long-term therapy and integration into a safer work environment. Psychologists must also refrain from rushing to label the victim as paranoid.

These resulting health issues then perpetuate a vicious cycle where the target is unable to focus on their professional tasks. The late Toni Morrison has said: “the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” The same can be said for workplace bullying, as the quality of the target’s work is compromised due to the cognitive and emotional energy spent in survival mode. The result is untenable, or as suggested: “almost unsurvivable.”

Tonight’s interview will not uncover every truth about the Royals’ situation and workplace dynamics, which is why third-party investigations are crucial, but through sharing their own lived experience with workplace mistreatment, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will raise awareness about the issue in a way that will likely relate to millions. Oprah Winfrey herself may relate, having once described an experience with a boss who was “drunk with power” (notably, once Winfrey left that organization, her career soared). Markle and her husband have done what so many have been forced to pursue: litigation and rebuilding their work lives independently. Indeed, if workplace bullying can happen so flippantly to the world’s most privileged, one can only imagine the experiences of millions of others who are affected, most of whom don’t have the platform to speak out, but may be tuning in tonight.

A physician, epidemiologist, wellness coach, and medical journalist with an interest in the intersection of health, innovation, and culture.

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