The harm incurred by survivors of workplace bullying is significant and far-reaching, ranging from psychological distress, depression, burnout, insomnia, headaches, and, in the worst of cases, suicide (Lever, Dyball, Greenberg, & Stevelink, 2019, Smith and Freyd, 2014). “Workplace bullying is defined as an attempt to denigrate a person’s character by dismantling her reputation through gossip, manipulation, sabotage, exclusion, ostracization, and gaslighting with the ultimate goal of pushing her out” (Suskind, 2023, p. xiii).
But, why is workplace abuse so detrimental to employees’ health, well-being, and professional advancement? One explanation is betrayal trauma, and more specifically, institutional betrayal.
Betrayal Trauma Theory (BTT) was first introduced by Freyd (1994). BTT “provides a conceptual framework for understanding the unique impact of traumas perpetrated by trusted and depended-on people and institutions (betrayal traumas) on posttraumatic functioning” (Gómez, Smith, Gobin, Tang, & Freyd, 2016, p. 529).
There is great power in naming. Pairing a word with an experience provides validity to the lived story of the survivor. Inside betrayal trauma, the initial abuse, such as workplace bullying, is amplified as the organization, which the employee expected to act with integrity and counted on for professional and financial support, pushes her out of the plane without a parachute in order to escape culpability for deeds done and left undone. Such betrayal is exponential for minoritized individuals who navigate discrimination daily (Freyd & Birrell, 2013, Gómez, Smith, Gobin, Tang, & Freyd, 2016).
In the workplace, a social contract exists, embedded within employees’ expectations. For example, they assume a hospital will provide a healthy work environment, a university will make space for the exploration of diverse ideas, and the military will insist on integrity in all forms of conduct (Gómez, Smith, Gobin, Tang, & Freyd, 2016). When the system breaks down, as systems are inclined to do, and employees point out the failure, there is a belief their voices will be heard, the problem investigated, and action taken if warranted. When, instead, their concerns are dismissed and they are retaliated against for speaking out, a deep sense of betrayal sets in, and the initial harm is magnified, resulting in significant physical, emotional, and professional derailment. As Parnitzke and Freyd (2014) inquire, “What does it mean to find danger in a place where one instead expects to find safety?” (p. 577).
In cases of workplace abuse, betrayal trauma is institutionalized. This may look like the college professor who repeatedly reports the bullying behavior of several colleagues to her Department Head. Instead of addressing the concern, her reports are dismissed without investigation, and the funding for her successful research lab is cut. Due to the power imbalance and near impossibility of securing another tenure-track job in the current market, she attempts to stay another year. Desperate for help, she reaches out again, this time bypassing the Department Head, and going straight to the college Dean and Provost. Tragically, again her reports are ignored, and she comes under increasing attacks in which, this time, she is labeled as the aggressor. This flipping of scripts is a common tactic in workplace abuse and is an example of what Freyd (1997) coined as DARVO: Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender (Harsey & Freyd, 2020).
Institutional betrayal possesses many faces. It may be systematic, such as an institution lacking protective work policies, or isolated, such as a colleague taking credit for another’s research findings. Institutional betrayal may result through acts of commission, like retaliating against a nurse who reports bullying by consistently assigning her the night shift, or omission, as is the case when an institution fails to mention the option of FMLA to an employee whose daughter is navigating a serious health condition (Gómez, Smith, Gobin, Tang, & Freyd, 2016).
Smith and Freyd (2013) have developed a number of questionnaires to evaluate institutional betrayal as it relates to sexual misconduct, climate, and health concerns, among other things — asking participants to answer a series of questions that address items such as the type of environment in which the institutional betrayal occurred, the participations’ sense of belonging within the institution prior to the betrayal, the institution’s responsiveness to the report, and any possible cover-ups and retaliation as a result of reporting wrongdoings.
Though institutional betrayal may occur in isolated incidents across all types of organizations, there are specific organizational characteristics that heighten its likelihood. For example, organizations with formal and informal membership requirements that insist on conformity, like the military, religious institutions, athletic affiliations, or tenure requirements (as in higher education) tend to have higher rates of institutional betrayal. Organizations with embedded prestige, such as hospitals and universities, also are at increased risk. In addition, institutional betrayal is more likely to occur within organizational structures that resist change and that practice denial, blame, and shame reactions when problems arise. Moreover, organizational cultures that normalize abusive behavior, ignore reports of problems, and retaliate against whistleblowers tend to exhibit high instances of institutional betrayal (Parnitzke and Freyd, 2014).
Such institutional cultures are not just problematic for the employees who suffer but also for the institution itself. Employees who experience institutional betrayal, who are often the most ethical and hardworking employees, begin to disengage from the organization as an act of self-preservation (Smith & Freyd, 2015). Institutional betrayal also causes employees to leave the organization at higher rates, resulting in talent gaps and the diversion of funds to rehiring and retraining.
All is not lost; however, toxic organizations can transform by engaging in what Freyd (2018) describes as Institutional Courage.
According to Freyd (2018), who founded the Center of Institutional Courage, institutions that wish to move from betrayal to courage can engage in a number of practices that promote a healthy and ethical work culture. Such practices include but are not limited to the following: Organizations can train managers to listen sympathetically and respond thoughtfully when an employee reports a problem, instead of dismissing his concerns or invalidating his experiences. Organizations can create transparent spaces where issues can be deconstructed, and accountability can be taken. In order to assess problems, it is helpful to conduct surveys, where employees can report issues anonymously and without fear of rebuke. Once issues have been identified and verified, it is important for institutions to apologize and offer amends and accountability, instead of engaging in coverups through intimidation and secrecy, such as the use of nondisclosure agreements. Perhaps most importantly, Freyd (2018) contends they should “cherish the whistleblower” who was brave enough to “raise uncomfortable truths” in pursuit of standing for the hard right against the easy wrong at the threat of her own detriment (Smidt, Adams-Clark, Freyd, & Unger, 2023).
Through compassion and transparency, organizations can demonstrate fortitude in the face of wrongdoing, making amends to those who were harmed, supporting those in crisis, and publicly demonstrating strength and integrity in the face of adversity. They can stand as an example of justice, instead of cowering in the corners and shifting the blame in an effort to escape accountability.
Courage is a choice.
Freyd, J.J. (1997) Violations of power, adaptive blindness, and betrayal trauma theory. Feminism & Psychology, 7, 22-32.
Freyd, J., & Birrell, P. (2013). Blind to betrayal: Why we fool ourselves we aren’t being fooled. Wiley.
Freyd, J.J. (2018). When sexual assault victims speak out, their institutions often betray them, The Conversation, 11 January 2018.
Gómez, J., Smith, C, Gobin, R., Tang, S., & Freyd, J. 2016). Collusion, torture, and inequality: Understanding the actions of the American Psychological Association as institutional betrayal. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 17(5), 527–544. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299732.2016.1214436
Harsey, S., & Freyd, J. J. (2020). Deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender (darvo): what is the influence on perceived perpetrator and victim credibility? Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 29(8), 897–916. https://doi.org/10.1080/10926771.2020.1774695
Lever, I., Dyball, D., Greenberg, N., & Stevelink, S. A. M. (2019). Health consequences of bullying in the healthcare workplace: A systematic review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 75(12), 3195–3209. https://doi.org/10.1111/jan.13986
Monteith, L. L., Holder, N., Iglesias, C. A. D., & Holliday, R. (2022). Institutional betrayal and closeness among women veteran survivors of military sexual trauma: Associations with self-directed violence and mental health symptoms. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Sep2022, P1.
Parnitzke, S. C., and Freyd, J.J. (2014). Institutional betrayal. American Psychologist 69 (6): 575–586.
Smidt, A. M., Adams-Clark, A. A., Freyd, J. J., & Unger, D. (2023). Institutional courage buffers against institutional betrayal, protects employee health, and fosters organizational commitment following workplace sexual harassment. Plos One, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0278830
Smith, C. P., & Freyd, J. J. (2013). Dangerous safe havens: Institutional betrayal exacerbates sexual trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26, 119–124. doi:10.1002/jts
Smith, C. P., & Freyd, J. J. (2015, August). First, do no harm: Institutional betrayal in healthcare. Symposium presented at the 123rd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Ontario.
Suskind, D. (2023). Workplace bullying: Finding your way to big tent belonging. Rowman & Littlefield