Members Who Inspire

David Yamada is fighting to end workplace bullying

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Photo of David Yamada by Michael J. Clarke.

David Yamada was introduced to the concept of workplace bullying several years after he started teaching labor and employment law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston in 1994.

He read a 1998 interview with Gary Namie, a social psychologist in California who described the term as deliberate and repeated mistreatment of an employee by co-workers or supervisors. Namie and his wife, Ruth, who is a clinical psychologist, co-founded the Workplace Bullying Institute to spread awareness of and end abusive conduct at work.

Their mission resonated with Yamada, who witnessed bullying behaviors in both the law and higher education. He was interested in what happens in cases involving ongoing campaigns of psychological abuse that are meant to drive an employee out of the workplace, and he told the Namies he wanted to explore the legal aspects of the problem.

In 2000, he published a seminal law review article on workplace bullying in the Georgetown Law Journal.

“I researched hundreds of cases where workers had sued their employers for intentional infliction of emotional distress and saw the courts were just not interested in entertaining these claims,” says Yamada, now a tenured law professor and director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk Law. “There were horrendous situations where courts were dismissing the claims even before they got to trial.

“That’s when I realized there was a void. There was a gap in current employment protections.”

Although the Namies aren’t lawyers, Gary Namie says they were excited by Yamada’s research and the attention it brought to workplace bullying.

“We recognized immediately that this was really great because here is a person in another discipline who is saying this is important,” he says. “Of course, that established his primacy in the field. He has been the definitive legal expert on workplace bullying in the U.S. ever since.”

Workplace protections

Through his work, Yamada saw cases of bullying in which supervisors were overtly aggressive, screaming at or verbally abusing their employees. He also encountered covert situations in which employers and employees left their co-workers off important emails, criticized their work in subtle ways and otherwise attempted to sabotage their success.

He found these harmful behaviors are prevalent in legal workplaces. According to a 2019 International Bar Association survey, half of female respondents and one-third of male respondents reported being bullied.

“We’re taught to be really good at manipulating language as lawyers, and language is the stock-in-trade of bullying and abuse,” Yamada says. “Most of the time, it’s not about physical aggression. It’s about commissions and omissions, I guess you could say, in terms of how people treat one another.”

Yamada, who had always been interested in politics, decided he could use what he learned about workplace bullying to help strengthen legal protections for all employees.

He drafted model legislation called the Healthy Workplace Bill that gives severely bullied workers a claim for damages and incentivizes employers to prevent and respond to bullying behaviors to minimize their liability. It draws upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of a hostile work environment for sexual harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Since 2003, more than 30 states have considered variations of the bill. California, Utah and some local governments have adopted legislation and ordinances that incorporate portions of its language. In August 2020, Puerto Rico enacted its own workplace bullying law.

Yamada has helped introduce the Healthy Workplace Bill regularly in Massachusetts. During the 2019-2020 session, more than 100 legislators signed on as co-sponsors—but then, he says, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented them from moving forward. The bill is being considered again this year.

“It’s been very satisfying to see an idea that once we had to spend a lot of time just explaining grow to the point where it’s considered seriously for passage by a legislature,” Yamada says. “It’s about perseverance. It’s about believing in what you’re doing and recognizing that change can come slowly, it can come quickly, but if you’re not playing the game, it’s not going to happen.”

Therapeutic jurisprudence

Yamada, a native of Hammond, Indiana, and a 1985 graduate of New York University School of Law, started his career as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society.

He later worked for three years in the Labor Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office. He entered academia in 1991, when he became an instructor in his alma mater’s Lawyering Program.

In his 27 years at Suffolk Law, Yamada has not only focused on workplace bullying, but he also expanded his teaching and scholarship even further into the realm of law and psychology.

He started the Minding the Workplace blog in 2008 to discuss such issues as dignity at work, labor and employment law and psychologically healthy work environments. His posts have been viewed more than 1.2 million times, including by people who have faced bullying in the workplace.

“The blog has been a way for me to share insights well beyond the law on these types of behaviors and what they do to people in organizations,” Yamada says. “And in the process, it’s allowed me to learn a lot about psychology and mental health because it’s just a natural outgrowth of the legal work to understand the tentacles of how that kind of abuse affects people at the most core level.”

Yamada also got involved in the field of therapeutic jurisprudence, which he describes as an interdisciplinary school of philosophy and practice that examines whether laws, legal systems and legal institutions promote psychologically healthy outcomes.

He became the founding board chair of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence in 2017 and continues to serve on its board. In addition, Yamada regularly presents and publishes law review articles on therapeutic jurisprudence.

David Wexler, a professor of law at the University of Puerto Rico and distinguished research professor emeritus of law at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law, helped develop therapeutic jurisprudence in the late 1980s.

Wexler serves as an honorary president of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence and says Yamada’s contributions to the field have been “enormous.” In particular, he calls attention to Yamada’s March 2021 article in the University of Miami Law Review, which examines therapeutic jurisprudence’s foundation and expansion.

“I tell my students, ‘When you’re looking for a topic, the first thing you do is you go to Yamada and that paper,’” Wexler says. “He wasn’t limited to his field of employment law and is probably the person who knows the most about the span of therapeutic jurisprudence because of his work. He is insatiable in terms of his work.”

Yamada, who has also been an ABA member for decades, hopes his students and other lawyers can follow his example and develop interests that put more meaning into the work they do every day.

“I would encourage people who have identified a need or an issue that calls for our attention to just take the bull by the horns and do what they can to build more awareness of it,” he says. “That’s how this stuff happens—taking these ideas and saying, ‘You know what, somebody’s got to start shining a light on it, so why not us?’”

Web Extra: 6 ways to fight workplace bullying in legal spaces, by David Yamada

This story was originally published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Work in Progress: David Yamada is fighting to end workplace bullying.”

Members Who Inspire is an ABA Journal series profiling exceptional ABA members. If you know members who do unique and important work, you can nominate them for this series by emailing [email protected].

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