Bastards at Work

Universal Lessons on Bullying from Contemporary French Storytelling

by Martin Goodman (Author)
©2021 Monographs XX, 342 Pages


«A fascinating and unique insight into the phenomenon of workplace bullying through the prism of contemporary French fiction. The book captures the individual suffering and power dynamics that characterise bullying in the workplace, while situating this within wider debates in the social sciences, psychology and cultural studies.» (Sarah Waters, Professor of French Studies, University of Leeds)
«Drawing on a rich range of examples, Goodman deftly probes the stories told about workplace bullying not simply as a vital topic in its own right but as an important way to explore the effects of neoliberalism on working lives. Tremendously well informed, the book will be of interest to students of both French culture and contemporary labour practices.» (Martin O’Shaughnessy, Professor, School of Arts & Humanities, Nottingham Trent University)
«As an academic plunge into the murky depths of French corporate life, Goodman’s book is both intrepid and intimate. It is also singular. To date, no other Anglophone commentator has got to grips with the breadth of French fictional accounts of work to this extent. Building on the foundations laid by the studies of Sarah Waters, Martin O’Shaughnessy, and Jeremy Lane, Bastards at Work captures the miseries of twenty-first-century work, but also - best of all - the joys of writing about it.» (Anne M. Mulhall, H-France Review Vol. 23 (March 2023), No. 40)
Bullying is a social phenomenon that defines the contemporary workplace with much of the emphasis on psychosocial rather than physical suffering. In France, workplace bullying has emerged as a subject of intense interest and controversy among scholars, policy makers and cultural producers – notably novelists, playwrights and film directors. It has a high public profile as reflected in specific legislation, a wealth of critical literature on workplace suffering, and an extensive range of novels, plays and films. This study contextualises and analyses this wave of fictional storytelling that has emerged in France since the year 2000. It critically analyses more than a dozen such stories with a view to determining how they reflect the lived experiences of workers. Each story is considered from the perspectives of critical commentaries and research from France and elsewhere, focusing on the disciplines of philosophy, psychology, medicine, anthropology, sociology, literary analysis, economics, law and business management. This study also examines how fiction reflects changes in the nature of the French economy, organisations and work itself since the advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of figures
  • List of tables
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of stories analysed with title translations in English
  • List of abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Mind games: The workplace as battleground for psychological warfare
  • Chapter 2 Systemic violence: The organisation as bully
  • Chapter 3 Homo œconomicus and beyond
  • Chapter 4 Brain over brawn: Psychological violence in the era of knowledge work
  • Chapter 5 Body and mind: Bullying and medicalisation at work
  • Chapter 6 Degrees of complicity: Co-workers as witnesses
  • Chapter 7 Storytelling as authentic lived experience
  • Appendix 1 Corporate: Emilie’s journey: A sequence analysis
  • Appendix 2 Isabelle Sorente’s play, Hard copy (English trans. Martin Goodman)
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←xiv | xv→


I would like to thank my PhD supervisors Professor Sarah Waters and Dr Andrew Stafford, at the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, for all their support and patience.

I would also like to thank the following individuals for giving me the benefit of their time and experience:

Thierry Beinstingel

Professor Premilla D’Cruz

Gilbert Edelin

Dr Marie-France Hirigoyen

Frédéric El Kaïm

Anne Loiret

Dr Loïc Lerouge

Dr Didier Occhipinti

Professor Emerita Charlotte Rayner

Isabelle Sorente

Delphine de Vigan

Last but not least, I would like to thank my wife, Rosemary, without whose support this study would never have been written.

←xx | 1→


Le harcèlement moral au travail se définit comme toute conduite abusive (geste, parole, comportement, attitude …) qui porte atteinte, par sa porte à répétition ou sa systématisation, à la dignité ou à l’intégrité psychique ou physique d’une personne, mettant en péril l’emploi de celle-ci ou dégradant le climat de travail.

[Workplace bullying is defined as any abusive conduct (gesture, word, behaviour, attitude, etc) which, by its repeated or systematic nature, undermines the dignity or the psychological or physical integrity of a person, threatening that person’s employment or degrading the working climate.]1

This study is for anyone working in an organisation and for observers of organisational behaviour. It is written from the standpoint of someone who has spent over forty years working in some seventy complex organisations, variously as a researcher, management consultant, HR director and interim manager in the UK and internationally. Its modest ambition is to provide a fresh perspective on workplace bullying whose incidence reduces productivity (including the need to spend time on finding a replacement for an absent worker), causes much individual suffering and results in considerable cost to public health systems. It is not a manual on how to deal with workplace bullying or a sociological study of what it looks like. Neither is it critical of the value of HR texts and social science studies. Its modest ambitions are to answer the following five questions:

  • Why is fictional storytelling about workplace bullying important?
  • Why is it different from case studies in social science research?
  • What’s notable about the French experience?
  • Why is it different from the Anglo-Saxon one?
  • What’s the value of these stories for bullied individuals, organisations and society as a whole?
←1 | 2→

In France, workplace bullying has emerged as a subject of intense interest and controversy among scholars, policy makers and cultural producers – notably novelists, playwrights and film directors. It has a high public profile as reflected in specific legislation, a wealth of critical literature on workplace suffering, and an extensive range of novels, plays and films. It is a social phenomenon that defines the contemporary workplace with much of the emphasis on psychosocial rather than physical suffering.2 Bullying behaviour has a nebulous quality in the way it can manifest itself as, say, mocking, group exclusion, shaming, as well as managers allocating useless or impossible tasks to its targets. This study contends that storytelling has the capacity to make workplace bullying practices, generally hidden from public view, visible to the community at large in ways that specialist studies, often couched in technical terminology, seldom do – thus affording the issue broader currency.

The real extent of workplace bullying is unclear because national definitions vary and there is a considerable amount of ‘self-labelling’ by workers, that is, one worker may view a particular behaviour as a form of bullying, while another may not.3

←2 | 3→

The primary contemporary French influence here is the psychiatrist and psychotherapist Marie-France Hirigoyen. She provides a portmanteau definition as quoted in the epigraph to this Introduction, while French legislation takes a similar approach by declaring that:

Aucun salarié ne doit subir les agissements répétés de harcèlement moral qui ont pour objet ou pour effet une dégradation de ses conditions de travail susceptible de porter atteinte à ses droits et à sa dignité, d’altérer sa santé physique ou mentale ou de compromettre son avenir professionnel.

[No worker shall be subjected to repeated acts of psychological bullying whose purpose or effect is to degrade their working conditions and which are likely to infringe their rights and dignity, to alter their physical or mental health or to compromise their career future.]4

This approach seems a perfectly appropriate starting point for a detailed examination of such a multi-headed concept, but it does raise a number of key practical issues including whether, because of lack of specificity in statute law, a worker who believes they have experienced bullying can have total confidence that a court will agree, before they initiate expensive legal proceedings.5

Olivier Saïssi provides some insights here with an examination of workplace bullying, using the organisational life cycle as a basis for classifying different types of bullying, simultaneously determining the roots of such behaviour and the position of the bully in the organisation.6 Using ←3 | 4→eight case studies drawn from published sources, he argues that workplace bullying can be sparked equally by external and internal events. For instance, deregulation of air transport in Europe, which led to the part privatisation of Air France, exposed the airline for the first time to commercial pressures and the requirement to improve individual productivity for it to compete effectively in the private sector. On the other hand, bullying can also have its origins in the organisation itself, through, say, the threatening behaviour of shareholders, some or all senior executives, or indeed by the action of a single individual. The bully may see themselves as acting as a representative of the organisation, that is, where they perceive that behaving like a bully has become routinised in the organisation and is therefore part of the job. Saïssi labels this phenomenon ‘institutional’ bullying. Slavoj Žižek, in his critique of capitalism, calls this ‘systemic violence’. Arguably, within the neoliberal workplace, such behaviour manifests itself as routinised and predominantly psychological bullying.78

Bullying may arise from enforced changes to a subgroup within an organisation, such as where members of a previously exclusive male vocational group, notably in the military and the prison system, put pressure on new female recruits, through, among other things, jokes, insults and rumours. Saïssi calls this ‘cultural’ bullying. A further variant, ‘pathological’ bullying, arises where an outsider is brought into an organisation because of their particular expertise and knowledge, while at the selection and recruitment stage, their ‘capital psychiatrique’, including any phobias and anxieties, are ignored – and once recruited their actual capabilities are disregarded too. A clear fictional representation of this type of bullying is to be found in Joëlle Delange’s novel, Le tragique du fou [Tragedy of a Madman] where ←4 | 5→a gifted but intemperate surgeon is described by the target of his bullying in the following terms:

Un orgueil démesuré et une mégalomanie pathologique dotaient cet être exceptionnel, d’une valeur inestimable, d’un pouvoir unique et spécial comme beaucoup d’hommes du même acabit.


XX, 342
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (October)
Workplace Bullying Storytelling France Wolves At Work Martin Goodman
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XX, 342 pp., 9 b/w ill., 1 colour ill., 6 b/w tables.

Biographical notes

Martin Goodman (Author)

Martin Goodman is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and a former HR director and management consultant. He has worked for major global businesses, government departments and international inter-governmental agencies. He holds a PhD in French (Leeds), Master’s degrees in Comparative Literature (London) and Management Studies (Durham), and a diplôme approfondi de langue française from the French Education Ministry. He is a member of the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment (IAWBH) and a former Chartered Fellow of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).


Title: Bastards at Work