Lost in Discussion: Employers that Bully

 They Use Strategic Harassment and Exploitation

Most people who think of workplace bullies invoke the image of the combative boss played by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross or the passive-hostile magazine editor played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

But some workplace bullies are not individuals but the employer itself – a fact that often gets lost in the discussion of workplace bullying. Some employers use strategic harassment tactics on workers to avoid legal obligations, such as the payment of fair wages, workers compensation or unemployment insurance.

Employers that bully promulgate policies that take advantage of their workers. For example, they steal wages from their employees by intentionally misclassifying them as exempt and thus ineligible for overtime.

The Progressive States Network estimates that low-wage workers lose $51 per week to wage theft, or $2,634 per year.  That amounts to approximately 15% of their annual income

Some employers use strategic harassment to get rid of good employees. This occurs when an employer targets one or more workers for harassment to achieve an organizational goal.  Some employers, for example, make life miserable for workers when they want to downsize without paying unemployment insurance. Or they harass a “troublemaker” who has asserted a legal right to fair compensation or overtime, essentially forcing him or her to quit.

Other employers knowingly tolerate bullies in their employ for crass economic reasons – athough that strategy can backfire.

Ani Chopourian filed at least 18 complaints with the Human Resources Dept. of Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, CA, during the two years she worked there as a physician assistant. She was fired after the last complaint. A federal court jury in March awarded Chopourian $168 million in damages, believed to be the largest judgment for a single victim of workplace harassment in U.S. history.

Many of Chopourian’s complaints involved a bullying surgeon who she said once stabbed her with a needle. Another surgeon, she said, would greet her each morning with “I’m horny” and slap her bottom. Another called her “stupid chick” in the operating room and made disparaging remarks about her Armenian heritage, such as asking her if she had joined Al Qaeda.

Ms. Chopourian speculated that hospital administrators put up with misbehavior in the cardiac unit and tolerated the surgeons’ outsize egos because cardiac surgery tends to bring in the most money for any hospital facility.

Surveys show that workplace bullying is epidemic in the United States, where at least one in four American workers reports being bullied in the workplace.  Workplace bullying can cause a target to experience potentially severe psychological and physical illness, including clinical depression, post traumatic stress syndrome and stress-related chronic disease.

Much of the focus on the problem in the United States has involved a state-by-state campaign to pass a civil law that would allow targets of workplace bullying to seek damages from individual employers. However, such a law would do nothing to combat the systemic problem of employer bullying and abuse in the United States.

This blog is part of a loose-knit coalition of workplace anti-bully advocates that is calling upon the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the Obama administration to promulgate a comprehensive national solution to the problem of workplace bullying and abuse that would  address the problem of bullying employers.  If you agree, sign our petition at: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/protect-us-workers/?cid=FB_TAF.

Lesson of the Boys on the Bus

Could videotaping be a solution to workplace bullying?

It was in Karen Klein’s case.

As a result of a cell phone video that went viral on the Internet, four seventh-graders in upstate New York recently were suspended for a year for bullying Karen Klein, a 68-year-old school bus monitor.

Meanwhile, a fund drive started on Klein’s behalf has yielded more than $650,000 to date.

It is unlikely that anyone would have believed what Klein went through on that bus ride home if it had not been videotaped.  The youths’ behavior is so vile that it is shocking !

The four boys cruelly taunt and humiliate Klein, even commenting about the suicide of her oldest son.  (“You don’t have a family because they all killed themselves because they don’t want to be near you.”)  They invaded her personal and emotional space, as well as her physical space. They drove her to tears and they were positively gleeful about it.

Surveys show that at least one in four American workers experience a hostile workplace as a result of bullying. Adult bullies tend to be more sophisticated than middle school boys. Most bullies in the workplace are supervisors but they can also be co-workers and customers.

Supervisors undermine the target over time with unfair criticism and demeaning comments.  They sabotage the target’s work by providing inadequate resources and unrealistic deadlines. They set out to systematically destroy the target’s reputation and self-esteem.

Targets of workplace bullying currently have little or no legal recourse to address the problem unless they are targeted in violation of civil rights laws on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, etc.  Most targets of workplace bullying must either endure the bullying until they are sick, forced to quit or fired.

Other countries have adopted laws and regulations addressing workplace bullying but there is no state or federal law on the problem in the United States. Workplace bullying has been virtually ignored by the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

So back to Klein’s case. The videotape of the boys on the bus drew international attention to her plight. Maybe there’s a lesson there.

Employers today routinely monitor employees to insure against theft or fraud. Why shouldn’t employees electronically monitor the workplace?

Keep in mind that several states have laws that prohibit the use of devices that record, photograph or overhear events or conversations in private places. Private areas include places where a reasonable amount of privacy is expected, such as a restroom or a locker room. Most work areas are considered public but … anyone who is seriously considering the surreptitious monitoring of their workplace should review (in advance) the laws of their state and, if they’re smart, consult an attorney.

It’s a radical idea but maybe a few viral videos that demonstrate the real problem of workplace bullying in the United States would prompt some long overdue federal attention to the problem.

I Will Ruin … Who?

NOTE:  State College of Florida President Lars Hafner subsequently  resigned on Oct. 30, 2012 with a $363,000 settlement agreement.  The board  voted 7-0 in January 2013 to hire a new president,   Dr. Carol Probstfeld,  formerly vice president for business and administrative services at the college.  Carlos Beruff, a realtor, remains on the board.  Sigh.

Go quietly or I will ruin you

That alleged threat is at the heart of what promises to be a costly battle between two titans at State College of Florida (SCF) in Manatee-Sarasota.

The Bradenton Herald reports that the college’s board of trustees voted  5-2 this week to ask Florida’s Attorney General to investigate an allegation of forgery against SCF President Lars Hafner.

Hafner says the vote stems from a campaign of bullying by SCF board chairperson Carlos Beruff.  He recounted a private conversation with Beruff about nine months ago in which Beruff allegedly told Hafner, “If you don’t go quietly, I’m going to ruin you and ruin your reputation.”

Beruff has accused Hafner of forging former board president Steve Harner’s name on a 2010 state grant application for SCF’s Collegiate School charter school. Hafner contends he signed Harner’s to the document with Harner’s permission.

Hafner accused Beruff of risking the college’s reputation for the sake of what Hafner called Beruff’s personal and political agenda against him.

“This has been nine months of, basically, a witch hunt, and of you bullying me,” Hafner said to Beruff. “You’ve been doing it in private so other board members were not aware of what you’re saying or doing.”

At a special board meeting called by Beruff , Beruff presented an affidavit from attorney Greg Porges, whom Beruff had hired privately to research the forgery question, in which Porges said Harner did not authorize Hafner to sign the grant application in his stead.

Hafner presented an affidavit directly from former president Harner, in which Harner stated he believed that in up to four instances he had authorized Hafner to sign his name on Harner’s behalf and with Harner’s “direction and instruction.”

Meanwhile, board member Jennifer Saslaw, one of two board members to vote against taking the case to the attorney general, said Harner told her that Hafner’s signature on the application was made with Harner’s approval.

Joe Miller, the other board member to vote against involving the attorney general, questioned whether Beruff was attacking Hafner at the behest of Gov. Rick Scott, whose has proposed eliminating tenure for university employees and cutting the pay of university and college presidents.

Judge Ed Nicholas, a member of the SCF Foundation, accused the SCF board of “destroying the morale of this school” and driving away donors.  “Ever since you’ve been chairman, you’ve done nothing but attack this college or attack the staff,” Miller said. “I’m not sure who’s running things, the governor or this board.”

Hafner also said he was exploring whether Beruff violated state statutes by sharing information about Hafner’s evaluation.

One can’t help but wonder whether at any point the above officials considered other options to settle their difference? Say, mediation?  Counseling about the proper role of the administration versus the board? A duel?

Kidney Donor: Thanks and You’re Fired

Deborah Stevens said she was bullied and fired after donating a kidney so that her boss could get a kidney transplant.

In a complaint filed this week with the New York Division of Human Rights. Stevens says she donated a kidney in August 2011 through the National Kidney Registry on behalf of her boss, Jacqueline Brucia, a comptroller at Atlantic Automotive Group, Inc., which operates car dealerships in New York.  The donation allowed Brucia to get a kidney transplant.

Following the surgery and four weeks of recovery, Stevens, who was Brucia’s administrative assistant, returned to work on Sept. 6, 2011. But the kidney donor said she continued to suffer various intestinal, digestive and neurological impacts as a result of her surgery.

On her third day back at work after her surgery, Stevens says she left work early because she was feeling ill.  She says Brucia, who had not even returned to the office yet after her kidney implant, called Stevens from her home and said – “You can’t come and go as you please.”

According to Stevens’ complaint, Brucia’s treatment of her “changed dramatically” after Brucia returned to the office –  “Brucia was routinely curt and dismissive with Stevens and was unnecessarily critical of her work performance.”

At one point, Brucia allegedly told Stevens: “Don’t expect to be treated special because of what you did for me.”

Stevens said Brucia bullied her, berated and humiliated her in front of others and reduced her duties. Brucia even allegedly refused to let Stevens leave her desk, exascerbating Stevens’ health problems in the aftermath of her surgery. When Brucia complained of her health condition, she says Brucia responded, “I don’t care; sounds like a personal problem.”

Stevens finally complained to the company’s human resources department, which resulted in her transfer to an inferior position at a location 50 miles away.

On March 5, 2012, Stevens’ attorney sent the company a letter charging that Stevens had been subjected to disability discrimination in violation of federal and state disability laws.  According to her complaint, Stevens’ was fired on April 11, 2012 “purportedly for performance reasons, despite having never been placed on any type of performance improvement plan.”

Stevens told CBS News that the only thanks she got from Brucia for her left kidney was an email stating: “Thanks more than I can ever say.”

In a statement, the Atlantic Auto Group said, “It is unfortunate that one employee has used her own generous act to make up a groundless claim. Atlantic Auto treated her appropriately and acted honorably and fairly, at every turn.”

Desperate Housewife Bullied?

Judge Elizabeth White declared a mistrial on 3/19/12 after the jurors reported they were deadlocked. Eight supported actress Nicollette Sheridan’s claim; four didn’t. .Judge White on 3/13/12 issued a directed verdict dismissing the battery claim  and Michael Reinhart, who has supervised construction of the show’s sets since it began eight years ago, testified he was copied on an email in 2010 — shortly after Sheridan filed her lawsuits — in which ABC/Disney executives discussed having IT wipe computer hard drives to eliminate any reference to Sheridan’s termination. And the Human Resources so-called “professional” who investigated Sheridan’s complaint that she was slapped by Cherry failed to interview Cherry!!! PGB

This woman was allegedly assaulted by her boss and then killed off.

The trial began this week in a case brought by Actress Nicollette Sheridan, formerly of the ABC soap opera Desperate Housewives, who alleges she was whacked upside the head by the hit show’s creator Marc Cherry and then killed off  when she complained to ABC.

Sheridan alleged Cherry slapped her  in the face with his hand during a rehearsal on September 24, 2008 after the two had an argument regarding a cut line of dialogue. When Sheridan complained to ABC, she says she was fired in retaliation — her Desperate Housewives character, Edie Britt, was killed in a freak electrical accident in April of 2009.

ABC has argued that the decision to kill off Edie Britt was made prior to the alleged smackdown and that the supposed slap was a mere tap, done for the purposes of artistic direction.

“This is a man hitting a woman in the head — hard — without her consent,” said Sheridan’s attorney, Mark Baute.

Battery occurs when the defendant’s acts intentionally cause harmful or offensive contact with the victim’s person. While battery requires intent, the prevailing tort definition does not require an intent to harm.  It is only necessary that the defendant intend to cause either harmful or offensive contact.

Sheridan’s lawsuit initially alleged damages over claims of sexual and gender harassment, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful termination and more. However, during the pre-trial phase, the judge threw out some claims and the actress dropped others. Now the case involves claims of wrongful termination and battery.

If Sheridan wins, a judge has ruled that she will be eligible to reclaim one year’s salary, not the $20 in pay for the show’s full run that she originally sought. Her attorneys are seeking almost $6 million.

A sad reality of this type of case is that Sheriden, 48, is out in the metaphorical cold while ABC continues to be a major television network. ABC lists as potential witnesses many of Sheridan’s former co-workers – including Desperate Housewives cast members Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman and Eva Longoria. Of course, if Sheridan’s allegations are true, the remaining Housewives stars presumably do not wish to be killed off like Edie Britt until the series ends this season.

Last Laugh? Not for NY Taxpayers

My Boss’s Voice Made Me Vomit!

That was the headline in a  2/15/11 story in The New York Post.

The story was about a lawsuit filed by New York Housing Authority Superintendent Anthony Dingles against  the New York City Housing Authority and his boss, Demetrice Gadson. Dingles alleged Gadson began a campaign of constant verbal attack after he complained to higher ups about her poor management techniques. As a result, he said he literally became sick when heard her voice. He said the stress forced him to get medication for his stomach and intestinal system, inflamed his bleeding prostrate and he was so beaten down emotionally that he began therapy.

The New York Post’s web blog carried mocking comments: “He’s obviously not married, or he’d be used to it,” and “Where are the Sopranos when you need them?”  The Post gave the incident its annual Golden Stapler “As the Stomach Turns” award.

After a nine-day trial, a federal jury in New York concluded in December that Gadson violated the Dingles civil rights by filing frivolous disciplinary charges against him in retaliation for complaints that were protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The jury awarded Dingles only  “nominal” damages of $1.  However,even that small amount is a disaster for the Housing Authority because it entitles the attorneys who represented Dingles, Bennitta Joseph and Alexander Coleman, to collect attorney fees from the city.  Such fees could reach up to $450,000.  And this doesn’t take into account what the city paid to defend Gadson, as well as all of the lost work time, absenteeism, increased health costs, etc.

Taxpayers of New York City ultimately will pay the bill for Gadson’s bullying. It might have been avoided. The New York Senate passed a workplace anti-bully bill in 2010 but it subsequently died in the House.

Meanwhile, Dingles, who still works for the housing authority, succeeded in protecting his job and no longer is supervised by Gadson.  Which is not a bad result for Dingles.

Avoidance Increases Target’s Stress

Most targets try to avoid contact with an abusive supervisor but this tactic may backfire because it increases the target’s stress, according to research published in the American Psychological Association’s  International Journal of Stress Management.

A study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel found that direct communication with a bully boss results in more positive emotions for the target than avoidance. An example of direct communication is: “I tell the supervisor directly that he/she must not treat me like that.”

“It is understandable that employees wish to reduce their contact to a minimum.  However, this strategy further increases the employee’s stress because it is associated with a sense of weakness and perpetuates their fear of the supervisor,” said Prof. Dana Yagil, a member of the university’s Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences who headed the study.

According to the study, abusive supervision is a major organizational stressor yet little is known about how employees cope with such stress. The study examined five types of strategies for coping with the stress factor of abusive treatment:

  • Directly communicating with the abusive boss to discuss the problems.
  • Using forms of ingratiation such as doing favors, using flattery and compliance.
  • Seeking support from others.
  • Avoiding contact with the supervisor.
  • Reframing or mentally restructuring the abuse in a way that decreases its threat.

The most widely-used strategy reported by the 300 employees who participated in the study was avoiding contact with the abusive supervisor, disengaging from the supervisor as much as possible, and also to seeking support from others.  The least used strategy was direct communication with the abusive supervisor — the strategy that was most strongly related to employees’ positive emotions.

The study shows that managers should be alert to signs of employee detachment – as it might indicate that their own behavior is being considered offensive by those employees.

KiVa: Teaching Bystanders to Care

One of the most hurtful things about workplace bullying is the isolation felt by the target when co-workers run for cover or, worse, support the bully.

A new school anti-bullying program developed in Finland in 2007 is proving to be surprisingly successful in eliminating bullying by focusing upon the bystanders who witness the bullying but do nothing.

The program  KiVa,  is based upon the premise that bullies are rewarded by earning higher social status because of their bullying.  The program encourages bystanders to show that they are against bullying and to support the target.  KiVA empowers students to defend targets through skill-building and education, including 20 hours of activities such as discussion, group work, films, role-playing, and computer exercises.

Many school anti-bully programs show marginal results but a large scale 2011 study showed that KiVa halved the risk of bullying others and of being victimized in just one school year.  Substantial decreases also emerged for other antisocial behaviors, such as vandalism, theft, and truancy, in addition to an increase in general satisfaction with school life.

Science Daily reports that an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Kansas (KU) plan to bring the KiVa program to American schools. Starting as early as the 2012-13 school year, a pilot program could kick off in selected classrooms in Lawrence, Kan. If shown to be successful there, the model could expand nationally.

KiVa was developed at the University of Turku, Finland, with funding from Finlands’ Ministry of Education and Culture. In Finland, 90 % of all comprehensive schools are implementing the KiVa program.  The KiVa program won the European Crime Prevention Award in 2009.

KiVa  takes a holistic approach to the bullying problem, including a rigorous classroom curriculum, videos, posters, a computer game and role-play exercises that are designed to make schools inhospitable to bullying.

When bullying episodes occur, a small team of trained employees addresses the incident with the victim and bully or bullies to ensure bullying stops.  Peers of the victim are challenged to provide support for the victimized classmate.

“It changes the rewards structure,” said Patricia Hawley, KU associate professor of developmental psychology.. “At the end of the day, the goals of the bully are like yours and mine — they want friendship and status. They have human goals, not pathological ones. With KiVa, bystanders are set up to win by intervening, and their status can go up. As a bystander, I can achieve goals of friendship and status by standing up to a bully.”

The implications of the KiVa model for the workforce are obvious. What if employers approached the problem of bullying holistically, with the goal of insuring that bullying behavior is not rewarded?  Teams of employees could be trained to address individual complaints, and co-workers could be  encouraged to show empathy and support to targets.  Who knows? Maybe employers, like schools, would find their efforts rewarded by improved morale and substantial decreases in other antisocial behaviors, such as vandalism, theft, and truancy. Wouldn’t that alone be worth the effort?

KiVa is a Finnish acronym for Kiusaamista Vastaan, “against bullying”)

Corporate Psychopaths on Wall Street

Note: The theory that a significant percent of abusive managers are actual psychopaths is not new.  Robert D. Hare, Ph.D., and Paul Babiak, Ph.D., published the book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work  in 2006. Jon Ronson, author of the 2011 book, The Psychopath Test,  interviewed former American chief executive officer “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap,  who was notorious  for closing factories and laying off workers  in the 1990s. Ronson concluded Dunlap possessed many but not all of the traits of a psychopath. For example, Dunlap had no record of juvenile delinquency and was in a long standing marriage. PGB

 Precipitated Financial Collapse?

A former British academic has advanced a theory that “corporate psychopaths” at the helm of financial institutions in the United States are largely to blame for the global financial crisis.

“They are happy to walk away from the economic disaster that they have managed to bring about, with huge payoffs and with new roles advising governments how to prevent such economic disasters. Many of these people display several of the characteristics of psychopaths, and some of them are undoubtedly true psychopaths,” writes Clive R. Boddy, in a recent book published by Macmillan, Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers.

He says psychopaths are the one percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”  These people, Boddy adds, are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

Psychopaths make it to the top of successful corporations, Boddy says, because they take advantage of the “relative chaotic nature of the modern corporation,” including “rapid change, constant renewal” and high turnover of “key personnel.”  They exhibit a combination of “charm” and “charisma,” which makes “their behaviour invisible” and “makes them appear normal and even to be ideal leaders.”

Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics that psychopaths working in senior positions in corporations and in financial corporations had a major part in causing the global financial crisis.

He says corporate psychopaths  “largely caused the crisis” because their “single-minded pursuit of their own self-enrichment and self- aggrandizement to the exclusion of all other considerations has led to an abandonment of the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige, equality, fairness, or of any real notion of corporate social responsibility.”

Boddy told Bloomberg View columnist William D. Cohan that senior managers should be screened to insure they are not psychopaths and actually care about others.

In his book, Boddy says that psychopaths destroy the morale and emotional well-being of fellow workers  “by humiliating them, lying about them, abusing them, using organisational rules to control them, not giving them adequate training, blaming them for mistakes made by the psychopath, bullying them and coercing them into unwanted sexual activities … .”

Boddy is a former professor of marketing at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom and a former co-founder/director of a pan-regional, Asia-Pacific marketing research company that was sold to a marketing conglomerate in 2002 for a reported $80 million.

Resolved … Don’t Be Evil

The vast majority of workplace bullies don’t think of themselves that way. They justify or make excuses about their behavior. However, I suspect that many workplace bullies – at least those who are not actual psychopaths or sociopaths – do know on some level that what they are doing is wrong.

Every manager should consider the following:

  • How would you feel if your mother, child or partner was treated the way you treat your target? Not so good? Then what you are doing is wrong.
  • Are you flattering yourself?  Are you really a perfectionist trying to get the best out of your workforce or are you a petty tyrant satisfying a personal need for power and control?  If the latter, your actions are damaging both the target and your employer.
  •  There is a fine line between workplace abuse and other forms of abuse, including intimate partner abuse, child abuse and elder abuse. Especially for those in a supervisory position, when you zero in on a subordinate target, visualize a small child who is about to be smacked.
  •  Yes, some employees deserve to be disciplined and/ or fired but there is a difference between exercising legitimate supervisory authority and bullying. No employee ever deserves to be treated disrespectfully or bullied.
  • If you are an employer who is using bullying strategically to avoid a legal obligation – such as paying workers compensation – you are taking a serious risk. Sometimes targets of bullying do not simply fade into obscurity. They hire lawyers and sue.  And whether they win or lose, you will pay.
  •  Bullies are “ fortunate” to work in the United States, which unlike many other industrialized countries for decades has ignored  overwhelming research that workplace bullying causes potentially severe mental and physical damages to targets. But times are changing. Educated employers do not tolerate bullying because they know that they ultimately pick up the tab in terms of needless turnover, absenteeism, higher health costs, litigation, etc.
  • If you are a Human Resources “professional” and you turn a blind eye when a worker complains to you about being bullied – or make things worse for the target – you are part of the problem.  You are acting unethically and doing a great disservice to your employer.

New research is showing that workplace bullies are often their own worst enemies.  American is growing less tolerant of this kind of management style.  It’s one thing if a manager gets an isolated complaint but it can quickly end a promising  career when there are multiple bullying complaints. For all of the above reasons and many more, I propose the following resolution for workplace bullies in 2012:

  DON’T BE EVIL!