Getting Fired


The capstone of a campaign  of workplace abuse and bullying is often termination from the job.

 And that reality  – or even the fear of being fired  – can be a devastating blow to a worker who has endured months of  abuse that has stripped away his or her sense of mental and physical well-being.

 But today what does it really mean to be fired?

 I know business leaders who were fired  and recovered to achieve impressive new success.

 Sallie Krawcheck, past president of Merrill Lynch, US Trust, Smith Barney, the largest wealth management business in the world, suggests that if you don’t get fired at least once, maybe you’re not trying hard enough?

 She says that as the pace of change in business increases, the chances of having a placid career are receding. And if in this period of rapid change, you’re not making some notable mistakes along the way, you’re certainly not taking enough business and career chances.

 Being fired is not always a reflection of performance.

Research shows that some targets of workplace bullying are dismissed because they are creative, hard-working and well-liked employees who are seen as a threat by a supervisor or co-worker. They may be among the best in their workplace and that is why they are targeted.

 I also know bureaucrats (and I use that term  in the worst sense of the word)  who should be fired but probably never will be, despite their obvious incompetence.  They have managed to insinuate themselves into secure positions, by surrounding themselves with synchophants and/or by avoiding any personal responsibility for anything, except to claim success for others’ work.

Many  employees are fired because  a new supervisor wants to put in his or her own team in place or the worker’s values or vision don’t  comport with that of  the supervisor.

Many workers are fired for illegal reasons –  they are victim of discrimination on the basis of  age, sex, race, religion, etc.  Some are fired because they asked for a legal right – such as the right to be paid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

 So if you were fired in the past year or expect to be in the year ahead, try to  keep it in perspective. Any employee who was fired can likely think of some things that they could have done better.  Hindsight is 50-50.  Nobody’s perfect.  Etc.   Hopefully, your new and hard-earned  knowledge will help you succeed the next time?

 Ms. Krawcheck also advises:

 I  had a friend tell me shortly after I left “When something like this happens, you think you’re thinking straight, but you’re not. You won’t think straight for at least three months.” If you have the luxury of avoiding any major career decisions that long, the perspective you gain after decompressing can be valuable.

OSHA: A Sleeping Giant Awakes?

whip in

Many countries around the world consider workplace violence to be an important worker health and safety issue but the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been oddly silent on this issue..

 That’s why it is significant that OSHA recently cited a  Dallas company for safety violations following a robbery that resulted in the  horrific death of a store clerk at a Whip In convenience store in Garland, Texas. 

 The OSHA citations carry proposed fines that are  underwhelming – $19,600.   However, the action sends a message to convenience store owners that they would be well advised to pay attention to the issues of workplace violence. 

 In May of 2012, the store clerk, Nancy Harris, 76, died from second- and third-degree burns after she was set on fire during the robbery. Police said Matthew Lee Johnson, 36, arrived at the Whip-In shortly after the store opened at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. Officers said he carried in a bottle of flammable liquid and used it to douse Harris and then set her on fire — after clearing out the cash register.

OSHA cited TMT Inc., owner of the Whip In chain,  for four serious safety violations.  OSHA contends that if the employer had implemented appropriate control measures and provided training to ensure awareness of potential violence, it is possible that Ms. Harris’ death could have been avoided.

OSHA could not cite any specific violations of their safety standards, so each store was cited with violating OSHA’s “general duty clause” for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause serious injury or death.

While the fine is a pittance, it is not inconceivable that the TMT will face a civil lawsuit as a result of Ms. Harris’ death and  the OSHA action could be a significant factor in  such a lawsuit.

 OSHA’s Dallas Area Office opened an investigation at the Garland store in May after the robbery and later investigated the company’s three other stores in Dallas and Mesquite. OSHA  found that workers at those locations were exposed to the same or similar workplace violence hazards.  TMTemploys more than 60 employees across the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), of the 4,547 fatal workplace injuries that occurred in the United States in 2010, 506 were workplace homicides.

  OSHA defines workplace violence as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening and disruptive behavior that occurs at a work site.  According to OSHA, workplace violence  includes behavior ranging from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.

 More information on workplace violence is available at OSHA’s website at

Workplace Bullying: The Big Picture

I am pleased to be quoted in a  Businessweek  feature on the problem of workplace bullies but I also find it frustrating that  the American media consistently fails to see the big picture about this serious national problem.

Workplace bullying is not just about misguided individuals who bully co-workers and subordinates. More importantly, it is about American employers.

American employers permit bullying in the workplace because there is no law or regulation that requires them to stop it – despite the fact that it is widely recognized as a form of workplace violence. Other industrialized countries recognize workplace bullying as an important public health and safety problem. And decades of research show that workplace bullying causes targets to suffer potentially severe emotional and physical harm.

Only employers can stop workplace bullying. Employees who are targeted for bullying generally are completely helpless to do anything about it, especially if the bully is a superior.

Why don’t employers stop it?

Because in America, workplace bullying is seen as a prerogative of the employer. In fact, some unscrupulous employers use bullying strategically to accomplish a goal – such as to avoid unions, downsize without paying unemployment compensation, or to evade a potential worker’s compensation claim. In my own practice of law, I saw many cases where employees were bullied and driven out of the workplace by an employer after they complained about wage theft (which, by the way, is epidemic in the United States). 

Why don’t workers do anything about it?

The vast majority of American workers are completely priced out of the American legal system and,  besides, federal judges (who have lifetime tenure barring bad behavior) are appallingly ignorant and unsympathetic to claims of  employment discrimination and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

So one in three or four American workers are bullied by employers, either directly or because the employer tolerates or fails to stop an abusive workplace environment.  

This all  stands in sharp contrast to other industrialized countries – including the European Union – where authorities recognize workplace bullying as a major problem and have placed the burden of eliminating workplace bullying squarely on employers.

Activitists in the United States have been spinning their wheels for more than a decade in an attempt to get a state-by-state solution to the problem of workplace bullying but the only real answer lies with the federal government.  States should act – and I hope they will act – but this is not the solution.  Today, many states will do virtually anything to attract new business; it is wishful thinking that they will voluntarily pass a law protecting targets of workplace bullying  if they can gain any competitive edge by not doing so. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has acknowledged the problem by enacting workplace bullying protections for its own employees but it has failed to take any steps to protect the health and safety of millions of American workers across the nation.

This blog is a member of the coalition Protect-US-Workers that has launched a petition drive asking U.S. President Barack H. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis to formulate a national response to the problem of workplace bullying.

Talk to your legislators. Sign the petition.

Link Between Bullying & Discrimination

One of the most common types of lawsuits facing American employers is a discrimination lawsuit.

Workplace bullying and discrimination are closely intertwined and one might even say that bullying precipitates many discrimination lawsuits

Discrimination involves unfair treatment of an individual or group of individuals because of a distinguishing characteristic that is protected under state or federal law, such as sex, race, national origin, disability, religion, etc.   But it also frequently also involves workplace bullying, which is the systematic and repeated harassment of an employee over a period of time..  One employee  – often  a supervisor – attempts to exercise improper power and control over another, often a subordinate.

Even people who despise women or minorities probably would tolerate them if they silently accept whatever abuse the bully chooses to inflict upon them, never outshine or demonstrate competence that threatens the bully and act with complete subservience at all times. Of course, that doesn’t always happens. Targets of discrimination often complain and demand to be treated with fairness. That’s when the workplace bullying begins in earnest. A bully cannot tolerate a target who refuses to aknowledge the bully’s “right” to exercise complete power and control over the target.

Employers never win when they are sued by workers. Among other things, employers have to spend money to defend themselves. It is estimated that it costs an employer $100,000 to defend even the weakest and least meritorious lawsuit, nevermind a strong case that may ultimately result in a settlement or a judgment for the plaintiff.

Last March, a physician’s assistant at a Sacramento hospital won a jury award of $168 million after alleging she was harassed by cardiac surgeons at the hospital.  She filed 18 complaints with the Human Resources Department, which not only ignored her complaints but actually fired her! She speculates the hospital’s failure to address her complaints was because the cardiac surgeons are the highest revenue producers in the hospital. The jury award included $128 million in punitive damages.

Many industrialized countries have adopted health and safety laws and other kinds of legislation to protect workers from bullying and harassment, and to require employers to provide all employees with a workplace free from bullying and psychological harassment.  But America has resisted efforts to protect workers here from bullying for more than a decade. Why?

Some unscrupulous employers use bullying  strategically to get rid of good employees and to avoid legal obligations, such as paying worker’s compensation or unemployment benefits.  Some unscrupulous employers use bullying to thwart unions and  drive out workers who demand their rights under the law. In some cases, the worker actually has a technical right  under some law to sue the employer but the reality is that few workers today can afford the legal process. And it’s biased in favor of employers anyway.

Finally, it is not inconceivable that there’s a lot of ignorance out there  about how much workplace bullying costs American employers – literally billions of dollars a year- in unnecessary turnover, lost work and needless litigation.

The unscrupulous employers are probably a small minority of American employers. Most employers want to follow the law and be good citizens. 

There is an easy and relatively inexpensive way for good employers to mimize the risk of a  potentially catastrophic discrmination lawsuit . They should adopt and rigorously enforce a general anti-harassment anti-bullying policy that makes it clear that bullying will not be tolerated by anyone in the organization, including cardiac surgeons and the Chief Executive Officer.  By the way, that’s also the right thing to do. Doesn’t every employee deserve to be treated with dignity and respect?

Those who are interested in reading more about this topic should read my new book, Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace.

Canadian Jury Puts Employers on Notice

Kudos to Beverly Peterson at Our Bully Pulpit for noting this story from The Windsor Star newspaper, which highlights the contrast between the United States and Canadian legal systems with respect to workplace bullying.

Targets in the United States have little legal recourse in the legal system. There is no law against workplace bullying. If they  somehow make it to court – usually alleging some form of discrimination –  it is probable that a federal judge will dismiss their case before it ever reaches a jury.  It’s a different story in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, which has a law and where a target of bullying recently won a $1.4 million award after she was bullied out of her job at Walmart.

The Canadian jury of three men and three women, who decided that Boucher was constructively dismissed — in other words, forced out through abusive treatment — awarded her: from Walmart, $200,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering, $1 million for punitive damages, and $10,000 for assault; and from her former supervisor, Jason Pinnock, $100,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering, and $150,000 for punitive damages. .

Here’s an excerpt from an article by a University of Windsor professor who analyzes the significance of the verdict:

 The $1.46-million award a former Walmart assistant manager won this week in Windsor for mistreatment by a boss could make workplaces more civil across Canada, says an expert on workplace bullying.

The Windsor ruling — the highest such award in Canadian history — for the first time has turned mass media attention to bullying at work, instead of simply, say, bullying at school.

“This is the big case and it’s going to change the way Canadians see workplace bullying, absolutely,” said Jacqueline Power, a University of Windsor assistant professor of business management who specializes in workplace bullying. “It’s similar to what sexual harassment was 20 years ago. People just had to put up with sexual harassment in the workplace. Then they started having large legal judgments and human resources departments began to take it seriously.”

Power said Ontario’s Bill 168, introduced in 2009 to protect workers from violence and harassment on the job, set the stage. But she said enforcement didn’t follow as promised, so it fell to court cases to lay out the law — starting with Meredith Boucher.

Last month Boucher launched a lawsuit against Walmart, where she had worked for 10 years, after she felt forced to leave the company in November 2009. A jury agreed the 42-year-old Chatham woman suffered daily abuse from Jason Pinnock, 32, then the manager of the east Windsor Walmart where she worked, who would berate her with profane and insulting language over six months, often in front of others.

She filed a suit alleging intentional infliction of mental suffering, sexual harassment and discrimination, and assault by an assistant manager who punched her in the arm two days in a row and was subsequently fired.

The jury of three men and three women gave her nothing for sexual harassment and discrimination, but handed her a whopping award for her other claims: $1.21 million against Walmart and $250,000 against Pinnock.

Power said the judgment sets another precedent beyond being the richest such award in Canada. She said it also marks the first time someone has successfully won for general bullying by a boss, without the victim having to fall into a special category of female, visible minority, gay or anything else.

“This is the first time that we have recognized that you can be a white male and still be treated badly at work,” she said, noting the irony that it took a woman to fight for such protection for all. “In the United States, they have decided explicitly that they will not enforce civility. But in Canada, we now look after white men, as well.

“So it’s an extremely brave thing for this person to bring it to court. And because she was so brave, she has changed the legal environment for all employees.”…

Boucher’s lawsuit is actually only the first of four against Walmart Canada,  all by female assistant managers seeking at least $500,000 in damages, all from the same store, all alleging the same thing in 2009 and 2010: abusive treatment by a manager….

“We are disappointed with the decision and surprised by the highly exceptional damages that have been awarded,” said Andrew Pelletier, vice-president of corporate affairs and sustainability for Walmart Canada. “We’re reviewing the decision in detail now and we will consider all options, including the possibility of an appeal.”

Pelletier said he is surprised not just by the size of the judgment but by the allegations.

A number of Walmart employees have launched suits against the company in the United States, however, where some workers have recently threatened to strike, despite the fact they are not unionized….

The woman at the centre of the case, meanwhile, says only one person treated her abusively but that it affected her deeply. Court heard that Boucher spoke to senior Walmart managers about the abuse several times. Not only was nothing done about it, she was told she would be held accountable for her accusations.

She became physically ill, lost weight, sought counselling, and was treated for stress. And then she took it to court, risking having to pay Walmart’s substantial court costs if she lost.

Targets Suffer from Loss of Control

A recent study helps explain why bullying in the workplace can cause a target to suffer severe psychological and physical damage.

Targets of bullying often have virtually no control over their situation  – especially when their complaints are ignored – and this lack of control causes stress.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes people in leadership positions experience lower levels of stress than nonleaders –  even as they face increasing demands –  because they have a heightened sense of control.

The article, Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress, surveyed participants enrolled in the Executive Education program at Harvard University, a program designed for senior-level officials in the public sector.

The participants, including military officers and government officials, had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than nonleaders and reported lower levels of anxiety.

Furthermore, leaders holding more powerful positions exhibited lower cortisol levels and less anxiety than leaders holding less powerful positions, a relationship explained significantly by their greater sense of control.

The study concludes that control is a psychological factor that has powerful stress-buffering effects.

“Altogether, these findings reveal a clear relationship between leadership and stress, with leadership level being inversely related to stress,” the study concludes.

The study authors are Gary D. Sherman, Jooa J. Lee, Amy J. C. Cuddy, Jonathan Renshon, Christopher Oveis, James J. Gross, and Jennifer S. Lerner.

Bullies, who often are supervisors, characteristically seek to exercise undue power and control over their targets.

Targets suffer  a range of short-term health problems, including anxiety, sleeplessness and depression. They also may suffer long-term health problems. It is estimated that up to 23 percent of heart disease related deaths per year could be prevented if the levels of job strain in the most stressful occupations were reduced to average levels seen in other occupations.

The United States lags far behind Europe and other industrialized countries that have addressed workplace bullying through occupational health and safety laws and other civil and criminal measures.  Private sector  non-union workers in the U.S. currently have little or no protection against workplace bullying. 

(Pick a number) Shot by Disgruntled Worker.

 The above headline, or something like it, is depressingly familiar in the  United States.

 One reason may be that almost anyone can get a semi-automatic handgun in America, which escalates what should have been  bloody nose to catastrophic proportions.

 But there is another reason too.

 American employers lack the motivation to deal appropriately with workplace conflict.  Indeed, some unscrupulous employers even use bullying intentionally to achieve a goal – like driving out good employees who assert a legal right or downsizing without paying unemployment compensation.  

 Remember the Corvair?  It was an unsafe car that was targeted a few decades ago  by consumer activist Ralph Nadar, who said the car manufacturer knew the Corvair  was unsafe but refused to make it safer because it was cheaper to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of the dead and injured. Experts know that bullying and harassment cause the target to suffer potentially severe physical and mental damage, sometimes leading to suicide or workplace fatalities.  But nobody – not even the federal government – does anything about it.  Cheaper to pay the dead and injured.

 For more than a decade, workplace anti-bully activists have lobbied without  success to pass what in reality is an incredibly weak proposed state law (Healthy Workplace Bill)  to discourage workplace bullying and harassment.

Meanwhile, many industrialized countries around the world have enacted laws and regulations that clearly place the responsibility upon the employer to maintain a safe and bully-free workplace.

 American employees who are hounded out of a job are left with a hodgepodge of ill-fitting laws to fall back on. If they do somehow manage to file a lawsuit, they are likely to  encounter a hostile judiciary.  Research shows that federal judges almost routinely dismiss discrimination cases before the case can  even get to a jury.

 This week, Jeffrey Johnson, 58, who had been laid off  as a women’s accessory designer, shot and killed a 41-year-old  manager at Johnson’s former workplace,  Hazan Imports Corp.  of New York City. Johnson fled the scene but was followed by a construction worker. Johnson took a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol from his bag after two officers on counterterrorism patrol approached him.  As many as nine people were shot – some possibly by police – before Johnson was dead.  Johnson does not appear to have any criminal record.

There is no indication that Johnson felt bullied or harassed or that Hazan failed to properly address workplace conflict. But he was obviously a disgruntled worker.

The incident is part of the on-going volatility of America right now where it is no longer shocking to read a headline such as:  “Disgruntled Man Returns to Workplace and Kills (pick a number).”

Bullying Causes Co-Workers Stress

A recent study by researchers at New University of British Columbia (UBC) shows that co-workers who witness bullying  experience and may develop a stronger urge to quit than the actual direct targets of bullying.

According to the study: “Our results show that merely working in a work unit with a considerable amount of bullying is linked to higher employee turnover intentions.”

Sandra Robinson, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at UBC and co-author of the study, said society tends to assume that targets of bullying “bear the full brunt. However, our findings show that people across an organization experience a moral indignation when others are bullied that can make them want to leave in protest.”

The study is  published in the current edition of the journal Human Relations.

The researchers found that employees witnessing co-workers being bullied, or merely talking to them about their experiences,  tend to take  the targets’ perspective. As a result, they experience cognitive or emotional empathy, which includes imagining how another feels or actually sharing in another’s feelings. These empathetic responses contribute to the understanding that a significant moral violation has occurred and recognition that the victim does not deserve mistreatment. As a result of this moral uneasiness, bullying at large within a work unit will increase employee intentions to quit their work group

Data used for the study were collected through two surveys of a sample of 357 nurses in 41 units of a large Canadian health authority. The surveys used a series of questions to assess the level of bullying in each nursing unit and then asked participants to rate their positive or negative reactions toward statements like, “If I had a chance, I would change to some other organization.”

Findings show that all respondents who experience bullying, either directly or indirectly, reported a greater desire to quit their jobs than those who did not. However, the results also indicate that people who experienced it as bystanders in their units or with less frequency reported wanting to quit in even greater numbers.

Prof. Robinson said that prior research shows that intentions to quit are directly correlated with employees leaving their jobs. However, she warns that even if employees stay in their roles, an organization’s productivity can suffer severely if staff members have an unrealized desire to leave.

“Managers need to be aware that the behaviour is pervasive and it can have a mushrooming effect that goes well beyond the victims,” says Robinson. “Ultimately bullies can hurt the bottom line and need to be dealt with quickly and publicly so that justice is restored to the workplace.”

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:

Standing Up To Rush Limbaugh

Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke told the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee that contraception is a women’s health issue.

As a result, she was subjected to a personal venomous assault by a bully, conservative talk show host  Rush Limbaugh, who used his national radio platform to call Ms. Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

What happened after Limbaugh’s verbal assault is fascinating in the context of bullying.

When bystanders do nothing, a bully prevails and becomes stronger. And it is well known that bystanders often do nothing.

In this case, many bystanders chose to do something – they demanded that advertisers cease  supporting Limbaugh’s radio show. The result is that Limbaugh has lost dozens of sponsors. And he was forced to apologize – though, as Ms. Fluke notes, his apology is not very meaningful under these circumstances.

The Fluke episode lends powerful credence to the theory behind a new school anti-bullying program developed in Finland in 2007,  KiVa,  which 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.

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..

Sandra Fluke was right, by the way. Not only do women use contraception to prevent unwanted pregnacy, but they also use it to treat diverse medical conditions, including dysmenorrhea, endometriosis, metrorrhagia, and polycystic ovarian syndrome.