March 8th, 2012
The Hook: Bully buster? VQR spurs UVA launch of ‘respectful workplace’
This is a Kevin Morrissey suicide story update. The Hook’s investigative reporter, David McNair, reports on the launch of the University of Virginia’s respectful workplace policy and program. Here are my thoughts.
I do commend UVa for defining unacceptable conduct beyond the narrow confines of illegal mistreatment of members of protected status groups only. The program is introduced with lovely words from the cheery president. She has my sympathy since Kevin killed himself on her first day of duty. She was not to blame, but solution efficacy will be her legacy.
Since Kevin’s suicide, Ted Genoways, Kevin’s boss, has been depicted as the victim by some. In many ways, the injustice of spinning Genoways as victim is echoed by the unbearable lightness of the UVa approach to its solution. I’m not surprised. We wrote in our book, The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels & Snakes from Killing Your Organization, about this tendency to name workplace initiatives “Civility” and “Respect” in the U.S. It dodges accountability for enabling a much darker, more insidious form of negative conduct on campus. For the book, we created a continuum showing the severity and impact of bullying subsumes incivility and disrespect. Though the words bullying and abuse do appear on descriptions buried in the UVa program details, neither Abuse nor Bullying is in the title of the initiative.
The institution’s reaction to the simple term “workplace bullying” in their post-Morrissey “investigation” spoke volumes — denials, blaming victims, harping about no formal complaints having been filed, the absence of punishment for Genoways, etc. Genoways’ attorney was pushing to rid the bully label from his client. UVa couldn’t have been happier.
My major problems with the respectful workplace program are:
1) the first statement implores all employees to be responsible to effect a caring community — not leadership, not the President’s office, which should have borne primary responsibility for failing to protect Kevin,
2) informal solutions seem to revolve around reporting to supervisors and managers as if the majority of “disrespect” is among non-supervisory peers (not so, statistics exist that tell a different story),
3) they chose to focus on the positive aspects of a work culture, but employers cannot mandate niceness or politeness or courtesy (which is what respect and civility entail), instead the employer should have narrowly defined outrageous, unacceptable conduct and stuck to defining and eliminating that so that a positive, abuse-free culture could flourish (The choice of eliminating negatives or encouraging positives is one of the first decisions we lead our organizational clients through when crafting solutions. Choosing positivity is the cowardly path. When clients go positive and pollyanna, we know they are too timid to eradicate bullying.),
4) all solutions are housed in HR. This makes it a low-level problem. (In my expert witness work, I’ve been involved in university lawsuits. When faculty are involved, HR is powerless (see the admission in the e-mail story posted here that HR could not stop Genoways). Without significant investment of Administrator’s time in the program, it will never impact abusive faculty. Junior faculty will never be safe.), and
5) a clause buried deep in procedures that just talking to HR about a possible complaint will trigger one (and the inevitable, but unwanted retaliation), just as now happens only in cases of illegal harassment and discrimination. With no law pushing this voluntary program, the institution just took away a major protection for complainants. If you want confidentiality, then nothing can be done by the two outlets (Ombuds and FEAP). You might as well file an anonymous complaint that compels nothing. This will stifle formal complaint filing and the institution will have its low use stats claiming the rarity of negative conduct when in fact the stat is confounded by fear by, and compromised safety of, complainants. In our book, we clearly define new roles for HR. They must not be at the center of solutions.
6) the entire program should report to the Office of the President just like Genoways and the VQR used to. Genoways had his sponsor, the campus president. It is only justice that the program designed to snare and prevent the Genoways of the future enjoy the same status, not be shoved into obscurity as an HR program, fad-of-the-month.
Wait until there is a shooting ON campus, suicide or homicide, Pres. Sullivan will wish she had attacked problems directly and honestly.
Bully buster? VQR spurs UVA launch of ‘respectful workplace’
By David McNair, The Hook February 22, 2012
A year-and-a-half after the suicide of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s managing editor Kevin Morrissey launched a national debate about whether it was the scene of workplace bullying, UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan has launched the Respect@UVA program, a comprehensive workplace initiative designed to promote “kindness, dignity and respect.”
But one workplace bullying expert thinks the reforms announced February 15 don’t go far enough.
Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, contends that bullying should be put in the context of real violence to avoid letting programs like this get “shackled by all its shortcomings.”
In addition to educational resources, the UVA program includes a new complaint reporting system designed to allow employees to air grievances without fear of retaliation from their superiors, as well as a commitment to follow up within two business days.
”As president, I will hold myself accountable to the Commitment to a Caring Community,” Sullivan says in statement, “and I will expect all leaders at all levels of the University to do the same. We will not tolerate retaliation against an employee who reports an incident.”
As the Hook recently revealed, Morrissey expressed frustration about an alleged lack of oversight over his boss, VQR editor Ted Genoways, and reached out several times to UVA officials, including those in the President’s office.
“In every instance,” Morrissey wrote in one of his leaked emails, “either through advice given or interaction, the onus was placed on me to deal with the issue.”
“It’s very upsetting for me to have to think about how valiantly and doggedly Kevin struggled to be heard,” says Morrissey’s sister, Maria, “only to have everyone he spoke to ultimately say there was nothing they could do without the bully’s cooperation.”
Shortly after taking office in 2010, Sullivan established a Respectful Workplace Task Force, a group of 26 faculty and staff volunteers that, along with Human Resources vice president Susan Carkeek, created the new initiative.
“The task force members believe that to become best in class as a respectful workplace, we will need commitment from everyone working at all levels of the University,” said Sullivan.
The program comes down particularly hard on managers, calling on them to serve as “role models of respectful behavior,” bans retaliating in anger to complaints, and it even includes a questionnaire for managers to self-examine their management style entitled, “Could you be the bully?”
While Namie thinks the program is a step in the right direction, alleged shortcomings include the softer term “disrespect” to describe what is happening in an abusive workplace.
”Calling the problem what it is– psychological violence, abusive conduct, or bullying– fosters real outrage and systemic solutions,” asserts Namie, claiming that while incivility and disrespect can cause stress and health problems, moderate to severe bullying has been linked to abusive conduct, deep despair, and even suicide.
“If they don’t get it right the first time,”says Namie, “the program will not be re-visited and revised unless there’s an on-campus murder or suicide, with notes left clearly indicating that abusive mistreatment was the root cause.”
Maria Morrissey says she was struck by the fact that the program’s examples of retaliation don’t include abrasive emails or unjustified accusations of bad behavior against whistle-blowers, both of which were alleged aspects of the VQR situation.
“How will UVA deal with the supervisor who prefers to deal in less obvious forms of bullying and retaliation?” asks Morrissey.
She also wonders how the university– which now promises to ferret out bullying “regardless of position or status”– will deal with potentially untouchable supervisors such as big money fundraisers, literary and academic stars, or– in the case of VQR– a boss who formerly answered only to a busy university president.
“‘Regardless of position or status’ sounds lovely on paper,” says Morrissey,” but how will that really work in a hierarchy like a university?”
This entry was posted on Thursday, March 8th, 2012 at 3:35 pm and is filed under Employers Gone Wild: Doing Bad Things, WBI in the News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.