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.

– GN

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?”

See original article.

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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.

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  • Jay Jacobus

    What a horrendous thing this suicide was. So cruel and senseless.

    Now UVA wants to make a large effort to prevent abuse of its employees in the future.

    I will donate my time to help them write a procedures manual that addresses their goals.
    All I will need is a phone conversation or two to get the ball rolling.

    I have written many ISO formatted manuals which provides a template for documented objectives and procedures. I can utilize my experience with ISO standards and bullying practices to give them a set of working documents.

    Hopefully someone will forward my offer.

  • kay

    A agree with DN. What upsets me is the nonchalant feeling you get when these so called “leaders” assert that they have a policy or have -re-vamped- the policy that they had but never enforced.

    Those are my thought too. “just wait til there’s a shooting”. You hate to see the reaction to abuses go that far but, folks seem to LOVE to turn a blind eye until the target resorts to that.

    For some reason, many many folk can’t feel or relate to the impact of a pervasively abusive work environment. This is not school, where you might be able to transfer, and rely on parents to shelter you as you come home from abuse to a safe financially stable environment of the home provided by your parents. Even then I understand the despair children feel.

    When you are the source of stability for a family and this income will sustain your children’s living, WHAT DO YOU DO???

    Employers ignore and cover and oust. There is no transfer offered and no parachute. Everything is balancing on this income. NOT TO MENTION, you love your job and want your job. It is not only detrimental to your finances, but the economy as a whole. That is one more family who may become dependent on social programs and are not purchasing goods that families do to help keep the economy going.

    It’s nonsensical that the US would continue this, but for some reason many think bullying is the way. Decentcy and fairness is frowned upon by a portion of the population. All go hand in hand. Crime, poverty, health and more are based on fairness and productivity.

    • Dave

      Let me say from personal experience, the despair children feel is very similar – and possibly much worse than it is for adults. Both the teachers and administrators at the schools *will not help you* or make the bullies stop. Even when they witness the bullying themselves there is no aid given. In many cases these adults actually made the bullying worse. Every bullied kid dreads the words “split up into groups and work together.” Or when that happens at PE and you just know the humiliation of ostracism is coming. Having to use a separate locker room (bullies think that’s hilarious by the way). But the most helpless times are when the adults take part in the bullying, or intentionally set up scenarios for a student to be bullied.

      When these adult enablers face discipline and bullies are expelled, schools will see dramatic changes. I think it will take at least that much before this crisis ends. Ideally, it would be great if larger kids acutely feared the stigma of being labeled a bully. Then all the other students could go about their business in peace.


  • kachina

    I’m curious to know what people thing Kevin’s life would be like today had he survived his ordeal. What further steps would they recommend he take? What would they recommend he have done differently? What alternatives do they see available where they think Kevin “erred”?

    This is not a pointless excercise. Any one of us might find ourselves in a similar situation- Kevin was not creating the circumstances in which he found himself and made very reasonable efforts to address the circumstances foist upon him.

    I beleive this kind of tragedy is avoidable, and we can create the kind of community in which it would not happen.

  • Jay Jacobus

    UVA has been sensitized to bullying and as result a person like Kevin Morrisey will be treated carefully at UVA. But without being sensitized there are no undering changes in society that give vicitms and targets new options.

  • kachina

    Here’s an exerpt from an employer’s “Respectful Workplace Policy” that speaks volumes about their understanding of and comittment to ending workplace bullying (which is included as a type of disrespectful behaviour but not defined)…

    “Disrespectful behaviour does not include: consensual banter or consensual romantic relationships; performance reviews, performance management, managerial functions or activities, counseling, and/or discipline imposed by the employer.”

    • Jay Jacobus

      My thinking is that employee generated

      performance reviews, performance management, ….. counseling, and/or discipline

      of their superior might be considered disrespctful.

      In fact managing your bosses performance might be considered aggressive in some companies.

      • kachina

        I see this as a blanket authorization for supervisors and managers who routinely conduct performance reviews and administer disciplinary measures (among other things) to abuse their authority in the workplace!

      • Jay Jacobus

        A manager should try to get the best work out of his staff. He can do this by encouraging his staff when they do good work. Too much criticism and punishment can discourage employees. At its most destructive, criticism can cause the employee to give up. When he does, he becomes a lackluster employee.

        The manager is to blame.

  • J.

    I think UVA’s actions are laughable. This looks like the typical cosmetic front put up by a university when its dirty laundry makes news. As far as faculty is concerned, this program will be meaningless. The intention is to make the public, donors, potential students and parents, etc. believe something was done to stop the problem – all for show.

    I worked for a university system that had some of the same elements in its written ethics policy. The university system claimed that violations of the ethics policy would result in disciplinary action. Like UVA, no office was made responsible for addressing “respect” issues, or any other element of the ethics policy, and nothing was done. There was zero enforcement. UVA’s program appears to be very similar.

    These public announcements and programs are window dressing. My university had a policy against retaliation for filing complaints that was part of the employee contract – so, retaliating against an employee who made a complaint about his/her treatment (or abuse) was a breach of the employee contract. But, every time I filed an official complaint, I experienced retaliation that was condoned all the way up to the president’s office.

    Based on my own experiences, I disagree with the comment about HR, at least up to a point. It’s true that HR does not have much direct power in dealing with faculty. However, HR is often administration’s enabler and in that regard it has quite a bit of power to harm faculty. In my experience, HR worked actively and aggressively to prop up my dean’s attacks. If she wanted HR’s help, she got it, no matter what laws or polices were violated in the process. I have seen HR do similar things to other faculty members, including blatant violations of federal law. In universities, HR has little direct authority where faculty is concerned and it cannot act entirely independently, but as a tool of administration it can be quite powerful. In my case, HR made all the responses in the state’s discrimination investigation and the director of HR was the contact point with the attorney who defended the university. She had quite a bit of authority and no decency.

    • kay

      Goodness, you have my full attention with your description of the events J. It is so completely familiar because it seems to be the blueprint for harassment.

      There must be a manual somewhere detailing how to become complicit in harassment, turn a blind eye and further harm the employee to the point of sheer despair at finding help, acknowledgement and validation for serious repetitive psychological abuse that leaves your psyche destroyed.

      Only laws and public outrage and standing up to say NO MORE will rewrite that manual.

      • Jay Jacobus

        Not helping a target of bullying is neglect of an organizations responsibility to protect an employee who is unable to protect himself. Neglect is a passive form of abuse in this case.

        Retaliation is an active form of abuse. Retaliation confirms the organization’s intent to abuse the target.

        The organization that protects the bully, aids and abets the bully’s actions and becomes a party to the primary abuse.

        HR should be made aware of the seriousness of becoming a party to the abuse.

  • Ann

    The death of Kevin should be an eye-opener for us. Bullying causes death, depression, etc to those who are bullied. Even if we have anti-bullying programs, but how can we say its effective? Do we properly and strictly implement it? When will we be taking this case seriously? If someone dies because of it? Bullying can’t be cured, but we can prevent it!

  • Annie

    Kachina asked: “I’m curious to know what people think Kevin’s life would be like today had he survived his ordeal. What further steps would they recommend he take? What would they recommend he have done differently? What alternatives do they see available where they think Kevin ‘erred’?”

    As an ex-university editor, I feel a kinship with Kevin. Everything about him seems familiar. I resigned six years ago. I believe my once beloved alma mater would have been happier if I killed myself. I’m sure other employees and ex-employees have.

    So I followed reports about Kevin’s tragic, unnecessary death: Bookmarked the Hook. Read blogs and posts.

    Had he lived, maybe he’d have quit the job to save his life and sanity. Then he’d be another out of work editor — worried about his future because he left work long before he planned.

    If he pursued a complaint against UVA, he’d still be fighting a psychologically damaging, mentally and physically draining David and Goliath battle, while the university just wants him to shut up and go away.

    If an employee hasn’t been sufficiently crushed and dares to sue, universities have lawyers on payroll. Rumors take care of that person ever working in the university again. I imagine the school only paid attention to his suffering because he died.

    He’d be poorer and depressed, but much less stressed than working under a bully. A predator got inside his head. I don’t know what he could have done differently except save himself.

    One post states: “UVA has been sensitized to bullying and as result a person like Kevin Morrisey will be treated carefully at UVA.” I doubt it.

    I agree with J: “This looks like the typical cosmetic front put up by a university when its dirty laundry makes news. As far as faculty is concerned, this program will be meaningless.” Even now lawyers are likely writing in loopholes.

    I believe the medical and legal fields are still tops in bullying, but from what I’ve read, universities are bully hotbeds. Discussions virtually always center on dean to faculty and tenured to junior faculty bullying, which can be brutal.

    Meanness trickles down. Like Kevin and at least half of university employees, I was staff in a system that protects and rewards predators.

    • kachina

      Based on my own experience, I think you might be right. Anyone got any alternate perspectives?

      • J.

        Sounds right to me.

        My dean managed to get a policy written into the faculty handbook with the goal of getting rid of me (she chaired that policy committee and dominated the other members into full submission) – a university-wide policy to get rid of one faculty member she hated, but who was tenured. She was planning to get me at post tenure review by changing the requirements just as I was entering the review period.

        Universities do have lawyers on staff, or worse some state universities are able to get their defense from the AG’s office at loss to the tax payers. And, it is terrible to sue a large institution. That said, if you have a good contract suit with real damages and you’re down to no other hope for redress or compensation, it’s sometimes better to file the suit.

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