July 9th, 2012
Press Enterprise: Workplace bullying experts say protection needed
By Jeff Horseman, The (Riverside, CA) Press Enterprise, July 8, 2012
“Who is that man who’s staring at you so angrily?” asked a customer of Evelyn Lee in the department store where she was a sales associate.
It was her boss — the same one, she said, who criticized her within customers’ earshot on topics that didn’t earn lectures for other employees. He threatened to fire her, took away her hours and denied her the chance to earn more by opening sales accounts.
“It did suck the fun out of work,” said Lee, 61, of Rialto. “There were times it made me angry.”
Lee’s treatment is a case of workplace bullying, in the news lately following a Riverside County grand jury report on a division of the county’s human resources department.
The Bellingham, Wash.-based Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons … by one or more perpetrators.” It includes verbal abuse, threatening conduct or sabotage that interferes with someone’s ability to work.
“It’s only a focus on the negative and it’s unjustified based on the performance,” said Gary Namie, a social psychologist and the institute’s director. “It’s about this unearned, uninvited domination.”
According to the grand jury report, a group of recruiters in a county temp worker program were derisively referred to by their supervisors as “the wild, wild West” and singled out for harsh treatment, even though other county departments were satisfied with their work.
The report found workplace bullying was “pervasive” in the program and “caused fear and intimidation among employees.”
County officials are looking into the grand jury’s findings. They expect to issue a formal response by the end of July.
Not racist or sexist
Research into workplace bullying started in Scandinavia in the 1980s, Namie said. Australia, Sweden, Great Britain and France are among the countries with anti-workplace bullying laws, but to date, no U.S. state has one, according to the institute.
Workplace bullying is different in most cases from racial or sexual harassment, Namie said. Anti-discrimination laws apply only if the harasser and target are of different races or genders, he said, adding that right now, there’s no legal recourse for 80 percent of the workplace bullying taking place.
Often, workplace bullying targets are veteran workers whose skills and status make bullies feel threatened or jealous, Namie said. “People will slide into (the bully) role very easily” if it helps them get ahead, he said, adding higher-ups often ignore or encourage the bullying.
Spreading rumors, telling others to shun someone, closed-door berating sessions and using staff meetings to embarrass workers are forms of bullying, Namie said. Bullies can also deny access to training or technology that targets need to do their job, he said.
The grand jury report on county HR described documents that “showed disrespect to employees beyond what would be considered reasonable.” Employees who admitted inadvertent errors were “later reprimanded and accused of making the mistakes intentionally,” the report read.
1 in 3 bullied?
Thirty-five percent of adult Americans reported being bullied at work, according to institute-commissioned surveys conducted in 2007 and 2010. Seventy-two percent of bullies are bosses and bullies are more likely to be men and 62 percent of bullying is same-gender, the surveys found.
Victims of workplace bullying suffer from a range of physical and mental ailments, according to the institute. “(The stress) changes the brain,” Namie said. “People get sicker and sicker. Meanwhile they try to tough it out.”
Howard Golds, a partner in the labor and employment practice group of the Riverside firm Best Best & Krieger, said “equal opportunity bullying” is a problem that’s often mistaken for discrimination.
“We see employers who are sued for discrimination and what’s really going on is you have a supervisor who doesn’t conduct themselves very well,” he said. “Oftentimes you have a situation, when the facts emerge, the person charged with discrimination treats everyone (badly).”
Jack Brown, chairman and chief executive officer of Stater Bros., one of the Inland region’s largest employers, said he’s not aware of workplace bullying among the supermarket chain’s 18,000 employees.
Managers and union shop stewards are at every store and Stater Bros. has a “very, very strong harassment policy,” Brown said. “We permit no use of unbecoming language between employees or certainly between supervision and employees.”
In an email, Tracy Silveria, spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents about 5,800 county workers, wrote her union “is very concerned about workplace bullying and has worked proactively to help members identify, report, and correct incidents of bullying.
“We welcome working with Riverside County human resources in addressing some of the issues that the recent grand jury report identified, and will continue to advocate for a positive work environment free of bullying behavior.”
Namie’s institute wants states to pass “healthy workplace bills” to crack down on workplace bullying. The bills would legally define an abusive workplace environment and allow abused employees to sue, provided they meet certain legal standards.
“It’s going to take a law to get these employers to do what they should be doing anyway,” Namie said.
Versions of the bill have been introduced in 21 states — California being the first in 2003, according to the institute. But so far, no state has passed healthy workplace legislation, Namie said.
Suzanne Lucas, a human resources professional who runs “Evil HR Lady,” a blog on HR topics, maintains workplace bullying legislation isn’t needed.
“Basically, legislation won’t stop the bullying and will be an added expense on businesses,” she wrote in an email. “The best thing to curb bullying is to have a robust job market. If you can get another job easily, you can just leave if bullying begins …”
“Additionally, definable (workplace bullying) is debatable and largely relies on the feelings of the victim. If there’s a good, legal bullying definition out there I’ve yet to see one.”
Lee lost her job at the department store after it went out of business.
“It was definitely easier to come into work on the days my boss wasn’t there,” she said.
Follow Jeff Horseman on Twitter: @JeffHorseman
Tags: Press Enterprise
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