April 8th, 2010

Amid emotional testimony, bill targets workplace bullying

By Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin State Journal, April 8, 2010

On Feb. 3, 2008,  Jodie Zebell took her own life … A Spanish teacher testified she was “iced out and isolated” for four years by older colleagues in her school district. Once a marathon runner, she now suffers from clinical depression, chest pain, panic attacks and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Deborah Lemke told lawmakers of an unnamed Wisconsin hospital where the nursing supervisor verbally bullied nurses on his staff. When she intervened on behalf of the nurses, she herself became a target.

Amid emotional testimony, bill targets workplace bullying

In 2008, 31-year-old Jodie Zebell appeared to have a full life. The UW-Madison graduate was married with two young children and a part-time job as a mammographer at a La Crosse clinic, where she was praised as a model employee.

Jodie Zebell, 31, took her own life in 2008 after months of workplace bullying, her aunt told an Assembly committee Wednesday. Zebell's family is backing a bill that would outlaw workplace harassment in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of the Jodie Zebell family

But soon afterward, Zebell became the target of co-workers who unfairly blamed her for problems at work. After she was promoted, the bullying intensified, her aunt Joie Bostwick recalled during a legislative hearing Wednesday attended by members of her niece’s family, including Zebell’s mother, Jean Jones of Spring Hill, Fla.

After her niece had a run-in with her supervisor, Bostwick said, the boss joined in the harassment, filling Zebell’s personnel file with baseless complaints about her performance and loudly criticizing her in front of others.

“This went on for a series of months,” said Bostwick, a Blue Mounds native who now lives in Naples, Fla. “It just got worse and worse.”

On Feb. 3, 2008, the day before she was to receive a poor job review, Jodie Zebell took her own life. A Madison attorney told the family it had no legal recourse since she wasn’t protected from workplace discrimination as would be an older worker or a racial, ethnic or religious minority.

“We were astounded to find there was nothing we could do. There were no laws unless you were part of a protected class,” Bostwick said.

The tragedy sparked Zebell’s family to join the national movement seeking to ban bullying from workplaces and give victims — who prefer to call themselves “targets” — tools to stop the harassment or sue abusive employers and bullies in court.

Abusive conduct

On Wednesday, the Assembly Labor Committee heard 90 minutes of often emotional testimony on a bill sponsored by state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, that would require employers to implement and enforce anti-bullying policies — or face their abused employees in court.

Seventeen states are considering such legislation, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute of Bellingham, Wash., whose director, Gary Namie, also testified at the hearing.

Under the proposal, workers who believe they have been harmed by “abusive conduct” could sue to force the employer to stop the bullying, to seek reinstatement or to get compensation for lost wages, medical costs, attorneys’ fees, emotional distress and punitive damages.

The bill defines abusive conduct as “repeated infliction of verbal abuse, verbal or physical conduct that is threatening, intimidating or humiliating, sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance or exploitation of an employee’s known psychological or physical vulnerability.”

Vaguely worded bill

Representatives of business groups told the committee the bill is too vaguely worded and would invite frivolous lawsuits by disgruntled and incompetent workers.

“AB 894 paints a target on the back of small employers … (who) can’t afford to fight claims in circuit courts,” said Pete Hanson, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

Andrew Cook of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, a consortium of large business groups, agreed. Cook said if Wisconsin becomes the first state to pass such a bill, it would harm the state’s ability to attract business.

Emotional stories

But at the hearing, such concerns were largely overshadowed by these stories:

· A Spanish teacher testified she was “iced out and isolated” for four years by older colleagues in her school district. Once a marathon runner, Susan Stiede now suffers from clinical depression, chest pain, panic attacks and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She quit teaching in 2009.

· A nervous state employee told of being harassed by a unnamed female boss in a state agency that she declined to name. Intimidated by her knowledge of the agency, the new supervisor circulated untrue rumors about her, and banished her to an office with no phone and separated her from her co-workers. When she took a six-month stress leave, the supervisor started bullying other members of the staff, she said.

· Dr. Deborah Lemke told lawmakers of an unnamed Wisconsin hospital where the nursing supervisor verbally bullied nurses on his staff. When she intervened on behalf of the nurses, Lemke said, holding back tears, she herself became a target.

Corliss Olson, associate professor at the UW-Extension’s School for Workers, said the bill is “desperately” needed.
Olson said most targets of bullying are “normal, competent people” who can be driven to disability or even death.

“This is a viciousness in the workplace that we need to stop,” Olson said. “We can and we must change our workplaces so they are civil.”

Read the original article. Track progress of the Wisconsin bill AB 894 at the Legislative Campaign website.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at 5:45 am and is filed under Media About Bullying, 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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  1. Kim says:

    I wish this was applied to the Navajo Nation. Its amazing how the definition of “workplace bully” is exactly what a bully does. And the effects are exactly what the victim goes through. I feel for this lady and every person that experience this. Management that allow such behavior should be part of the complaint itself much like those who are accomplices in a crime. I pray for the family who had to deal with this and Jodie’s soul to be blessed.

    • JOIE says:

      Dear Kim,
      On behalf of our family, I thank you for your prayers. We still grieve for our loss of Jodie in this world, and will rejoice in being with her in the next. Through the gracious grace of the Almighty, we are blessed with her presence through more memories and laughter than tears.

      This picture of Jodie was the last taken when she visited us in Naples, Florida to celebrate my beloved sister’s 60th birthday, Jodie’s Mom.

      I, too, wished this applied to the Navajo Nation. Their are times I think of our society, our United States of America, and the initial goal of annihilation of the Indian Tribal Nations. Bullying in the workplace seems to go back centuries in our Nation. For this, I too weep.

  2. Paula says:

    We must have anti-bullying laws in all 50 states, this has to stop. It is absolutely unacceptable, I cannot believe that it took the government until the 21st Century to even start looking at this matter. It is already against the law to Blacklist an individual and to use certain groups of people to target that individual, but it still goes on. There is no ramifications for covert harassment, sabotage of work and the work station, purposeful distractions, hostility, isolation, intimidation tactics, campaigning the targeted individual, cruel gestures, stalking, spreading false rumors in your neighborhood etc… what is wrong with our Country? This is simply criminal behavior, and the rumor-monging is simply character assassination with the intent of destroying that persons reputation downline. The law states that the previous company cannot say anything to the future one, on a reference check, other than your rehire status, on-time status, and work skills/conduct. That is not true and who is going to come forward and admit they said something or implied to have that person lose the new job or be treated unfairly due to a pre-conceived (false)idea given of that new-hire. New laws are needed, investigations will be conducted to prove whether or not the allegations are true or being fabricated by a “disgruntled” employee, I guarantee that all bullying workplaces will call their victims a “disgruntled” employee. Please carry on and make it illegal in all states to discriminate on these good employees, as I am one of them. Thank you very much, it is appreciated.

  3. Fox says:

    I find it amazing that even in 2010, our work places are nothing but gladitorial amphitheatre. If it was ‘a dog eat dog world’, we would all already be eaten. We are civilised beings and we all do not work on those principles.

    I have worked in 4 different countries, in a variety of public and private organisations. I keep coming across bullying work practices that are sustained by the culture of the organisation. The culture that clearly views ‘cost cutting’ and bottom line’ as its main raison d’etre.

    This encourages a culture of competition, which is often unsupervised and has a tendency to reward those individual who use unethical, unjust and/ or bullying tactics against their co-workers.

    I have also come across the chants from organisation about ‘building teams, encouraging excellence’. However, if you ask many of the workers in those places, you will find that these are merely empty words, conjured up by expensive ‘consultants’ and company executives. Often the very same executives who encourage, protect, sustain such toxic practices as bullying and harassment at work to gain power.

    Maintaining a constant culture of fear ensures the organisations exercise harmful levels of control over their employees.

    The responsibility falls on other employees too. Please do not be the silent witness to someone else’s tragedy and degredation. Today it might be them but tomorrow, it could be you or a member of your close circle. Don’t silently watch such horrible acts, do the right thing. Unite and Stand up to the bullies at your work.

    We must however remember that we are ’employees’ and not ‘serfs’ or ‘slaves’. This is not the middle agess and their are laws and regulations to protect employee rights. Use them to punish these bullies and take away their power. Give them a taste of their own medicine. Stand up to these bullies.

    Often I have observed that these bullies are also employees and know how to use the legislation to their own advantage. A strong Human Resources Dept, good training and regular performance management meetings are a good way of rooting these harmful practices from work place. Always remember ‘Work is what you do, it is not who you are?’.

  4. Carol says:

    I was the victim of bullying at work and it was awful. I had to quit and now I am unemployed.

  5. Tarlice Griffin says:

    My name is Tarlice Griffin and I was a victim of work place bullying at UW Environment Health & Safety. From 9/15/08 until 3/13/10 I was bullied by my supervisor and under two different leaderships this behavior was allowed to continue. Almost immediately I cried out for help and got very little help no one took my allegations serious. It wasn’t until I emailed all who would listen and I mean the Chancellor, Provost, EEOC, My Union, Ombus, Human Resource and the Director and told them all that I would file a lawsuit against them if somebody didn’t help me. It took 1 year and 4 months before an investigation began it took me suffering with severe migraines and me using all of my sick time, vacation time and personal time and a blow up with me saying nasty words to my supervisor. It has been 5-6 months since the investigation began and it took the dept of Equity & Diversity to look into the matter. I was asked what I wanted out of this mess and I replied. 1. My supervisor to retire ASAP 2. To be re classed 3. To work under someone else, so far one of those has taken place. (temporarily that is) I’m insecure about where I stand within the dept. I was told it was just a temporary thing. ( I have the letter to prove it) So really nothing has really changed. I got the feeling that they wanted me to stop the grievance, but I said no. This supervisor has been allowed to get away with this for years. I’m black and she’s white. I’m 48 and she’s 61. also she had only been a supervisor 7 months and had no training prior, she was just grandfathered into the position because of her 20+ years with the dept. Numerous co workers told me stories of her bad behavior and attitude. I feel this person is a racist as well, since she’s Jewish and I’m Christian and the other young coworker of mine she supervises is white & Jewish.After a long hard battle the final report is due this month. I must be honest here I’m not feeling too optimistic about the outcome. I feel that this university is not forth right and very biased. This type of behavior is all over campus and it needs to stop. Most people are to afraid to complain about it, but I wasn’t someone needed to do the job. Please give me some feed back on this story. I appreciate your interest.
    Tarlice Griffin

    • Dr. Gary Namie says:

      All of the people in the roles you listed — Chancellor, Provost, EEOC, My Union, Ombus, Human Resource and the Director — are responsible for the work environment. They have abdicated that responsibility. You should not have to solve the problem you did not create. I especially appreciate that you said the problem was campuswide. That means it starts and the top and is sustained by executive “leadership.” You are right to lower your expectations about an inhouse investigation yielding any truths. Time to lawyer up. GN

  6. JohnBoy says:

    Workplace bullying should be considered a Crime
    down there with child abuse and rape. Its effects
    can be profoundly destructive. It is a very common
    and very effective ploy for driving older
    employees from their jobs, their pensions and
    their health care. Not by simply firing them, but
    by mentally torturing them until they leave.

    What a way to end your career. Does anyone want
    this for themselves/ . . . for their family and
    loved ones? Such viciousness is the hallmark of
    our age. We are worth much more than this. Let’s
    act out in common cause to STOP IT!

  7. Michael Rains says:

    I have found the best way of handling bullys is not to take any smeg. yes i have lost jobs but standing up for myself and others is the best way of handling bullys quite often its mgmt or some waaay too cocky punk who only respects fear.
    yes you will be punished for standing up but if it helps other people wot the smeg its worth it!.

  8. I was the victim of workplace bullying for a year. The abuse affected my health, both physical and emotional, and four years later, I still find myself questioning my abilities. I had no legal recourse.

    I grieve for Jodie Zebell and her family, but I understand why someone in this situation could feel desperate enough to commit suicide. The isolation and self-doubt work like poison on one’s soul and even friends and family do not really understand. I wonder how those responsible for abusing this beautiful young woman as well as those who condoned it can live with themselves.

    To help others, I’ve shared my experience here:


    On May 12, the New York State Senate passed the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) S1823B / A5414B with a landslide victory of 45 to16. The intention of this bill is to protect workers who have been bullied or abused by their co-workers or supervisors. The next step toward passage is a vote by the New York State House of Representatives. I encourage everyone in New York to contact their representatives and encourage passage of this bill. It’s in all of our best interest.

  9. James Bo Janglez says:

    Yay let’s turn over more regulatory authority to the state! Gonna be great for employment when people are suing their bosses left and right for frivolous things. New York should be bowing down to business trying to get it to come back, instead of pushing it away. Oh well, soon it’ll only be state employees left.

  10. Tessa says:

    What’s worse is when your local HR representative is the one bullying and sabotaging your work and reputation.

    Yes it coudl be driven up to corporate – but the fear of being unemployed due to retaliation is what holds most of us back. Oh sure there are laws and even internal HR rules that supposedly protect those from retaliation ..but they dont work.

    I’ve seen HR conjur up fake documents, back dating them in efforts to claim they had “on-going” issues with an employee. There’s also been situations where they’ve driven out employees by cutting their pay and/ or demoting them- but giving them more work to do – of course staying within legal limits and having “good” cause to do such.

    To many loop holes for companies to abuse workers, HR should be an offsite organiztion that supports the employee ..not the shareholders.

  11. […] Jodie Zebell ended her life on February 3, 2008 at the age of 31, the day before she was to receive a poor job review. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, married with two young children, and a part-time mammographer at a clinic, Zebell was historically praised as a model employee. However, coworkers unfairly blamed her for problems at work and intensified their bullying after Zebell was promoted. After Zebell had a run-in with her supervisor, the supervisor joined in the harassment, “filling Zebell’s personnel file with baseless complaints about her performance and loudly criticizing her in front of others.” The harassment continued for months until Zebell’s suicide. […]

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