October 9th, 2012

Employers Hiding Workplace Bullying: “Going PSU”


Abusing children is illegal and a criminal offense. No one apologizes for adults who sexually assault and rape children. On that we are a zero tolerance society. Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to the prison for enough years to ensure he will die there. Even at sentencing, he showed no remorse and never apologized. The adults who came forward to tell stories of their abuse by him as minors were brave.

Sandusky called his victims greedy future plaintiffs in civil lawsuits seeking money. Some victims will certainly sue Penn State University (PSU) for condoning their abuse. The institution ultimately bears responsibility for on-campus crimes.

PSU administrators showed indifference to reports of abuse that Sandusky committed on campus. He was the golden child coach of 30 years who could do no wrong in their eyes. Sandusky had sponsors in powerful positions, not the least of whom was close friend head coach Joe Paterno. Paterno’s posthumous reputation is forever tarnished by his failure to hold his longtime ally to account for unforgivable acts against minors.

Now consider an abuser of adults on a college campus — former head basketball coach Bobby Knight at Indiana University. Knight was as powerful on his campus as Paterno and Sandusky were at PSU. It took decades for the university to fire him despite many public instances of rage directed at officials and players. What few people knew was that Knight was abusive to administrative staff during his years on campus. He was an employee who threatened and intimidated and bullied staff who dare to do their jobs and make him act like a civil colleague. He was immune to enforcement of all campus policies, including the violence policies. He was also able to make threats that led to the firing of several of his bosses (Athletic Directors).

IU and PSU are not unique, but actually ordinary. They are both employers protecting abusers on the payroll. The big difference is that at PSU minors were involved. The nation is outraged, clamoring for Sandusky’s head.

At IU, generations of administrators, fans, sports radio talking heads and the general public adored Knight as long as he won. He abused adults on campus. People on the street cited the graduation rate of the IU basketball teams under Knight. Apologists flourished. The first edition of our book, The Bully At Work, was released the month Knight was fired. That month in 2000, I guested on several sports talk radio shows and got hammered for daring to brand local hero Knight a bully. Wonder how they would have responded to the label – abuser?

The point is that employers who harbor abusers are the norm, not the exception. Every bullied target will tell you that there is no outrage over their plight. There is no clamoring for their bully’s head. In fact, concerted institutional pressure is heaped on the lone target. The abused worker is vilified as somehow causing her or his fate. The abuser is described as misunderstood and indispensable. Targets are discarded (at the rate of 77% according to our 2012 research).

Employers who protect, excuse, defend, facilitate, promote, reward, and glorify known abusers on the payroll are committing the same wrongs that PSU did. PSU administrators quit in disgrace. Paterno was fired and stripped of many of his team victories. But when adults are abused, employers act like PSU did when it covered-up the crimes.

Abusing adults in the American workplace is not currently illegal. For employers, blaming victims is easier than holding known abusers accountable. Executives love their pet aggressors. They sponsor and condone their misconduct.

The Jerry Sandusky sentencing was one week from the start of WBI’s Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week. Targets deserve freedom from employers defending and hiding abusers.

Let’s adopt a new code phrase for employers who refuse to stop bullying in their ranks. Let’s call it

“Going PSU.”

Most will not recognize the phrase. The millions of bullied workers will know. It’s a call for employer engagement. When the investigation of your complaint is shoddy and unsatisfactory, when your manager tells you to “work it out between yourselves” in response to your plea for relief from a coworker’s assaults, when the senior manager threatens to fire you for bringing bad news to him about his pet employee — your bully — then mutter to yourself, this place is no better than PSU. It’s “going PSU.”


Oct. 11 UPDATE

Never has there been such interest in a piece, even if it is to uniformly disagree with me.

The real analogy I was getting at is the misuse of the term “going postal.” I’ve worked with postal workers and they despise having their entire workforce branded as such. USPS management uses the term to shame its workers and commissioned a study to “prove” to postal workers that they are exposed to no more workplace violence than any other worker in the U.S. That was mean-spirited.

So, I thought we need an equivalent term to shame employers who routinely cover-up and defend bullies and the bullying they inflict on others. I still think we need such a slogan — fair or not. Bullying is not fair. Someone mentioned “going Catholic Church” would be equally ridiculous, but it does capture a large enterprise now known to cover-up child abuse.

Sorry for upsetting PSU alums. I’m a Pennsylvanian myself and loved the JoPa myth as much as anybody. I have not studied the details of PSU involvement, simply took public accounts and combined it with the realities we see in most organizations. Much defensive behavior is predictable. But I don’t pretend to know who knew what when.

And Sandusky and I attended the same high school. His family was a big name in my hometown.

Short of posting an addendum to job listings “Bullying is likely to happen here frequently,” I don’t know how we can shame employers with a phrase of the demeaning power of “going postal” to refer to an out-of-control employee who poses a violence risk or who has gone over the edge.

That was my intent. Any constructive ideas?


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 9th, 2012 at 10:41 am and is filed under Commentary by G. Namie, Employers Gone Wild: Doing Bad Things, The New America, Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education. 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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