April 22nd, 2013

The Free Lance-Star: They Stand Up to Workplace Bullies

By Cathy Jett, (Fredericksburg, VA) The Free Lance-Star, April 20, 2013

Dr. Ruth Namie thought she’d be helping families solve their problems when she began working in a private clinic in 1995.

Instead, the clinical psychiatrist ran into one of her own. Her name was Sheila, and she proved to be the proverbial “boss from hell.”

Sheila was nice for the first three weeks, then began complaining that Namie was “worthless,” said Namie’s husband, social psychologist Gary Namie.

The bullying ratcheted up when Sheila overheard clients say that they drove an hour just to see Namie, and were urging others to go to her instead of Sheila. Sheila stripped Namie of her clinical work and gave her clerical work instead.

The Namies hired a lawyer, but discovered to their dismay that there was nothing illegal about one woman bullying another. They figured there must be some organization that could help, but there wasn’t one. So the couple started the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying.

That effort has grown into The Workplace Bullying Institute, two books on the subject and speaking engagements across the country, including one by Gary Namie at the 29th Annual Employment Law Update last week in Richmond.

He defines bullying in the workplace as serious, repeated, health-harming violence. It can take the form of the verbal abuse that Sheila dished out, as well as threatening conduct, intimidation, humiliation and/or sabotage that prevents others from getting work done.

The bully is usually someone in a position of authority, and the victim is often blindsided because they weren’t expecting someone to attack or lie about them at work, he said during a phone interview from his office in Bellingham, Wash.

According to a national survey that the Workplace Bullying Institute commissioned in 2010, 35 percent of the U.S. workforce—an estimated 53.5 million Americans—reported being bullied at work, and an additional 15 percent had witnessed it.

A new supervisor, for example, might target a respected veteran employee because of a feeling that this person undermines the supervisor’s authority. The new boss might begin bullying by berating the employee.

This can cause the employee stress and lead to a host of medical problems such as high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia. It can also reduce the ability to concentrate and do one’s work.

“After a short period of time, it becomes known that the employee is less competent,” Namie said. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The supervisor is able to get HR to put the employee on probation, and they get so highly stressed that they’re driven out of the workplace.”

That hurts businesses due to the loss of a formerly valuable employee, possible litigation costs and, in extreme cases, a violent retaliation by the victim, he said.

To help prevent workplace bullying, the Institute has crafted a Healthy Workplace bill. It would allow victims to sue bullies and their employers if they can prove that it was so severe that it affected their health.

The bill also protects conscientious employers from vicarious liability risk when internal correction and prevention mechanisms are in effect, and gives them the reason to terminate or sanction offenders.

“That’s what we really want the bill to do, for employers to say, ‘All I have got to do is take care of this?’” Namie said.

Twenty-four states have introduced the bill since 2003, and Massachusetts and New York are expected to pass it soon. Coordinators are talking with potential sponsors in Virginia.

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407



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