May 6th, 2011

The Financial Toll of Workplace Bullies

by Laura Rowley, Yahoo Finance, May 5, 2011

The bullying started with verbal and email confrontations. Paula, a public school teacher who asked her real name not be used, teaches a foreign language to middle school students. Although she had a dozen years of experience, an older colleague who taught the same language began criticizing her lesson plans and teaching style.

When the two had to collaborate on a project to earn state-required continuing education credits, the older teacher demanded they meet after school instead of during the period set aside by the principal for the meetings. Paula, who has grade-school children, refused, and the bullying escalated.

“She would get right in my face and scream that I was not professional and couldn’t get along with people,” Paula recalls. “She would attack me in front of the students. She makes me feel like the worst person in the world.” Paula told her supervisor, who said he understood, but didn’t confront the aggressor. “I think he is just hoping she’ll retire,” she adds.

And Paula isn’t alone. A new survey of 5,700 workers by CareerBuilder found 27 percent of workers say they have been bullied in the workplace. Among the biggest complaints: workers’ comments were dismissed or not acknowledged (43 percent); they were falsely accused of mistakes they didn’t make (40 percent); they were harshly criticized and forced to do work that wasn’t part of their jobs (both at 38 percent).

About one in four respondents said they had been gossiped about; yelled at by the boss in front of other co-workers; and belittled in meetings. One in five said someone else had taken credit for their work. Of the 28 percent of workers who took their concerns to a higher authority in the workplace, the majority — 62 percent — said nothing was done.

Workplace bullying was splashed across the pages of The New York Times last week in a profile about David Sokol, the Berkshire Hathaway executive who is reportedly under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for buying $10 million in Lubrizol stock before proposing the firm as an acquisition for Berkshire. Subordinates told the Times he alienated people with his “brass-knuckles approach,” and suggested that workers who were ill or suffering personal problems such as divorce “be pushed to the side.”

Bob Sutton, management professor at Stanford University and author of “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” says bullies destroy workplace satisfaction for both the victims and co-workers who observe the behavior. A separate poll conducted in 2010 by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) which surveyed all workers (not just those currently employed) found 35 percent had experienced bullying at some point in their careers.

Sutton suggests the numbers may be declining at the moment for several reasons: “The positive one is that companies have gotten rid of the most incompetent and rotten apples in the downturn and things have gotten objectively better. Another is that everybody is so grateful to have a job that they’ve stopped complaining.”

Legislative initiatives designed to discourage workplace bullying have been introduced in 21 states since 2003 without success; 11 states have active bills in their legislatures. Earlier this week, New York State Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Steven Englebright held a town meeting and press conference in Albany to discuss their Healthy Workplace Bill. The bill would amend the labor law to allow employees who have been harmed psychologically, physically or economically by bullying to sue for damages. (It was first introduced in 2006.)

“One of every five workers at some time in his career is subject to bullying,” says Englebright, “and there needs to be an alternative to that type of purgatory. Why employers look the other way is beyond my ability to fully comprehend. It’s reprehensive and needs a counterweight in law, in my opinion.”

Under the New York law, a bully who is found guilty would be liable for lost wages, medical expenses, compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages and attorney’s fees. The court could also order that the person be removed from the workplace. An employer would be civilly liable for failing to address the situation, with liability for emotional distress capped at $25,000 and no punitive damages.

The bill defines “abusive conduct” as malice against an employee by either a boss or co-worker that “a reasonable person would find to be hostile, offensive and unrelated to the employer’s legitimate business interest.” It would include repeated acts of verbal abuse, threatening language or behavior, intimidation or humiliation, or sabotage of an employee’s work performance.

The press conference included testimony by Maria Morrissey, sister of Kevin Morrissey, an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review who committed suicide in 2010. She says bullying played a role in her brother’s death, which was widely covered by the media.

New York business groups oppose the measure. “We think it sets a terrible precedent for New York,” says Michael Moran, director of communications for the Business Council of New York State. “We think there is already sufficient federal and state law protecting workers from a range of abuses. Creating a private right of action would lead to chaos and people looking to locate business elsewhere.”

But WBI director Gary Namie, author of the forthcoming book “Bully-Free Workplace,” calls it “a very pro-employer bill. You get exemption from vicarious liability if you put a policy in place and enforce it.”

A growing pile of academic studies suggest that bullies diminish the bottom line along with their co-workers and subordinates. Sutton has found that productivity declines as much as 40 percent in workplaces dominated by bullies, “because they distract people and it gets contagious,” he says. People who work for an abusive boss are more likely to call in sick when they’re not, more likely to quit and less likely to put forth extra effort to help the organization, he notes.

In his book “The No-Asshole Rule,” Sutton cites a Silicon Valley company that decided to calculate the cost of a legendary bully who consistently ranked in the top 5 percent of salespeople. He had a terrible temper, routinely insulted and belittled co-workers and couldn’t keep an assistant. Over a five-year period, several employees had lodged “hostile workplace” complaints against him, Sutton writes. The company did a week-by-week calculation of the extra costs of the salesperson’s nasty actions compared with more civilized peers: $160,000. But the bully wasn’t fired. Instead, his employer deducted 60 percent of the costs of his behavior from his year-end bonus.

Namie says victims of bullying should try to calculate the bully’s impact on the company, such as absenteeism rates, workers compensation claims for stress, litigation costs for nuisance suits, and threats of lawsuits that lead to settlements. Try to find others who left the company because of the bully, and try to show how the person is damaging morale and engagement.

“Make a non-emotional, fiscal argument and bring the complaint to the highest level person you can,” Namie says. “If they refuse to see the impact on the organization, you will have to move on.”

Sutton says the only method that works against a bully who is valuable to the organization is a group intervention. He tells the story of a non-profit organization where all the employees went to a board meeting and threatened to quit en masse unless the abusive executive director was fired. They won. “Doing it together is the hallmark of people who are successful in removing bullies,” he says.



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This entry was posted on Friday, May 6th, 2011 at 10:04 am 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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