Thursday, October 25, 2012

ABUSED! - In The Workplace

I was with a friend of mine recently – an attorney – when she received a text from her boss. It seems she had emailed him earlier to let him know some bad news about a case he was working on. Somehow he didn’t see the email until hours later. He was instantly angry that he didn’t know this news earlier. So he texted my friend: “You’re incompetent. You need to leave.” Evidently he believed she should have called him to confirm that he had received the email.

Can you imagine receiving a text message from your boss that says you’re incompetent? In my book, that’s abusive. You can punch a person with your fists, but if you really want to pound somebody – use words like “incompetent.” I could argue the words are more abusive than the fist. What the hell goes on in the mind of a man who sends a text like that? Reasonable human beings know that the fact that he felt he had a right to speak to her
like that is unconscionable. But it happens all the time. All the time in workplaces across America. Maybe you work in such a place. Maybe you’ve been verbally abused by the boss. Or maybe you’ve been mistreated by someone in your organization that is overly ambitious and clawing their way up the company ladder.

Bad behavior in the workplace takes many forms, but they all lead to one place – these days they call it bullying, but I prefer the more accurate term – abuse. I spent a number of years in the corporate system, where workplace abuse runs rampant. The reason it thrives as wildly and continually as it does is simple: Most states have no laws in place against it. Employees who are verbally and psychologically abused have very little recourse in the American justice system.
In the past 10 years, 21 states have introduced bills to protect workers from workplace abuse, but to date, none have been enacted. Each state that has made a legislative proposal has put forth a version of the Healthy Workplace Bill. Right now there is only one state, New Jersey, that has a pending bill before its state legislature. The other 20 states have previous bills that were not acted upon. There are laws on the books under which a person can sue an employer for harassment or discrimination based on gender, sexuality or ethnicity, but nothing protects the American workers from his workplace abuse from fellow workers.

Think about it: In a workplace you are essentially compelled to associate with a group of people not of your choosing. There is absolutely no guarantee that relationships will develop and there is every possibility that clashing egos, incompatibility and conflicting working styles will happen somewhere within the organization. Yet those who fall victim to others’ bad behavior have no legal leg to stand on.

There are occasional exceptions that find their way into the courts. In 2008, for example, Dr. Daniel Raess, an Indiana heart surgeon was sued by perfusionist Joseph Doescher for workplace abuse.
Doescher alleged that in an altercation that took place at St. Francis Hospital, Raess came at him "with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins and screaming and swearing,” saying, “You’re finished. You’re history.” Doescher claimed he felt confident that Raess was about to hit him. The case went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court’s ruling that ordered Raess to pay Doescher $325,000. The case was a rare legal victory.

As usual, the numbers tell the story. About one-third of workers said they have been bullied in the workplace, according to a 2012 nationwide study by CareerBuilder, a Chicago-based human resources company. Those who felt victimized increased to 35 percent from 27 percent last year. The most common ways workers reported bullying were 42 percent who said they were falsely accused of making mistakes and 39 percent who said they were ignored.

And there’s more: Believe it or not, there is an organization called the Workplace Bullying Institute. with a stated objective “To understand, correct and prevent all abuse at work.” They report that 30 percent of people who said they were bullied have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and an additional 29 percent said they have contemplated suicide because of the abuse. Suicide? Indeed. Watch this:
On September 5, 2012, the Morrissey family filed a lawsuit against the university, blaming the institution for Kevin Morrissey’s 2010 suicide. The suit named Ted Genoways, Kevin’s boss, as well as the university president and two human resources employees. The family seeks $10 million in damages. Like the Raess case, this suit will likely wind its way through the court system in Virginia for many years, but its outcome could portend significant recognition of the issue of workplace abuse. As of this writing, Genoways, the alleged abuser, is still employed in the same position at the university.

The Institute also revealed data that indicates fully one-third of workers between the ages of 50 and 64 have experienced workplace abuse. One could posit that older workers are often targeted because they
are more expensive than younger workers, and in some instances the abuse is the company’s way of pushing them out. Or, it is also possible that younger, less experienced supervisors use bullying as a way to assert their authority, either because of their own cockiness, or because they are still somewhat insecure in their management positions. Whatever the motivation, the behavior is unacceptable -- but entirely legal.

Here’s what is not legal: harassment. So, if a case involves discrimination or harassment based on sexuality, religion, ethnicity, age or some other legally protected worker population, the courts might be able to help you, as they did Doescher. But, if you work for someone who is just a jerk, who undermines you at every turn, who uses you to advance his or her own career, or who plays out all of his or her parent/child historical angst on you – unfortunately, at this moment in America you may be out of luck. If you feel powerless as the one on the receiving end of workplace abuse, you will likely have an uphill battle ahead of you to find justice. Justice, by the way, is why I am writing this. You’ll
notice at the top of this blog, the primary topics listed include “justice.” The woman whose boss called her incompetent is not the only acquaintance of mine who is experiencing workplace abuse. My position is this: Since we Americans take strong positions on other injustices, such as racial profiling, domestic abuse, police brutality and gender inequality, it is now time for us to speak up about the way American workers are mistreated on the job.

Start by learning more about the Healthy Workplace Bill. The campaign to enact this bill, state by state is grassroots, to be sure. But in large numbers with dogged determination, the laws can be introduced and passed. If you are an employer, do the right thing. Visit the Workplace Bullying Institute for solid information on how you can create a more professional, humane environment in your organization. And if you’re being abused at work – hang in there and make the healthiest decisions for yourself. Sometimes that means taking a stand within the organization, but sometimes it means separating yourself from the toxic atmosphere. You deserve better. You know you do.


Mike said...

Many employees are being abused and harassed at work but kept their silence due to fear of losing their job security, fear of the power of their superiors or because they don’t have the financial means to hire a lawyer. However there are public defendants who could help them with their case without cost. I think some people should set their priorities straight and not fear defending their rights.

Mike Clark

Deana Varney said...

I agree that there are a lot of people being abused in the workplace, not only physically or verbally, but also emotionally. Most people keep mum about it due to the fear of losing their job, but abusive co-workers or superiors shouldn’t be tolerated. If you are hesitant, seek advice from the company lawyer and decide on what best to do.

Deana Varney

Erminia Cavins said...

“Work shouldn’t hurt.” – I agree with this! When you still have the energy to keep working, bullying must not hinder you in earning for your living. Well, we can’t avoid bullying in the workplace, but I think you also have to remind them that both of you are there to work. In case that you can’t prevent bullying, make sure that you can secure yourself against anything that your villain may do to kick you out of work.

-Erminia Cavins-