Was University of Virginia Editor a Victim of Bullycide?

The following story by ABC news presents a troubling picture of the death of the Managing Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, raising questions about whether he was a victim of bullycide, which occurs when a target of bullying is driven to take his or her own life.  In any case, one wonders whether his employer, the University of Virginia, might have averted this tragedy with better complaint handling techniques. PGB

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From ABC News:

Editor Made 18 Calls to University Before Committing Suicide

By RAY SANCHEZ

Aug. 19, 2010—

In the days before Kevin Morrissey committed suicide near the University of Virginia campus, at least two co-workers said they warned university officials about his growing despair over alleged workplace bullying at the award-winning Virginia Quarterly Review.

“I told them, ‘I’m very concerned about Kevin; I’m afraid he might try to harm himself,'” said a colleague and friend of Morrissey, who asked not to be identified. “They asked me to clarify what I meant and I repeated that I was afraid he might harm himself. If someone had just done something.”

On July 30, Morrissey, the review’s 52-year-old managing editor, walked to the old coal tower near campus and shot himself in the head. Morrissey’s death underscored the turmoil at the high-profile journal, according to co-workers.  It also raises questions about whether Morrissey was a victim of bullycide – which is a suicide that is prompted by depression over bullying.

Maria Morrissey said her brother’s phone records showed that he placed at least 18 calls to university officials in the final two weeks of his life. The phone records, obtained by ABCNews.com, showed calls to the human resources department, the ombudsman, the faculty and employee assistance center, and the university president.

“Kevin was asking for help,” said Maria Morrissey, who had been estranged from her brother in recent years, but has started looking into the circumstances of his death.

Morrissey’s sister and co-workers acknowledged that he long suffered from depression. But they insisted that he took his life only after the university failed to respond to repeated complaints about alleged bullying by his boss, Ted Genoways. Other employees, they said, also complained about being bullied by the journal’s top editor.

“Bullying seems to make it like some sort of schoolyard thing,” said the colleague who asked not to be named. “It’s really a much more subtle kind of erasure. ‘I’m not going to talk to you. I’m going to come in the side office and shut the door. I will pretend you don’t exist.’ The university has these [human resources] people, but they don’t do anything. After one of your colleagues has killed himself, it’s beyond the point of mediation. They didn’t protect us. We went again and again and again and they didn’t protect us.”

Genoways, who is highly regarded in literary circles, has denied the allegations of bullying. He said Morrissey’s own depression prompted the suicide. “His long history of depression caused him trouble throughout his career, leading often to conflicts with his bosses,” he said in a statement to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In the statement, Genoways claimed that the university already “reviewed all the allegations being made against me and found them to be without grounds.” A university spokeswoman said the investigation, including a financial audit of the magazine, was continuing.

A Suicide and Accusations of Workplace Bullying

On Aug. 1, two days after Morrissey’s death, Genoways sent an e-mail informing friends and colleagues of the suicide and defending himself against the accusations of bullying.

Genoways said he had known Morrissey since 2000 and they had been close friends. When Genoways’ son was born in 2002, the first flowers to arrive at the hospital were from Morrissey. He hired his friend as managing editor in 2004, Genoways wrote.

“But I never had any illusions about who Kevin was,” he continued in the e-mail, which ABC News has obtained. “He was prickly, mercurial, often brooding.”

Genoways said the two men basked in the small review’s recent literary success, but that Morrissey had become withdrawn and “his mood darkened” in recent months, leading to strained relations with his boss.

Genoways wrote that Morrissey “felt less important to me professionally as our staff grew. I know that he came to feel trapped, paradoxically, by a job he considered too good to quit. As Kevin struggled through these issues, particularly in the last year, his work suffered and his demeanor, to my mind, was often unacceptable for the workplace. We feuded over this often, and the majority of the VQR staff sided with Kevin.

“That tension between my staff and me grew poisonous,” he wrote.

“Kevin in particular had a history of disagreeing with his bosses, and now that I was the boss I should expect to be hated,” Genoways wrote.

“I don’t doubt that these conflicts fed Kevin’s depression, but I cannot accept the final blame. … I feel unspeakably saddened by Kevin’s death, but I do not feel responsible,” Genoways wrote.

Genoways’ lawyer, Lloyd Snook, also defended his client, who he said was in contact with the human resources department regarding the work environment at the Virginia Quarterly Review.

“Any time there’s a suicide, a lot of folks end up either looking in mirrors and saying to themselves, ‘What could I have done differently?’ or they end up looking for other people to blame,” Snook told ABCNews.com. “There’s a lot of that going around on both sides. It’s obviously an intensely sad time.”

Workplace bullying may be getting worse with the recession. In good times, abused workers simply walk out, said Gary Namie, a social psychologist and founder of the Washington-based Workplace Bullying Institute. But with high unemployment, many employees feel they must stay put.

The Issue of Workplace Bullying

“The story behind the story is the employer’s failure to respond,” Namie said. “They don’t know what to do about it. We’ve come to realize that when the institution doesn’t know what to do, by default it does nothing, and they worsen the problem.”

Namie said University of Virginia officials contacted him about general bullying issues two years ago.

“They wanted a motivational speaker,” he said, but the two sides were unable to agree on terms and Namie never spoke at the school. Wood could not confirm the school contacted Namie, but said a daylong university-wide workshop on workplace bullying was held in March 2009.

The university has launched an investigation into the allegations of bullying at the journal. In a statement, university spokeswoman Carolyn Wood declined to discuss “confidential personal matters” but added: “We can say unequivocally that before Mr. Morrissey’s death, all Virginia Quarterly Review staff members had been working with human resources professionals to address issues within the VQR office.”

“In the wake of Mr. Morrissey’s death,” the statement said, “the university continues to work with all members of the VQR staff to address and resolve these issues.”

In Morrissey’s case, co-workers said he appeared to become more despondent in recent months as his relationship with his boss and longtime close friend deteriorated with no solution in sight.

“I am convinced that the escalating events of the last two weeks of his life drove him to a point where he felt there was no relief available for him,” the co-worker said.

Genoways had recently argued with Morrissey and another employee and banished the pair from the office for one week, ordering Morrissey to not communicate with any of his colleagues, according to co-workers.

At times, co-workers said, Genoways could be heard yelling at Morrissey behind closed doors. Other times, they said, the Genoways was openly dismissive of Morrissey.

Though the workplace tension at the journal had been mounting for years it seemed to escalate recently, even though Genoways was out of the office much of the time on a fellowship.

Genoways had his staff read and forward his e-mails, but about an hour before Morrissey killed himself, Genoways sent him an angry e-mail questioning his apparently tardy response to a Mexican journalist who was covering that country’s drug wars who felt he was in mortal danger.

“But just so I’m clear: Why did it take you ten days to forward a message from someone asking our assistance with saving his life,” Genoways demanded in his e-mail, of which ABC News has obtained a copy.

“Kevin had repeated meetings with people in human resources, the office of the university ombudsman and the president,” the co-worker said. “Last spring, four staff members, including Kevin, went to the president’s staff and told them that we were finding work conditions under Ted completely untenable. …They sort of said, ‘Oh, working with creative people is sometimes difficult.'”

Workplace Bullying Described as “Bullycide”

Experts acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to pinpoint what pushes a depressed person to the brink of suicide.

David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, studies workplace bullying. He said in the case of a suicide a confluence of factors — including limited family support, isolation and work stress — often contribute. He said experts call it “bullycide.”

“Especially when someone takes their life, we don’t know what may have pushed him over the top,” he said. “One of the common scenarios in workplace bullying is that the offender often is very good at taking advantage of an individual’s vulnerabilities to the point where their health is impaired. Thanks goodness it doesn’t usually result in someone committing suicide.”

Yamada said he was not familiar with the details of Morrissey’s death, but said, “I would hope that we at least evaluate this tragedy in light of what we do know about workplace bullying, which does suggest that bullying-related suicide is at least a plausible scenario.”

Maria Morrissey, who obtained her brother’s phone records and checked his home computer after his death, said she suspected that her brother felt increasingly isolated in those final weeks. He made 18 calls to university officials, she said. He checked his home computer for extended-stay hotels in the area, she said. She said he repeatedly marked the pages of the book, “Working with the Self-Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities on the Job,” by Nina Brown. “He was anxious about his job,” she said. “He doesn’t know why he’s in trouble. He’s got a condo that he’s got a mortgage for. He got a new car that he’s got a note for. He doesn’t have a college degree and there aren’t a whole lot of jobs for the managing editor of some literary journal. He’s looking at having to uproot his entire life if he doesn’t get help. He found himself utterly trapped.”

According to his sister, Morrissey typed his suicide note on his home computer which read, “I’m sorry. I know she won’t understand this, but I just couldn’t bear it anymore.” Maria Morrissey, who is thinking about suing the university, said the note referred to a longtime friend from Minnesota.

Morrissey called the police to report the shooting before actually taking his own life.

Copyright © 2010 ABC News Internet Ventures

STATE LAWS

ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAWS

  • Every state has laws that protect employees from unlawful discrimination. These laws may be more expansive than similar federal laws, encompassing more employers and additional classes of victims.  Or they may offer protection not available under federal law. For example, the U.S. Congress has yet to adopt legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but almost half of the states and the District of Columbia have adopted such laws.  Thus, a victim of harassment based on sexual orientation may be able to file a lawsuit in state court that would not be possible in federal court. Check the laws in your state.

OTHER POSSIBLE REMEDIES:

  • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. Generally, the distress must be very severe.
  • Defamation.
  • Assault and/or battery.
  • False imprisonment.
  • Tortuous interference with the employment contract or business relationships.
  • Failure of an employer to exercise reasonable care with respect to the hiring, supervision and retention of your abuser.

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FEDERAL LAWS

There is no federal law per se that prohibits workplace abuse but there are many laws that may capture some of the behaviors that are used by the abuser. For example, an abuser who systematically harasses a person of color  may be  vulnerable to a lawsuit alleging discrimination on the basis of race.  What follows are federal laws that may be relevant in a case of workplace abuse:

FEDERAL DISCRIMINATION LAWS

Most workplace bullying falls outside the parameters of federal discrimination laws. However, workplace abuse may be the result of illegal discrimination and, if so, you may be able to file a lawsuit seeking damages from your employer.

Federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of age, disability, national origin, genetic information, pregnancy, race/color, religion and sex. These laws generally cover employees, applicants for employment, former employees and applicants to, and participants in, training and apprenticeship programs. An employer may include private sector and state and government entities, depending on the law.

These laws also make it illegal to retaliate against a person who has complained about an equal employment opportunity violation, or participated in filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under the applicable statute.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces most of these laws (Go to: www.eeoc.gov).

Here is a list of major federal laws relating to employment discrimination:

RACE AND COLOR, RELIGION, NATIONAL ORIGIN, OR SEX

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. It is also illegal to harass a person because of that person’s race, color, national origin or sex. Harassment goes beyond simple teasing or an offhand comment; it generally must be severe and frequent, creating an hostile or offensive work environment or resulting in an adverse employment decision (such as being fired or demoted). The law also requires that employers reasonably accommodate applicants’ and employees’ sincerely held religious practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.

PREGNANCY

  • Title VII was amended by The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), which makes it illegal to discrimination against a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

EQUAL PAY

  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) makes it illegal to pay different wages to men and women if they perform the same work in the same workplace. The jobs must be substantially equal and all forms of compensation are covered, including salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, etc. The EPA protects both men and women.
  • Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) also prohibits compensation discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability. Unlike the EPA, there is no requirement that the jobs be substantially equal.  The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 establishes that each paycheck that contains discriminatory compensation is a separate violation regardless of when the discrimination began.

AGE DISCRIMINATION

  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) makes it illegal to discrimination against people who are 40 years of age or older on the basis of age.

DISABILITY

  • Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) makes it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability in the private sector and in state and local governments. A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Employers are required to reasonably accommodate the known physical or mental limitation of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or an employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 make it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability in the federal government.

GENETIC INFORMATION

  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which took force on November 21, 2009, makes it illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants because of genetic information. Genetic information includes information about an individual’s genetic tests and the genetic tests of an individual’s family members, as well as information about any disease, disorder or condition of an individual’s family members.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT

  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission promulgated guidelines (Sec. 1604.11) pursuant to the adoption of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that make sexual harassment illegal. This includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:  made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment; submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual, or; such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. With respect to fellow employees, an employer is responsible for acts of sexual harassment in the workplace where the employer (or its agents or supervisory employees) know or should have known of the conduct, unless it can show that it took immediate appropriate corrective action.

CITIZENSHIP STATUS AND NATIONAL ORIGIN

  • Claims of discrimination based on citizenship status and national origin are covered both by Title IX and by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).
  • The IRCA states that employers cannot discriminate because of national origin against U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, and authorized aliens. Also, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of citizenship status against U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, and the following classes of aliens with work authorization: permanent residents, temporary residents (that is, individuals who have gone through the legalization program), refugees, and asylees. For example, citizenship verification must be obtained from all employees, not just “ethnic” looking employees.The IRCA is implemented by the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Office of the Special Counsel for Immigratoin Related Unfair Employment Practices.
  • Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin. It bars discrimination against an individual because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group. This law is administered by the EEOC.

WAGE AND HOUR LAWS

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments. Covered nonexempt workers are entitled to a minimum wage of not less than $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009. Overtime pay at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay is required after 40 hours of work in a workweek.  The FLSA is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division

THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT

Specific federal laws that govern collective bargaining, including:

The National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935 to protect the right of employees in the private sector to create labor unions, engage in collective bargaining and to take part in strikes. The act is also known as the Wagner Act, after its sponsor, Sen. Robert F. Wagner. The Act does not apply to workers who are covered by the Railway Labor Act, agricultural employees, domestic employees, supervisors, federal, state or local government workers, independent contractors and some close relatives of individual employers. The act is regulated by the National Labor Relations Board

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(9/10)

Power and Control

One can see similarities between domestic violence and workplace abuse by looking at a tool developed by domestic violence advocates in Duluth, Minnesota, 30 years ago to illustrate the tactics used by domestic violence abusers, the Power and Control Wheel (see below).  By substituting the workplace for the home, one can see the application of this tool in the context of workplace abuse:

  • Instead of male privilege, abusive bosses exert “supervisory” privilege.
  • The abusive boss alone feels entitled to define the boss/employer relationship, whether or not it bears any similarity to the victim’s job description.
  • The abusive boss emotionally abuses the victim, putting him/her down, calling him/her names, etc.
  • The abusive boss uses intimidation, coercion or threats, including unfair threats of demotion or dismissal.
  • The abusive boss uses economic tools to abuse the victim by meting out rewards and punishment as he or she pleases, without regard to merit or actual job performance.
  • When the abuse is pointed out, the abusive boss makes light of it,  minimizes it, or accuses the victim of being overly sensitive.
  • The abusive boss may send out a signal that encourages others to abuse an employee, a phenomenon that has been called “mobbing.”
  • The abusive boss may isolate the employee by making it clear the employee is “unsafe” to be around because he/she is viewed as a pariah by management.

Here’s my primitive adaptation of the Power and Control Wheel for workplace abuse/bullying situations, followed by the original Duluth Model Power and Control Wheel:

 

 

Here’s the original Duluth model: