Older Workers Easy Targets for Bullies

One of the easiest demographic groups to bully in the workplace is older workers – even people who are not really that old.  Just on the far side of middle age!

The current economic climate is like a “perfect storm” for older workers. There is record unemployment for workers aged 55 and above and there is record age discrimination.

It is not surprising that the 2011 CareerBuilder survey found that women aged 55 or older are more likely than any other demographic group to report feeling bullied in the workplace.

The  Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that unemployment for persons aged 55 and above has increased sharply since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. The jobless rate among older workers was 7.1 percent (seasonally adjusted) in February 2010, just shy of the record-high level of 7.2 percent in December 2009.

In addition, the BJS says that older workers remain unemployed longer than younger workers. The BJS states that nearly half (49.1 percent) of older jobseekers had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer in February 2010, compared with 28.5 percent of workers aged 16 to 24 years and 41.3 percent of workers aged 25 to 54 years.

Meanwhile, complaints to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission by older workers also are at an all-time high.  In five years, the number of age discrimination complaints has increased FORTY PERCENT. Here are the most recent EEOC statistics about complaints that allege violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which supposedly protect workers over the age of 40 from age discrimination.

  • 2010; 23,264
  • 2009: 22,778
  • 2008: 24,582
  • 2007: 19,103
  • 2006: 16,548
  • 2005: 16,585

One wonders what recourse older workers have in bullying situations? These individuals obviously have more reason than others to fear unemployment.  They do not have decades to prepare financially for retirement and they also have more reason to fear the loss of health benefits. Meanwhile, statistics show that once unemployed, they will be unemployed far longer than younger people, and rampant and obvious age discrimination will make it difficult for them to find a new job.

And if all of that isn’t bad enough, older workers are discriminated against by federal law. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act,  29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., makes it “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s age. Id. at § 623(a).”   However, to prevail on an ADEA claim, the U.S. Supreme Court says you must establish that “that age was the ‘but-for’ cause of the employer’s adverse action.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2343, 2351 (2009).  With other types of discrimination lawsuits, the victim need only show that discrimination was a motivating factor in the adverse action.

Comparing genders and age groups, the CareerBuilder survey found that the segments that were more likely than others to report feeling bullied were women, workers ages 55 or older (29 percent), and workers age 24 or younger (29 percent).    One-third (34 percent) of women said they have felt bullied in the workplace, compared to 22 percent of men.

What is really surprising about all of this is that the problem does not appear to be on ANYONE’S  radar screen – even groups like the AARP (American Association of Retired People,  a.k.a., the insurance company that purports to represent the interests of older Americans).  Meanwhile, Congress and the courts have made it far more difficult for older workers to prevail in age discrimination lawsuits compared to other victims of discrimination because there is effectively a higher standard of proof under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act compared to other federal discrimination laws.

It’s like a silent epidemic.  And that’s particularly tragic when it comes to targets of workplace bullying because overwhelming research shows  targets of bullying may suffer severe psychological and physical damage.

Minnesota School Bully Lawsuit

June 22, 2011 – In recent years, schoolyard bullying has become a focus of concern in America, and this concern has spilled over to  workplace bullying.

Now Minnesota’s biggest school district is being sued for allegedly enacting policies that discriminate against homosexual students in its Anoka-Hennpin School District. As a result, the lawsuit alleges, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and those “perceived as LGBT have been subjected to a constant torrent of slurs and have been physically threatened or attacked by peers.”  See complaint here.

The suit objects to the school district’s “Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy,” which allegedly prohibits staffers from acknowledging the existence of LGBT people and, according to the suit, prevents teachers from effectively intervening when they see bullying taking place.  The policy states: “Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.”

The lawsuit states three distinct causes of action:

  •  U.S. Constitution Amendment XIV, Denial of Equal Protection on the Basis of Sexual Orientation

Defendants, acting under color of state law, have deprived plaintiffs of the rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in that Defendants, without justification, have Treated plaintiffs differently than other similarly situated students and student groups on  basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation.

  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq.Discrimination Based on Sex 

The School District and each school within the District attended are recipients of federal financial assistance. The acts and omissions of Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ rights under Title IX by discriminating on the basis of sex. Defendants had actual notice that harassment based on sex was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it created a hostile climate based on sex that deprived Plaintiffs of access to educational programs, activities, and opportunities.

[Note: Title IX states that “no person” (which includes workers!) in the  United States “shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance … .” ]

The acts and omissions of Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ rights under the Minnesota Human Rights Act by discriminating against their full utilization and benefit of an educational institution on the basis of sexual orientation. Defendants aided, abetted, and incited discrimination against Plaintiffs based on sexual orientation that prevented her full utilization of and benefit from an educational institution.

The suit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the law firm of Faegre & Benson.

Lesson from News of the World

More evidence that  workplace bullying affects the employer’s bottom line:

On July 10, 2011, Rupert Murdock  shut down  Britain’s top selling newspaper,  News of the World, because of a cell phone hacking scandal. A Reuters story describes the bullying culture of the publication, which affected both employees and outsiders.  Here are some excerpts from:  Special Report: Inside Rebekah Brooks’ News of the World:

  •  “It was the kind of place you get out of and you never want to go back again.” That’s how one former reporter describes the News of the World newsroom under editor Rebekah Brooks, the ferociously ambitious titian-haired executive who ran Britain’s top-selling Sunday tabloid from 2000 to 2003.  (Note – Brooks was arrested in London over the weekend. PGB)
  •  A fifth former News International employee who worked with News Of the World journalists at this time said its reporters were under “unbelievable, phenomenal pressure”, treated harshly by bosses who would shout abuse in their faces and keep a running total of their bylines. Journalists were driven by a terror of failing. If they didn’t regularly get stories, they feared, they would be fired. That meant they competed ruthlessly with each other.
  • Reporters say they lived in constant fear of byline counts which weeded out those who had filed the fewest stories. “They were always seeking to get rid of people because it was a burn-out job. Their ideal situation was you work your nuts off for six months and they let you work there another six months,” said the general news reporter. “Every minute you spent there you felt that your employer hated you.”
  • Charles Begley, an ex-News of the World reporter, has spoken out about the bullying culture. He said he felt close to breaking-point when, three hours after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York’s twin towers, he was ordered to appear at the paper’s daily conference dressed in a Harry Potter outfit he had been given to help the tabloid capitalise on the craze for the books about the boy wizard.  “At that time, we were working on the assumption that up to 50,000 people had been killed,” he said then, according to tapes published in 2002 by the Daily Telegraph of a conversation between him and assistant news editor Greg Miskiw. “I was required to parade myself around morning conference dressed as Harry Potter.” It was during this conversation that Miskiw made a comment that was to become notorious in Britain: “That is what we do — we go out and destroy other people’s lives.”
  • Matt Driscoll, a sports reporter sacked in April 2007 while on long-term sick leave for stress-related depression, was later awarded 800,000 pounds ($1.3 million) for unfair dismissal. The employment tribunal found that he had suffered from a culture of bullying led by then-editor Coulson.  “Nobody ever felt secure there and that’s the way they liked it. On the edge, scared, insecure,” said the general news reporter.
  • Editors would then often use damaging stories as bargaining chips, trading them for future access to public figures or to build relationships with stars. Often, the paper would drop the story they had altogether and publish something more sympathetic.”It would be things like: ‘We know you were sleeping with your secretary but we’ll keep it out of the paper if you give us the story about how you were given away as a child,” said the long-term freelancer. “They used to call stories ‘levers’,” said the general news reporter. “They weren’t necessarily interested any more in using the story you’d proved or got past the lawyers. They were interested in using the story as leverage in order to get a different story.

Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, the scandal is now threatening  Murdoch, who built his publishing empire over six decades. The Post says  independent directors of New York-based News Corp. have begun questioning the company’s response to the crisis and whether a leadership change is needed.




Advice from Action for Happiness

If you are being bullied at work, check out Action for Happiness, a web-based initiative launched by three progressive thinkers in the United Kingdom who  question why residents of America and the United Kingdom are no happier today than they were fifty years ago, despite decades of material progress.

The organization has researched the science of happiness and determined that the main external factor affecting a person’s happiness is the quality of their relationships, at home, at work and in the community. And the main internal factor is their underlying mental health.

The group hopes to create a fundamentally different culture, where people care more for the happiness of others. The initiative calls for people to pledge to create more happiness in the world and take positive action to promote happiness in whatever way they can – at home, at work or in the community. One way to enhance your own happiness at work if you are being bullied is to change the way you think about it.

You do not have to be resigned to be treated like a nail on a board, hammered by a bullying supervisor or mobbing co-workers.  All workers deserve to be treated with basic human dignity. You can take action.

  • If you think it will do any good, complain (firmly!) to the bully and if his/her actions continue, follow the steps necessary to formally complain to your employer. Or just complain to your employer.  Bullying is NOT normal work conflict; it is a pattern of abuse that causes targets to suffer potentially serious injury.
  • If your employer does nothing,  consult legal counsel to ascertain whether there are any grounds to take legal action.
  •  Why not lobby your state to adopt a workplace anti-bully bill that will give all workers the right to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace?
  • Seek the help of a mental health professional. Targets of workplace bullying suffer damaging mental and physical health effects, spilling over into their  relationships with family and friends.
  • The bully is seeking to drive the target out of the workplace and often succeeds. Yes, times are hard, but start looking for another job.  If you are fired, it will be much more difficult to find employment. And how much is your health worth to you? It can’t hurt to look.

Meanwhile, here is a link to the poster above, distributed by Action for Happiness . I suggest you copy it and place it at some discrete location at your desk. It will remind you that:  “If You Can’t Change It; Change the Way You Think About It.”

This isn’t your fault.   This is about a pathetic  individual(s), a bully, who is often lacking in self esteem, threatened by your competence or who suffers from some kind of mental defect  (i.e., sociopath).  This may be about an unscrupulous employer who uses bullying to achieve specific goals, or a negligent employer that is ignorant of the cost of bullying to its own bottom line.  Every employee deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

According to Action for Happiness, the brain child of Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon, people are no happier today than they were 50 years ago, despite unprecedented material wealth, because society  has become increasingly competitive and selfish, with a culture that encourages us to pursue wealth, appearance, status and possessions above all else. In the 1960s, 60% of adults in Britain said they believed “most people can be trusted”. Today the figure is around 30%. The growing focus on self-centered materialism has also contributed to wider social problems, including huge increases in anxiety and depression in young people, greater inequality, more family breakdown, longer working hours, growing environmental problems and crippling levels of debt.

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