Famiily Rejects Zurich’s Vindication

Pierre WauthierInvestigations into workplace bullying rarely (if ever?) result in an indictment against  the employer/company.  Why?

Most recently,  an investigation into the suicide of  Zurich Insurance Group Chief Financial Officer Pierre Wauthier, 53, who killed himself in the summer of 2013, found the company was blameless.  Wauthier left a note accusing company chairman Josef Ackermann of creating an unbearable work environment.

Zurich, an international insurance giant based in Switzerland, asked the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority, known as Finma, to  direct an investigation into Wauthier’s suicide.  The investigation was conducted by a law firm that concluded Zurich’s leaders, including Ackermann, had placed no “undue pressure”   on Wauthier.  Ackermann  resigned three days after Wauthier’s suicide, saying he believed Wauthier’s family wanted him to do so.

A couple of years ago,  the University of Virginia conducted a high profile investigation into the suicide  of Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, which found the university to be without fault.   This despite the fact that  Morrissey had complained 17 times to the human resources office about his treatment by the Review’s editor Ted Genoways.

According to published news reports,  Wauthier’s widow, Fabianne,  attended the Zurich’s annual shareholder meeting earlier this month, along with her daughter and her late husband’s mother and brother, and publicly blamed months of internal tension at the company for her husband’s death.

She called the investigation  into Wauthier’s suicide “derelict” and “incomplete.” She held up her late husband’s laptop and said the investigators had not even bothered to review its contents.
“How can anyone, Finma included, so categorically exclude work from all the potential reasons,” she asked.

Why do investigations into workplace bullying so often yield conclusions that raise more questions than they answer?  If Wauthier had not felt his workplace environment was  intolerable, it is not likely he would have written that  it was in his suicide note.  Kevin Morrissey’s repeated complaints to HR indicated that at least he felt there was a serious problem.

As yet, there is no DNA test to ascertain when a supervisor’s treatment crosses the line into  workplace abuse.  When law firms  investigate workplace bullying, they often probe whether the bullying rose to the level of a “hostile workplace” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This theory requires the plaintiff to show that he/she was subjected to  intimidation, ridicule and insult that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions” of employment. Using this criteria, all but the most egregious and obvious bullying will fall away, determined to be outside the scope of the law.

But workplace abuse typically exacts a potentially severe toll on the victim long before it becomes legally actionable under the “hostile workplace” theory.  And it can wreak severe havoc on the employer too.

Wauthier’s suicide undermined investor confidence in Zurich and led to  Ackermann’s resignation, leaving the company without a chief executive officer and a chief financial officer.  The University of Virginia found itself mired in a maelstrom of  bad publicity for many months that distracted its  leadership and besmirched its reputation.

Appeals Court Says OK for Supervisor to Throw Things

shoeA federal appeals court panel  has ruled that a supervisor did not violate the rights of a subordinate when he allegedly yelled at her in front of coworkers and violently threw a heavy notebook at her.

A panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the above conduct may be  “unprofessional, uncivil and somewhat boorish” but it does not rise to the level of malevolence necessary to constitute a “hostile work environment” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act o f 1964.

Instead, the appellate panel compared the behavior to the “ordinary tribulations of the workplace,” which include petty insults, vindictive behavior and angry recriminations.

The  decision, written by Justice Janet Rogers Brown, comes in a case that is also unusual because it involves the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency charged with addressing the grievances of federal workers who challenge discriminatory employment practices.

Patricia A. Brooks, who is an African-American, filed a race discrimination complaint alleging that she was a victim of a “hostile workplace environment” at the Office of Information Resources Management of the MSPB.

Brooks, who had worked at the MSPB since 1998, said her supervisor in 2005 insulted and demeaned her in front of coworkers when he yelled at her and threw a heavy notebook in her direction.  The supervisor admitted slamming the book with his hand. Brooks said she was subsequently given poor performance ratings and became subject to selective enforcement of workplace rules.

After filing several equal employment opportunity complaints, Brooks filed a lawsuit alleging  race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII.  A federal judge dismissed Brooks’ complaint on a pre-trial motion for summary judgment, which means the judge ruled that no reasonable jury could find that the supervisor’s “conduct was so severe and pervasive as to alter the conditions of Brooks employment.”  The three-judge panel for the D.C. Circuit court upheld the dismissal of  Brooks’ complaint.

Justice Brown writes in an April 15 decision that Brooks failed to show that she was subjected to “discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult” that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [her] employment.”  Justice Brown said the panel evaluated the “totality of the circumstances, including the frequently of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, its offensiveness and whether it interferes with an employee’s work performance.”

Even if the supervisor did violently throw a book at Brooks, the appellate panel said, the incident involved “unprofessional conduct” but was isolated and not sufficiently malevolent to constitute actionable abuse.

A retaliation complaint and other other claims were rejected on technical grounds.

See Patricia Brooks v. Susan Tsui Grundmann, chairman, Merit Systems Protection Board, No. 12-5171.

 

More than Half of Women in Workplace Bullied

peopleatworkMore than half of women are bullied at work– often by members of their own sex, according to the largest survey of its kind ever conducted in the United Kingdom.

The gender equality group, Opportunity Now, and PwC, an international  professional services group, commissioned a survey that included interviews with nearly 23,000 women and more than 2,000 men.

The group recently issued a report,  “Project 28-40,”  which urges employers to recognize that “harassment and bullying still occur, despite well-meaning policies. Call it out, deal with perpetuators, and make it simple and straightforward to report.”

Helena Morrissey, chairperson of Opportunity Now, said the key  to improve the workplace for women should be training  excellent managers; this will  achieve “much more than yet another initiative  or programme.”

Fifty-two percent of the women who responded to the survey said they experienced bullying at work within the past three years. The rates were highest for Black British / African /Caribbean women (69%), women with disabilities (71%), bisexual (61%) and lesbian and gay women (55%).

Without being specific, the report states that  the biggest enemy facing women in the office or other workplaces may be other women.  The researchers conducted ten focus groups to gain insight from the survey findings.  “Women often experience bullying by female colleagues and line managers, a point echoed by focus groups participants who thought female bullies felt threatened by potential and ability and so exploited their position or authority to undermine,” said the report.

More than one in four of the women surveyed said they had experienced overbearing supervision or misuse of authority, or were deliberately overloaded with work and subject to constant criticism. One in six of the women experienced exclusion and victimization or were intentionally blocked from promotion or training opportunities.

The researchers conclude that the data shows the extent to which workplaces are “dysfunctional, inefficient and fundamentally unjust” to women.

An additional 12% of women reported experiencing sexual  harassment within the past three years. One in eight said they had been sexually harassed – defined as “unwelcome comments of a sexual nature.”  This includes unwanted physical contact or leering, asking for sexual favors, displaying offensive material such as posters, or sending offensive emails or texts of a sexual nature.