Famiily Rejects Zurich’s Vindication

Pierre WauthierInvestigations into workplace bullying rarely (if ever?) result in an indictment against the employer/company. Why? And what does it mean when a law firm gives the employer/company a clean bill of health?

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 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 intolerable  in his suicide note.  Kevin Morrissey’s repeated complaints to HR indicate that he, at least,  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, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and color.  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.

Federal courts  are themselves  hostile to “hostile workplace” claims, dismissing them at a disproportionately higher rate than other types of cases.  Federal judges typically  dismiss all but the  most egregious and obvious bullying, and require the rest to be tied to an obvious claim of prohibited discrimination under Title VII.

Workplace abuse is usually much more subtle than the schoolyard variety. And it exacts a potentially severe toll on the victim long before a federal judge would find it  violates Title VII’s “hostile workplace” provision (provided  there was a corresponding, valid claim of prohibited  discrimination).  Regardless of the so-called investigations that found the employers faultless, two men are dead and there is little real doubt that their workplace was a factor in their deaths.

Workplace bullying  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.

Employers must be held accountable for workplace abuse long before a defense-side corporate law firm theorizes, after the fact,  that a federal judge might declare the abuse to be illegal if it was paired with a solid claim of  prohibited  discrimination under Title VII.  The employer controls all facets of the workplace. Only the employer can stop workplace bullying and abuse.

Bullycide in Zurich?

Pierre Wauthier

CFO Note Reportedly Blames CEO

Anyone who doubts the seriousness of workplace bullying should read the Wall Street Journal’s  coverage of the suicide of the chief financial officer of the Swiss insurance behemoth, Zurich Insurance Group.

Zurich Board Chairman Josef Ackermann, 65, and CFO Pierre Wauthier, 53, engaged in public conflicts and disputes after Ackermann was appointed in 2012.

Last week,  Wauthier committed suicide at his lakeside home outside Zurich, Switzerland, leaving behind a wife, children and a typed note that reportedly blamed Ackermann for creating an unbearable, pressure-cooker working environment and for treating colleagues disrespectfully.

When a suicide is related to workplace bullying it is often called “bullycide.”

Ackerman , who is one of Europe’s premiere financiers, resigned the next day after reading the note to the board.  He released a public statement that said some people (reportedly Wauthier’s family) held him responsible for Wauthier’s death. He rejected the allegation.

Whether or not Ackerman, described as a hard-charging chief executive,  bullied Wauthier, it appears that Wauthier felt bullied.

There is overwhelming evidence that bullying potentially severely affects a target’s mental and physical health.   Bullycide is a word that entered the American lexicon in recent years to describe a suicide resulting from depression due to bullying.  There are other reported cases of  work-related “bullycide,” though there usually is no  definitive way of  assigning blame in such circumstances.

The United States lags far behind other industrialized countries in addressing the problem of  workplace bullying, which affects one in every four workers.  Most industrialized countries, including Europe, require employers to provide workers with a work environment that is free from emotional abuse and harassment.

Perhaps this tragedy will encourage corporate leaders in the United States to address the issue of  bullying and abuse in the workplace?

Meanwhile, Zurich‘s board is reportedly reviewing whether employees in Zurich’s finance department were subjected to excessive pressure from higher-ups.

U of Virigina clears itself of fault in alleged bullycide

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Excerpts from an article by The Chronicle of Higher Education about the suicide of  Kevin Morrissey (pictured below), the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, who was allegedly bullied by his boss.  See: http://chronicle.com/article/UVa-Audit-Finds-Questionable/125034/ for the full article.

October 20, 2010

But Finds ‘Questionable’ Management by  Editor

By Robin Wilson

An audit of The Virginia Quarterly Review released on Wednesday by the University of Virginia says that Ted Genoways, the journal’s editor, had “questionable” managerial skills and spent magazine money without approval to publish a book of his own poetry. But the audit report stops short of saying that Mr. Genoways was guilty of workplace bullying, which some journal staff members say contributed to the suicide of the journal’s managing editor, Kevin Morrissey.

The internal investigation, which was commissioned in August by the university’s new president, Teresa A. Sullivan, also found that while UVA should streamline its procedures for dealing with employee complaints, the university took “appropriate actions” in dealing with complaints from journal’s staff about  Genoways. “Because some individuals were not aware of all that was going on,” says the eight-page report, “they incorrectly concluded that things were not being done.”

A spokeswoman said the university is “committed to publishing VQR,” although she said the university will make several changes in the way the journal is managed.
The report does not specifically mention accusations of workplace bullying made against  Genoways by some staff members, and subsequently by  Morrissey’s sister, Maria Morrissey, but it does say that such behavior can be hard to discern. “It is sometimes difficult to define where the line gets crossed between a tough manager and an unreasonable one,” says the report, which points out that “no laws exist” banning workplace bullying, as they do banning sexual harassment.

The report says that, by his own admission,  Genoways’s “capacity to supervise and lead his staff well and to operate his department in accordance with university policies is questionable.” It recommends that the university establish a panel “to strengthen the institution’s policies and structure with regards to acceptable workplace conduct,” something the university has agreed to do.

Genoways came to Virginia as editor of VQR in 2003 and brought Morrissey in as his deputy. By all accounts, the two were quite close until about a year ago, when  Genoways hired Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, a young UVA graduate and donor, to help raise money for the magazine. Morrissey, who had suffered from serious depression for which he had taken medication,  reportedly felt he was being pushed aside.  In the months before Morrissey took his life, people close to the magazine say that Genoways barely communicated with Morrissey and other members of the journal’s small staff,  frequently working from home instead of from the VQR offices. In a letter that Genoways sent to contributors and others after  Morrissey’s death, he said it was Morrissey who had been distancing himself—and he blamed the behavior on  Morrissey’s depression.

Last July, after becoming angry about an exchange that Morrissey and another staff member had with Levinson-LaBrosse,  Genoways banished  Morrissey to work from home.  Morrissey, worried that he might lose his job, made 17 calls to the university’s human-resources department, the president’s office, and university officials responsible for employee assistance and faculty-staff relations, said his sister. Other staff members also complained to university officials about Genoways and told UVA administrators that they worried that Morrissey was so distraught he might kill himself.

In late July, Morrissey shot himself in the head, leaving a note that said: “I just couldn’t bear it anymore.”

Although the report did not find fault with the university itself, it said the institution’s way of dealing with complaints from employees should be re-evaluated. Under the management response, President Sullivan wrote that a new structure will be established for complaints to be taken, registered, and tracked—and for them to be investigated and have the findings reported.

Critics argue that UVA might have prevented the alleged bullycide of Morrissey by addressing the obvious dysfunction of the journal operations.

Alleged Bullycide of Wisconsin Woman Prompts Bill

April 7, 2010

Amid emotional testimony, bill targets workplace bullying

By DEE J. HALL

In 2008, 31-year-old Jodie Zebell appeared to have a full life. The UW-Madison graduate was married with two young children and a part-time job as a mammographer at a La Crosse clinic, where she was praised as a model employee.

But soon afterward, Zebell became the target of co-workers who unfairly blamed her for problems at work. After she was promoted, the bullying intensified, her aunt Joie Bostwick recalled during a legislative hearing Wednesday attended by members of her niece’s family, including Zebell’s mother, Jean Jones of Spring Hill, Fla.

After her niece had a run-in with her supervisor, Bostwick said, the boss joined in the harassment, filling Zebell’s personnel file with baseless complaints about her performance and loudly criticizing her in front of others.

“This went on for a series of months,” said Bostwick, a Blue Mounds native who now lives in Naples, Fla. “It just got worse and worse.”

On Feb. 3, 2008, the day before she was to receive a poor job review, Jodie Zebell allegedly committed bullycide – took her own life as a result of depression over bullying. A Madison attorney told the family it had no legal recourse since she wasn’t protected from workplace discrimination as would be an older worker or a racial, ethnic or religious minority.

“We were astounded to find there was nothing we could do. There were no laws unless you were part of a protected class,” Bostwick said.

The tragedy sparked Zebell’s family to join a national movement seeking to ban bullying from workplaces and give victims — who prefer to call themselves “targets” — tools to stop the harassment or sue abusive employers and bullies in court.

Abusive conduct

On Wednesday, the Assembly Labor Committee heard 90 minutes of often emotional testimony on a bill sponsored by state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, that would require employers to implement and enforce anti-bullying policies — or face their abused employees in court.

Seventeen states are considering such legislation, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute of Bellingham, Wash., whose director, Gary Namie, also testified at the hearing.

Under the proposal, workers who believe they have been harmed by “abusive conduct” could sue to force the employer to stop the bullying, to seek reinstatement or to get compensation for lost wages, medical costs, attorneys’ fees, emotional distress and punitive damages.

The bill defines abusive conduct as “repeated infliction of verbal abuse, verbal or physical conduct that is threatening, intimidating or humiliating, sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance or exploitation of an employee’s known psychological or physical vulnerability.”

Vaguely worded bill

Representatives of business groups told the committee the bill is too vaguely worded and would invite frivolous lawsuits by disgruntled and incompetent workers.

“AB 894 paints a target on the back of small employers … (who) can’t afford to fight claims in circuit courts,” said Pete Hanson, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

Andrew Cook of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, a consortium of large business groups, agreed. Cook said if Wisconsin becomes the first state to pass such a bill, it would harm the state’s ability to attract business.

Emotional stories

But at the hearing, such concerns were largely overshadowed by these stories:

• A Spanish teacher testified she was “iced out and isolated” for four years by older colleagues in her school district. Once a marathon runner, Susan Stiede now suffers from clinical depression, chest pain, panic attacks and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She quit teaching in 2009.

• A nervous Stephanie Endres told of being harassed by a unnamed female boss in a state agency that she declined to name. Intimidated by Endres’ knowledge of the agency, the new supervisor circulated untrue rumors about her, Endres said, banished her to an office with no phone and separated her from her co-workers. When Endres took a six-month stress leave, the supervisor started bullying other members of the staff, she said.

• Dr. Deborah Lemke told lawmakers of an unnamed Wisconsin hospital where the nursing supervisor verbally bullied nurses on his staff. When she intervened on behalf of the nurses, Lemke said, holding back tears, she herself became a target.

Corliss Olson, associate professor at the UW-Extension’s School for Workers, said the bill is “desperately” needed.  Olson said most targets of bullying are “normal, competent people” who can be driven to disability or even death.  “This is a viciousness in the workplace that we need to stop,” Olson said. “We can and we must change our workplaces so they are civil.”

FROM: WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL