Other Federal Laws

OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT OF 1970

Some experts say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should take the lead on combating workplace bullying.*  There is overwhelming evidence that workplace bullying can lead to serious injury and even death.  In fact, a term has been coined for workers who are driven to suicide as a result of bullying – “bullycide.”  In several other countries, workplace bullying is considered a health and safety issues and is regulated by a federal agency like OSHA. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in May 2011 adopted a safety program for its own workers that includes a workplace anti-bully policy. The policy is contained in a 278-page document, the OSHA Field Health and Safety Manual,  which outlines safety practices for OSHA’s field offices. It was drafted in cooperation with the National Council of Field Labor Locals, a union that represents OSHA workers.

OSHA’s workplace bullying policy is significant because the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees … .” However, OSHA has not enforced that provision with respect to workplace bullying.

The stated purpose of the workplace bullying policy adopted by OSHA for its own workers,  contained in the manual’s “Violence in the Workplace” chapter. is: ”To provide a workplace that is free from violence, harassment, intimidation, and other disruptive behavior.”

Here is the OSHA General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) SEC. 5:

Duties

(a) Each employer —

(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees …

*See Susan Harthill. “The Need for a Revitalized Regulatory Scheme to Address Workplace Bullying in the United States: Harnessing the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act.” University of Cincinnati Law Review 78.4 (2010): 1250-1306.

WAGE AND HOUR LAWS

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not address workplace bullying per se but it can be used to combat certain types of abuse. The 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  If one aspect of the bullying campaign is failure to pay proper wages or overtime, for example, the FLSA is one potential remedy.

THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT

The National Labor Relations Act  (NLRA) 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 is regulated by the National Labor Relations Board.

 Specifically, the National Labor Relations Board protects the rights of employees to engage in “protected concerted activity,”  which is when two or more employees take action for their mutual aid or protection regarding terms and conditions of employment.  A single employee may also engage in protected concerted activity if he or she is acting on the authority of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action.

A few examples of protected concerted activities are:

  • Two or more employees addressing their employer about improving their pay.
  • Two or more employees discussing work-related issues beyond pay, such as safety concerns, with each other.
  • An employee speaking to an employer on behalf of one or more co-workers about improving workplace conditions.

Most employees in the private sector are covered by the NLRA. However, the Act specifically excludes individuals who are employed by federal, state, or local governments, agricultural laborers, some close relatives of the employer, domestic servants in a home, independent contractors, employers subject to the Railway Labor Act, etc.

FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT

The Familiy and Medical Leave Act (FMLA offers potential help for employees who are suffering health effects from workplace abuse.  Administered by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, it  entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Eligible employees are entitled to:

Twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for:

-the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth;

-the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;

-to care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition;

a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job;

– any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a covered military member on “covered active duty;” or

Twenty-six workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness who is the spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin to the employee (military caregiver leave).

Are you being bullied?

Note: The irony of workplace bullying is that the “victim” may be an excellent employee who is well liked, works hard, and demonstrates creativity and initiative. Bullying is often motivated by the bully’s insecurity, fear and jealousy. You may be targeted because the bully perceives you to be a threat. Employers take note – Good employees  quit or are fired while bullies – who do not act in the company’s s best interests – remain to wreak more havoc.  Also, co-workers who witness bullying are more likely to quit if the employer tolerates the abuse  –  PGB

Are you being bullied?

Here’s a Workplace Aggression Research Questionnaire developed by researchers from the State University of New York in New Paltz and Wayne State University that identifies often subtle bullying behaviors.

Take the quiz to find out if you’re a victim of bullying. Occasional insults don’t count. Bullying occurs when the behavior has occurred consistently during the past six months.

In the past six months have you regularly:

  • Been glared at in a hostile manner?
  • Been excluded from work-related social gatherings?
  • Had others storm out of the work area when you entered?
  • Had others consistently arrive late for meetings that you called?
  • Been given the “silent treatment”?
  • Not been given the praise for which you felt entitled?
  • Been treated in a rude or disrespectful manner?
  • Had others refuse your requests for assistance?
  • Had others fail to deny false rumors about you?
  • Been given little or no feedback about your performance?
  • Had others delay action on matters that were important to you?
  • Been yelled at or shouted at in a hostile manner?
  • Been subjected to negative comments about your intelligence or competence?
  • Had others consistently fail to return your telephone calls or respond to your memos or e-mail?
  • Had your contributions ignored by others?
  • Had someone interfere with your work activities?
  • Been subjected to mean pranks?
  • Been lied to?
  • Had others fail to give you information that you really needed?
  • Been denied a raise or promotion without being given a valid reason?
  • Been subjected to derogatory name calling?
  • Been the target of rumors or gossip?
  • Shown little empathy or sympathy when you were having a tough time?
  • Had co-workers fail to defend your plans or ideas to others?
  • Been given unreasonable workloads or deadlines — more than others?
  • Had others destroy or needlessly take resources that you needed to do your job?
  • Been accused of deliberately making an error?
  • Been subjected to temper tantrums when disagreeing with someone?
  • Been prevented from expressing yourself (for example, interrupted when speaking)?
  • Had attempts made to turn other employees against you?
  • Had someone flaunt his or her status or treat you in a condescending manner?
  • Had someone else take credit for your work or ideas?
  • Been reprimanded or “put down” in front of others?

Steps to take if you are being bullied:

  • In the early stages, consider telling the bully that his/her behavior is not acceptable and firmly ask them to stop. You can ask a supervisor or co-worker  to be with you when you approach the person.  This may not be helpful if the bully is a sociopath who lacks empathy.  It could even backfire, causing an escalation of the bullying.  It’s a judgment call.
  • It is very important to keep a factual journal or diary and record each instance of bullying.  The record should include:

o The date, time and what happened in as much detail as possible.

o The names of witnesses.

o The outcome of the event.

Here’s a possible example of a journal entry:  11/21/10: Bob came down the corridor at approximately 10 a.m.  He grabbed my arm, pulled me into an unattended office and shouted, “Get that ***** project on my desk by lunchtime.” He  then walked out without giving me a chance to reply. I felt humiliated, pressured, disrespected, and emotionally distressed.  John Doe witnessed the incident; I talked to John later that afternoon. John said he was shocked by Bob’s  actions, which he called “violent” and “uncalled for.”

Keep your notes in a safe place – not at the workplace.

  • RETAIN copies of  letters, memos, e-mails, faxes, etc., received from the person.
  • RESPOND to criticisms or allegations in writing, and ask the bully to respond in writing.
  • KEEP all memos and correspondence related to your work if the quality of your work is challenged.
  • It may be necessary to file a complaint. It may be advisable to first consult with an employment lawyer in your community. Most employees work  in an “at will” employment state, which means they  can be fired for any reason except an unlawful reason (such as race or age discrimination).  It is important to know your rights so you have a realistic assessment of your options.
  • If you COMPLAIN,  follow the process outlined in your employee or workplace policy manual. Complain to the individual who is identified as handling harassment complaints.   The courts will interpret this as providing proper notice to your employer of the harassment and bullying.  If your concerns are minimized, proceed to the next level of management.  It is usually advisable to make sure that your complaint clearly  states the problem; this is not the time to sugar coat the issue or to worry about being the squeaky wheel.  If feel you are being bullied because of race discrimination, provide the evidence upon which you base your belief to your employer.  Down the road, the account you provide in your complaint my be important in a retaliation or wrongful termination lawsuit.

Sadly, the Human Resources officer may not be an objective or neutral arbiter.  He or she may perceive their role as acting as an agent for management.  Management  may view your abuser as more valuable to the organization than you.  It is important to provide management with as detailed a record as possible about what is occurring so the employer can see the pattern of abuse.  A single instance may be dismissed as  trivial.   One would hope that management would recognize that  the bully is having a negative impact in the workplace or is creating needless legal liability.  But be aware that most targets of bullying are forced to  quit or are fired. Some experts advise targets to immediately start looking for another job.

BUT DO NOT …

RETALIATE

If you retaliate, you could appear to be a perpetrator.  This may  confuse the manager who is  responding to your complaint.  Also, an estimated 70 percent of bullies are bosses and in these cases the power dynamics do not favor the target .

Abusive bosses  may simply be clueless, insecure and poorly trained.  However, an abusive boss may a  narcissist or sociopath. without empathy. Their actions may be very  deliberate. They could be skilled at manipulating management and co-workers.   To the bully, it’s the equivalent of a chess game.  But  you may feel a range of  strong emotions, including fear and anger.  Bullies often try to manipulate their targets into making an impulsive and unwise move.  As best you can, stay detached and focused. Don’t give the bully more ammunition than he or she already possesses.

* Patricia G. Barnes is an attorney with expertise in both domestic violence and employment law.

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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

————————————————–

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.

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