Lost in Discussion: Employers that Bully

 They Use Strategic Harassment and Exploitation

Most people who think of workplace bullies invoke the image of the combative boss played by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross or the passive-hostile magazine editor played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

But some workplace bullies are not individuals but the employer itself – a fact that often gets lost in the discussion of workplace bullying. Some employers use strategic harassment tactics on workers to avoid legal obligations, such as the payment of fair wages, workers compensation or unemployment insurance.

Employers that bully promulgate policies that take advantage of their workers. For example, they steal wages from their employees by intentionally misclassifying them as exempt and thus ineligible for overtime.

The Progressive States Network estimates that low-wage workers lose $51 per week to wage theft, or $2,634 per year.  That amounts to approximately 15% of their annual income

Some employers use strategic harassment to get rid of good employees. This occurs when an employer targets one or more workers for harassment to achieve an organizational goal.  Some employers, for example, make life miserable for workers when they want to downsize without paying unemployment insurance. Or they harass a “troublemaker” who has asserted a legal right to fair compensation or overtime, essentially forcing him or her to quit.

Other employers knowingly tolerate bullies in their employ for crass economic reasons – athough that strategy can backfire.

Ani Chopourian filed at least 18 complaints with the Human Resources Dept. of Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, CA, during the two years she worked there as a physician assistant. She was fired after the last complaint. A federal court jury in March awarded Chopourian $168 million in damages, believed to be the largest judgment for a single victim of workplace harassment in U.S. history.

Many of Chopourian’s complaints involved a bullying surgeon who she said once stabbed her with a needle. Another surgeon, she said, would greet her each morning with “I’m horny” and slap her bottom. Another called her “stupid chick” in the operating room and made disparaging remarks about her Armenian heritage, such as asking her if she had joined Al Qaeda.

Ms. Chopourian speculated that hospital administrators put up with misbehavior in the cardiac unit and tolerated the surgeons’ outsize egos because cardiac surgery tends to bring in the most money for any hospital facility.

Surveys show that workplace bullying is epidemic in the United States, where at least one in four American workers reports being bullied in the workplace.  Workplace bullying can cause a target to experience potentially severe psychological and physical illness, including clinical depression, post traumatic stress syndrome and stress-related chronic disease.

Much of the focus on the problem in the United States has involved a state-by-state campaign to pass a civil law that would allow targets of workplace bullying to seek damages from individual employers. However, such a law would do nothing to combat the systemic problem of employer bullying and abuse in the United States.

This blog is part of a loose-knit coalition of workplace anti-bully advocates that is calling upon the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the Obama administration to promulgate a comprehensive national solution to the problem of workplace bullying and abuse that would  address the problem of bullying employers.  If you agree, sign our petition at: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/protect-us-workers/?cid=FB_TAF.

Record $168 Million Sexual Harassment Award

Hospital Ignored 18 Complaints

Ani Chopourian filed at least 18 harassment complaints with the Human Resources Dept. during the two years she worked as a physician assistant at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital.

They were all but ignored until last week, when a federal court jury awarded her $168 million in damages, believed to be the largest judgment for a single victim of sexual harassment in U.S. history.

Many of her complaints involved a bullying surgeon who she said once stabbed her with a needle and broke the ribs of an anesthetized heart patient in a fit of rage.. Another surgeon, she said, would greet her each morning with “I’m horny” and slap her bottom. Another called her “stupid chick” in the operating room and made disparaging remarks about her Armenian heritage, asking if she had joined Al Qaeda.

Ms. Chopourian, 45, was fired from the Mercy General, a unit of Catholic Healthcare West, a few days after her last complaint about patient care and doctors’ demeaning behavior. The hospital then tried to deny her unemployment benefits, claiming she had missed a shift and was found sleeping on the job.  She worked there from 2006 to 2008.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a three-week trial in the case included a parade of witnesses who depicted a culture of vulgarity and arrogance which humiliated female employees and put patients at risk.

Ms. Chopourian, who earned her physician assistant credentials at Yale School of Medicine,  is quoted as saying “the environment at Mercy General, the sexually inappropriate conduct and the patient care issues being ignored, the bullying and intimidation and retaliation —– I have never seen an environment so hostile and pervasive.”.

Chopourian also said administrators put up with misbehavior in the cardiac unit and the surgeons outsize egos because cardiac surgery brings in the most money for any hospital facility.

Shortly before rendering its verdict the jury sent a note to District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller asking for a calculator. The record judgment includes $125 million in punitive damages and $42.7 million for lost wages and mental anguish.

Hospital President Denny Powell said the hospital stood by its decision to fire Chopourian and would appeal the verdict.

Clearly, this case demonstrates employers must respond appropriately when employees complain of harassment. Such complaints  must be fully investigated by someone experienced in workplace harassment issues. And if a complaint is deemed to have merit, the harassing conduct must stop, even if that means getting rid of a cardiac surgeon or three.

Catholic Healthcare West, which recently changed its name to Dignity Health, operates 40 hospitals and care centers in California, Arizona and Nevada.

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