NPF Blames the law firm

June 21, 20100 – It is not uncommon today for employers to hire a so-called “independent”  law firm to “investigate” complaints of bullying and discrimination.

Earlier this year, National Public Radio justified its controversial dismissal of commentator Juan Williams on a supposedly independent investigation by a DC law firm paid by NCR.  Williams had made inane comments in his role as a talking head about his fear of individuals dressed in Muslim garb on planes. In the backlash over Williams’ dismissal,  NPR Chief Executive Officer Vivian Schiller lost her job.

At that time, I issued a challenge that, alas, drew no takers:

 Does anyone know of a so-called independent review by a law firm that found the employer was completely un-justified in its actions (and thus potentially liable for serious monetary damages). I suspect that would be the last time said  firm was hired to do an independent investigation.  Frankly, I’m no fan of Juan Williams but  come on NPR … Adopt clear policies and processes for NPR employees and apply them uniformly. 

 Now, Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, are  blaming a growing international scandal involving phone hacking and police payoffs on advice from Harbottle & Lewis,  former counsel to News International, its U.K. subsidiary. The company has publicly accused Harbottle of botching an initial investigation into the events at the heart of scandal.  Harbottle refutes the accusation.  News International reportedly denied Harbottle’s request to waive client confidentiality that the firm said would clarify its role in the controversy.

As they say, hindsight is 20-20.  However, it seems obvious that the best way for employers to handle future complaints is to act before the problem occurs. Pro-actively adopt clear, ethical, and fair policies and enforce these policies uniformly, from the office of chief executive to the janitorial staff.

In this country, anyway, it’s not easy to blame it on the lawyer or the law firm. A lawyer can break lawyer-client confidentiality”to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client, to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved, or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client … ” ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.6 .

Women Too Nice to Get Corner Office?

Or maybe we should examine the workplace and ask ourselves why it’s detrimental to one’s career to show respect, fair play and teamsmanship? PGB

Exhibit A: Women told not to be too nice

The Wall Street Journal writes about advice that Citigroup provided to women who wanted to succeed in their careers.  Laminated cards, distributed to some female Citigroup employees,  list some things women do to sabotage their careers.  According to the cards, women tend to:

1. Speak too softly and aren’t heard

2. Groom in public, which “deemphasizes…capability.”

3. Sit too demurely, rather than leaning forward at the table in meetings.

4. Speak last in meetings. Early speakers are seen as more assertive and authoritative.

5. Ask permission, while men inform.

6.  Apologize too much for every little thing.

7.  Smile too often, which can dilute a message.

8. Play too fair.

9. Operate behind the scenes, which enables competitors to take credit for one’s work.

10. Offer a limp handshake.

The WSJ took the position that took “the view that these suggestions were helpful ways for women to do well in finance. ”

The list emanated from a book, “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers,”  by Dr. Lois P. Frankel.

The WSJ quotes her stating the list was taken out of context BUT:

“The women who say they don’t have to do these things are naïve,” Frankel said. “There are different rules for men and women in the workplace. To be successful, you have to figure out the boundaries on the playing field and figure out where to play your game on the edge. All games are won at the edge.”

U of Virigina clears itself of fault in alleged bullycide

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