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?

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.

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

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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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