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.