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Articles about employment discrimination, workplace abuse, workplace bullying and other forms of workplace violence.

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.

Copyright © 2010 ABC News Internet Ventures

Power and Control

One can see similarities between domestic violence and workplace abuse by looking at a tool developed by domestic violence advocates in Duluth, Minnesota, 30 years ago to illustrate the tactics used by domestic violence abusers, the Power and Control Wheel (see below).  By substituting the workplace for the home, one can see the application of this tool in the context of workplace abuse:

  • Instead of male privilege, abusive bosses exert “supervisory” privilege.
  • The abusive boss alone feels entitled to define the boss/employer relationship, whether or not it bears any similarity to the victim’s job description.
  • The abusive boss emotionally abuses the victim, putting him/her down, calling him/her names, etc.
  • The abusive boss uses intimidation, coercion or threats, including unfair threats of demotion or dismissal.
  • The abusive boss uses economic tools to abuse the victim by meting out rewards and punishment as he or she pleases, without regard to merit or actual job performance.
  • When the abuse is pointed out, the abusive boss makes light of it,  minimizes it, or accuses the victim of being overly sensitive.
  • The abusive boss may send out a signal that encourages others to abuse an employee, a phenomenon that has been called “mobbing.”
  • The abusive boss may isolate the employee by making it clear the employee is “unsafe” to be around because he/she is viewed as a pariah by management.

Here’s my primitive adaptation of the Power and Control Wheel for workplace abuse/bullying situations, followed by the original Duluth Model Power and Control Wheel:

 

 

Here’s the original Duluth model:


Definitions: Workplace Abuse & Bullying

There is no universally agreed upon definition for abuse or bullying.  There are many critical differences between workplace conflict and bullying.  The bully is often a supervisor who  abuses his/her authority. A bully boss intentionally, repeatedly and unfairly undermines or destroys the credibility of the target. The bully’s actions are  motivated by self-interest, not the good of the company.  The bully is often threatened by the target, who may be a talented, well liked and hard worker. What follows are authoritative definitions of workplace bullying  from diverse source. All point to the common theme that a bullying supervisor is seeking improper power and control over the target.   – PGB

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INTERNATIONAL

A  general definition for workplace bullying suggested by leading international  scholars on the topic is:

  • Harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks.
  • The interaction or process occurs repeatedly and regularly (e.g. weekly) and over a period of time (e.g. about six months).
  • The process escalates until the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts.

(Note: In some countries, a single incident of bullying is sufficient to trigger a civil remedy.)

* From  Katherine Lippel, Introduction, 32 COMP. LABOR LAW & POL’Y JOURNAL 2  (2010), citing Ståle Einarsen et al., The Concept of Bullying and Harassment at Work: The European Tradition, in Stale Einarsen, et al, BULLYING AND HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE: DEVELOPMENT IN THEORY, RESEARCH AND PRACTICE 3, 32 (2d ed., forthcoming  2011).

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THE U.S. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION

The EEOC has an Enforcement Guidance entitled Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors  that discusses employer liability for harassment.

Generally, harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where

1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or
2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Federal anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

*EEOC

EEOC ENFORCEMENT GUIDANCE

The EEOC has an Enforcement Guidance entitled Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors  that discusses employer liability for harassment.

Generally, harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where

1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or
2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Federal anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

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Strategic Harassment: Bad Employers

Many lawsuits involve employers that use bullying tactics  strategically to rid the workplace of good employees to avoid a legal obligation.  For example, employers may  bully employees to force them to quit so The employer can  downsize without paying unemployment compensation or avoid a potential worker’s compensation claim. Many employers use bullying strategically to rid the workplace of employees who  demand pay or overtime to which they are entitled or who assert a legal right to organize collectively. One of the most common types of employee lawsuits involves retaliation, where an employer bullies an employee for complaining about illegal discrimination or harassment.

–  Patricia G. Barnes, J.D., author, Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace.

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An April  2011  publication by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries contains an overview of workplace and corporate bullying. It  provides the following definition:

“Workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine; or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s).”

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The phenomenon of workplace abuse has been well studied in Europe, where it is called “mobbing.” The concept was introduced in the United States with the publication, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Here is how the authors define mobbing:

  1. Assaults on dignity, integrity, credibility, and competence;
  2. Negative, humiliating, intimidating, abusive, malevolent, and controlling communication;
  3. Committed directly or indirectly in subtle or obvious ways;
  4. Perpetrated by  ≥1 staff member;
  5. Occurring in a continual, multiple, and systematic fashion over time;
  6. Portraying the victim as being at fault;
  7. Engineered to discredit, confuse, intimidate, isolate, and force the person into submission;
  8. Committed with the intent to force the person out;
  9. Representing the removal as the victim’s choice;
  10. Unrecognized, misinterpreted, ignored, tolerated, encouraged, or even instigated by management.

*  Source: Adapted  from Davenport N, Schwartz RD, Elliott GP. Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Ames, IA: Civil Society Publishing; 1999:41.

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GAINING INSIGHT FROM DOMESTIC VIOLENCE …

Although abuse in our society is silo-ed, in reality, abuse exists on a continuum. It starts in childhood and progresses until the problem behavior is addressed by the abuser or there is an intervention by an outside party.

Here is a definition of abuse used by the federal government in the context of domestic violence. Many aspects of this definition could apply to abuse in the workplace.

The U.S. Dept. of Justice Office of Violence Against Women says domestic violence can be defined as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.

Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.

Some specific categories of domestic violence:

Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair-pulling, biting, etc. Physical abuse also includes denying a partner medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use.

Sexual Abuse: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner.

Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.

Economic Abuse: Making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding one’s access to money, or forbidding one’s attendance at school or employment.

Psychological Abuse: Causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, children, or partner’s family or friends; destruction of pets and property; and forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work.

Workplace abuse usually does not include overt physical  behaviors – though it certainly can. For example, sexual harassment is a form of workplace abuse that can involve both men and women.

However, more often, workplace bullying involves emotional and economic abuse.

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In April  2010 the Massachusetts’ state legislature unanimously passed what is called the toughest anti-bullying law in the nation with respect to schools. The law was precipitated by two cases of  Massachusetts youths committing suicide after allegedly being bullied. The legislation requires school employees to report all instances of bullying and require principals to investigate them. PGB

ACCORDING TO THE MASSACHUSETTS‘ 2010  SCHOOL ANTI-BULLYING LAW:

“Bullying”, the repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof, directed at a victim that:

(i)  causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim’s property;

(ii) places the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property;

(iii) creates a hostile environment at school for the victim;

(iv) infringes on the rights of the victim at school; or

(v) materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a  school. For the purposes of this section, bullying shall include cyberbullying.

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THE INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANIZATION (ILO) SAYS …

Workplace bullying is one of the fastest growing complaints of workplace violence. It constitutes offensive behaviour through vindictive, cruel, malicious or humiliating attempts to undermine an individual or groups of employees through such activities as:

  • Making life difficult for those who have the potential to do the bully’s job better than the bully;
  • Shouting at staff to get things done;
  • Insisting that the bully’s way of doing things is the only right way;
  • Refusing to delegate because the bully feels no one else can be trusted;
  • Punishing others by constant criticism or by removing their responsibilities for being too competent.

*ILO

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Bullying behaviors may include:

  • making life difficult for those who have the potential to do the bully’s job better than the bully;
  • punishing others for being too competent by constant criticism or by removing their responsibilities, often giving them trivial tasks to do instead;
  • refusing to delegate because bullies feel they can’t trust anyone else;
  • shouting at staff to get things done;
  • persistently picking on people in front of others or in private;
  • insisting that a way of doing things is always right;
  • keeping individuals in their place by blocking their promotion;
  • if someone challenges a bully’s authority, overloading them with work and reducing the deadlines, hoping that they will fail at what they do; and
  • feeling envious of another’s professional or social ability, so setting out to make them appear incompetent, or make their lives miserable, in the hope of getting them dismissed or making them resign.

*Duncan Chappell and Vittorio Di Martino, VIOLENCE AT WORK, International Labour Organization (2006)

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The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  •  Verbal abuse.
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors that are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating.
  • Work interference, i.e. sabotage, that prevents work from being done.

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PSYCHOLOGICAL TERROR

“Workplace bullying is traumatic because it is unexpected and always perceived as undeserved and unjustified (Keashly and Neuman, 2005). Abuse is not a requisite aspect of work duties, is unrelated to job demands, and is, consequently, perceived as unwarranted. The shock of being singled out for repeated abuse can be as traumatic as divorce or a loved one’s death (Mikkelsen and Einarsen, 2002) and can evoke levels of anxiety and psychological pain necessitating therapeutic help (Randall, 2001). What makes this experience especially corrosive is that it is ongoing, frequent, enduring, and escalatory—typically worsening over time. The trauma is also a function of the intensive fear and dread bullying creates. In fact, bullying and mobbing are often called ‘psychological terror’ (Leymann, 1996: 375).”

– Lutgen-Sandvik, P. (2006). Take this job and …: Quitting and other forms of resistance to workplace bullying. Communication Monographs, 73, 406-433.