Article in Family & Intimate Partner Violence Quarterly

My interest in workplace bullying began about five years ago when I moved across the country with my then 14-year-old son to take a job at a non-profit organization that works in the national arena of intimate partner abuse.

I quickly discovered that my new employer had a bullying management structure, which led to a succession of lives interrupted by trauma, a revolving door of needless turnover, and  a colossal waste of resources that should have gone toward halting domestic violence.

Managers used abusive tactics that were similar to those used by perpetrators  of intimate partner abuse – emotional abuse,coercion, threats, harassment, withholding of information, humiliation,  sabotage, isolation, etc.   Workplace bullying involves the misuse of supervisory privilege to exert improper power and control over the target.

One of the first things I did upon leaving this awful place was to write  an article for The Domestic Violence Report., a national publication devoted  to legal developments  and  research in domestic violence law and prevention.

I posed a question in the article that I don’t think was asked before, at least in a domestic violence circles. What happens after batterers leave their homes and go to work?  Do they suddenly become respectful of others and treat their subordinates and co-workers fairly and with dignity? I argued that abuse is a spectrum that includes workplace bullying, as well as intimate partner, child and elder abuse.

I am pleased to note that an updated version of that article has been reprinted in the most recent issue of the Family & Intimate Partner Violence Quarterly,  edited by Mo Therese Hannah, Ph.D.  The Quarterly is a journal devoted to bringing professionals in the field a practical focus on the best new ideas for preventing, prosecuting, and treating family and intimate partner abuse.

The Domestic Violence Report, a publication of the National Civic Institute, was then edited by Joan Zorza, J.D., a true pioneer in the area of domestic violence.   (My former boss had prohibited me from using citations to Ms. Zorza’s many groundbreaking books and articles because she had the temerity to criticize my boss and the organization in the past.)

In just five years, there’s been an explosion of interest in the topic of workplace bullying and abuse. Most Human Resource officials today are at least aware of the problem and many workplaces have adopted general policies prohibiting bullying. However, there has been virtually no movement toward a real solution to the problem  – a federal law or regulations protecting targets of a hostile workplace environment caused by workplace bullying .   Sign the petition!

Another thing I learned at my former workplace is that bullies are not always just individuals. Employers also can be bullies. The organization for years misclassified administrative employees as “exempt” under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  These mostly young women with children were forced to work endless hours at out-of-state conferences without receiving overtime pay or even compensatory time off. After I left the organization, one of them apparently complained and the organization was forced to repay at least those who still worked there back wages.

Who’s Got Their Head in the Sand?

A federal judge has concluded that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago did not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct when it ridiculed an attorney in a written opinion.

Circuit Judge Joel M. Falum, who was assigned to decide a complaint filed by the attorney, said the offending opinion  a three judge panel of the appellate did not impede the administration of justice by the court.

The 7th Circuit panel included in its written opinion two photos – one featuring an ostrich with its head in the sand and the other depicting a suited man with his head in the sand.

Judge Falum ruled on Dec. 21 that the photos were evidently meant to depict “complainant’s willful avoidance of dispositive legal authority that was repeatedly brought to complainant’s attention.”

The attorney who was the butt of the panel’s  “humor” complained that the judges violated a requirement that judges be “patient, dignified, respectful, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity.”

Judge Falum interpreted the question for decision as whether the “photo-enhanced opinion” had a prejudicial effect on the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the court.  “The inclusion of photographs to underscore a decision already reached by the court could not have such an effect,”  he decided, dismissing the complaint.

With all  respect to Judge Falum,  it is highly unlikely that a judicial panel furthers the administration of justice when it humiliates an attorney with which it disagrees in the course of denying the attorney’s requested relief.  It certainly doesn’t foster confidence among victims of workplace abuse when the court demeans the professionals who appear before it with hats in hand.   And, by the way, progress often occurs solely because an attorney challenges dispositive legal authority. (Remember slavery and women’s suffrage?)

Ridicule is a common tactic in workplace bullying scenarios.  Targets often are the subject of treatment that is designed to embarrass or humiliate them.  Such treatment can take a profound emotional and physical toll on the target.

The identity of the parties involved in the dispute were not disclosed – neither the complainant nor the three judges.  The case is In Re. Complaints Against Three Judges, Nos 07-11-90072-90074.

Postscript – It’s a myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand. They don’t. A male ostrich digs large holes (up to 6 to 8 feet wide and 2-3 feet deep) in the sand to make a nest. Predators cannot see the eggs across the countryside which gives the nest a bit of protection.

National Coalition to Tackle Workplace Bullying

I am pleased to announce that this blog is a founding member of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition (NWBC), the first organization dedicated to seeking a national solution to the problem of workplace bullying in the United States.

The NWBC proposes a convention, similar to a constitutional convention, to detail the nature of workplace bullying, the negative consequences to both employers and employees, how today’s business leaders address the issue and what remains to be accomplished. The NWBC supports state and local efforts to address workplace bullying but the goal ultimately is to achieve a national  law or regulations that  provides employers with incentive to insure a safe, healthy and bully-free workplace for all employees.

Many developed countries around the world already have legislation in place to address workplace bullying. However, in the vast majority of workers in America workers have no protection unless they can shoehorn their claim under an existing law, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects individuals on the basis of race, sex, religion & national origin.

The Workplace Bullying Institute has backed state legislation, the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), since 2002.  Versions of the HWB have been proposed in more than 20 states but none of the bills have passed, raising questions about the viability of this approach.  Also, it is highly unlikely that  so-called “pro business” states will willingly adopt workplace anti-bullying legislation, leaving employees with no recourse.

Nevada State Senator Richard Segerblom of Las Vegas, NV, has proposed a different solution to the problem of workplace bullying that some consider to be more promising than the HWB approach.  Segerblom has proposed amending Nevada’s employment discrimination law so that  anyone who is a victim of a hostile workplace environment has a legal remedy whether or not they can show illegal discrimination. In other words, he has proposed making the hostile workplace remedy “status blind.”

Many national surveys show that workplace bullying is epidemic in the United States.  CareerBuilder in 2011 found that one in four workers in the United States experience workplace bullying, which has potentially severe mental and physical health impacts.  Most targets of workplace bullying are expelled from the workplace – fired or forced to quit – and many suffer the symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome for years afterward.

The NWBC is an outgrowth of New Jersey workplace anti-bullying efforts and a loose-knit coalition called  Protect U.S. Workers, created by this blog and documentary filmmaker  Beverly Peterson of Our Bully Pulpit.  The NWBC supports the on-going petition drive by Protect U.S. Workers’  calling upon the Obama administration and the Secretary of Labor to adopt a national approach to workplace bullying.

Membership  in  the new coalition includes The Honorable Sue Pai Yang, who retired in 2012 after serving as  the  first Asian American appointed to the Workers’ Compensation Court in New Jersey;  Jerry Carbo, Esq.  an Associate Professor of Management at the Grove College of Business at Shippensburg University, Pennsylvania, who has researched and  written  about workplace bullying.; Catherine Mattice.  who runs the consulting business, Civility Partners, LLC, which specializes in helping organizations realize positive workplace cultures; and The Honorable Stephen Tuber is a retired Judge of the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation – 1981 – 2009).


Iowa Shoots Foot in Discrimination Case

Liable for Retaliation, not Discrimination

Here’s every employer’s nightmare.

A jury in Iowa last week awarded a former state employee $130,000 in damages after finding she was fired from her state job as a mailroom clerk in retaliation for  filing a complaint about race discrimination.

The jury, however, said there was no evidence that Dorothea Polk, 53, who is black, was a victim of race discrimination.

This means that the damages are attributable to the inept handling of her race discrimination complaint by the state of Iowa.

Polk said she spoke with a human resources officer, Jackie Mallory after Polk was passed over for promotion to a clerk’s job in the office of  Iowa Workforce Development.  During the conversation, Polk said that Mallory told her “You people think you’re entitled to preferences.”

Polk filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission alleging race discrimination in May 2006 and was fired two months later.   Polk’s  managers said she was ineffective at running the office’s mail room and “disrespectfully challenged authority.”

The jury verdict came after a two-week trial.

Another issue in Polk’s case involved an allegation by her attorneys that the state destroyed or lost a report commissioned by former Department of Administrative Services director Mollie Anderson that said racism played a part in some decisions made in the Iowa Workforce Development office. In a 2008 video deposition shown to jurors in the trial Anderson said she’d seen the report, Polk’s attorneys said.

No copy of the report, however, was produced by the state for trial.

In his closing arguments, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Tyler Smith disputed that a “secret report” ever existed, arguing that Anderson misspoke or was confused during a deposition in another case.

The lesson – an employer can be found liable for retaliation even if a jury finds there is no substance to the underlying complaint.