Standing up to bullies
The Campaign Against Workplace Bullying is conducting a survey at UC Davis and proposing state legislation
Their stories are similar; their emotions, close to the surface.
“I felt bullied, belittled, discriminated [against], powerless and angry,” Jackie Quigg wrote of her experience of working for 13 years in the Ophthalmology Department at the University of California at Davis.
UC San Francisco employee Mary Efferen wrote of her “observations and experiences of faculty-staff interactions that were textbook examples of how to humiliate individuals in front of groups.”
“The University of California, which has contributed so much to the education and the wealth of the state of California and the global community, is a pathologically dysfunctional institution run by arrogant and ruthless administrators,” wrote former UC Davis graduate student Leuren Moret.
“This can happen to anyone, no matter what their psychological makeup,” Mary Ann MacDonagh wrote of her time working in a hostile workplace in Boston. “It took me five years after leaving the job for me to recover and no one would help me seek redress for my well-documented abuse.”
They were among more than a dozen unhappy employees who wrote about their experiences to the Sacramento News & Review after reading “Last Words,” our Dec. 21, 2000, cover story about the life and tragic death of Donna McDaniel, who committed suicide after years of enduring what she considered to be a hostile work environment at UC Davis.
Among the others who wrote in response to the article was Dr. Gary Namie, a Benicia-based social psychologist and author who founded the national Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (CAWB), along with his wife, Dr. Ruth Namie, a clinical psychologist.
He wrote: “There are ways for the UCD Administration to purge the few cruel individuals who adversely impact the lives of so many people. They need only ask for help. We are willing to help as a public service. Bullying is a health and safety issue.”
It was an offer that has been accepted by the employee unions at UC Davis, including the Coalition of University Employees (CUE) and University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) who, over the next month, will help CAWB conduct a survey of UCD employees gauging how pervasive the problem is on campus.
With about 50 questions, the survey seeks to identify “interpersonal, one-on-one misconduct by supervisors, managers or co-workers that is arbitrary and illegitimate,” to catalog the manner and scope of such cases, and to document the impacts it has had on the workplace and the health of targeted employees. The anonymous survey asks for information about the supervisors—including gender, age and rank—but not their names or other identifying information.
The Namies’ group has conducted similar surveys at dozens of workplaces across the country, and has found that between 16 and 21 percent of employees claim to suffer from regular bullying by bosses that could damage an employee’s health and sense of well-being.
“It’s all about control,” Namie said. “It’s driven by a perpetrator’s need to control and doesn’t serve any legitimate business interest.”
Although the concept of workplace bullying as a social ill has been around for nearly 20 years, starting in Sweden and spreading through Western Europe, it has only recently gained a foothold in the United States.
The Namies founded CAWB in 1998, an extension of work they began in the ’80s after Ruth Namie suffered through a hostile workplace. Their research into the issue and workplace surveys resulted in two books, including last year’s The Bully at Work.
Gary Namie has been an especially aggressive crusader on the issue, appearing on dozens of radio and television broadcasts—from CBS’s “The Early Show” to G. Gordon Liddy’s and Howard Stern’s nationally syndicated radio shows—and being quoted as an expert on the topic in major metropolitan newspapers across the country.
“We’re about the dark side of the world of work,” Namie said, “and we’re going to spend the rest of our lives talking about this.”
The problem, says Namie, is that as damaging as it is to suffer arbitrary abuse in the workplace, there’s nothing illegal about it. The only labor laws outlawing the creation of a hostile workplace deal specifically with sexual harassment, although Namie’s research has found that bullying is four times more prevalent than sexual harassment.
Now CAWB is trying to make workplace bullying illegal in California. Their “healthy workplace bill” was last month submitted to the Legislative Counsel’s Office for review, and Namie is confident he will have a legislative sponsor for the bill by the Feb. 23 deadline to do so.
The bill was written by David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. The bill states simply that, “It shall be an unlawful employment practice under this Chapter to subject an employee to an abusive work environment as defined by this Chapter,” and defining such an environment as existing when “the defendant, acting with malice, subjects the complainant to abusive conduct so severe that it causes tangible harm to the complainant.”
The proposed bill lists the kinds of “tangible harm” Namie has uncovered in his surveys as including “feelings of shame and humiliation, stress, loss of sleep, severe anxiety, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, reduced immunity to infection, stress-related gastrointestinal disorders, hypertension, [and] pathophysiologic changes that increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.”
Under the bill, employees targeted by a workplace bully would be able to sue for actual and punitive damages and, if a judge finds it to be a bullying situation, have the offending party removed from the workplace. Employers who fail to deal with a bullying employee could be liable for up to $25,000.
The bill would likely encounter stiff opposition from the business community, a powerful player in California politics.
While Kathy Fairbanks of the California Chamber of Commerce said employers need to be sensitive to the issue and should root out the bullies among their employees, she worries about the cost of creating a new way for employees to sue their employers.
“This definition seems to be so broad that it could subject employers to lots of new lawsuits,” Fairbanks said.
After receiving strong indications of support from the labor community, Namie said he is confident that his bill will be approved by the Legislature, although he is not as confident that pro-business Gov. Gray Davis will allow it to become a law.
Union leaders at UC Davis consider workplace bullying to be a pervasive problem on campus, and one that has only become worse since staff cutbacks in the early ’90s increased the workloads and stressors of many employees.
CUE even sponsors ongoing employee workshops on the issue of workplace bullying. The first such workshop, held last fall, was dedicated to the memory of McDaniel, whom organizer Joan Randall believes was driven to suicide by the bullying she endured.
Randall said she is pleased to see the
bullying issue finally getting the attention it deserves, and she hopes that the survey and the dissemination of McDaniel’s story will bring about changes on campus.
Although union activists regularly hear stories from their members about being verbally abused, humiliated in front of other employees, belittled, threatened or otherwise intimidated, they say none of these actions rise to the level of a violation for which a formal union grievance can be filed.
“We think bullying is a very big problem and that’s evident from the number of calls we get that we can’t file a grievance for, because having a bad manager is not a grievable offense,” said Pete Livingston of UPTE.
CAWB is donating its time and expertise to the UC Davis survey effort. Once the survey is complete, CAWB plans to submit the results to the UC Davis administration, whose representatives say they weren’t aware of the impending survey, but are anxious to see the results.
“I welcome that,” said Dennis Shimek, the associate vice chancellor of human resources. “I think surveys like this, when done in a rigorous way … are terribly important. I think every employer should welcome that kind of information and use it constructively.”
Shimek, who was the main administration spokesperson quoted in “Last Words,” has said personnel privacy protections prevent him from commenting directly on McDaniel’s case, but that the administration is diligent about investigating and remedying workplace abuses and offers mediation, counseling and other services to stressed employees.
He denied that UC Davis is a hostile work environment or that bullying is a widespread problem, although he conceded that in an institution as large as UC Davis, isolated cases are bound to occur.
“There are no doubt many occasions where people are dealt with in ways that aren’t appropriate,” Shimek said. “But we communicate that there are consequences to acting in ways that are not appropriate.”
While Namie said he was happy to hear the UC Davis administration will be open to their survey results, he noted that Shimek’s comments in “Last Words” and his letter to the editor responding to the article seem to indicate an unwillingness to seriously deal with the problem.
“They’re in total denial,” Namie said. “Their reaction to Donna McDaniel’s story is tantamount to saying this kind of thing doesn’t happen. This kind of stuff gets people very emotional. But the organizations tend to deny it and circle the wagons.”
Namie said bullying can sometimes be the byproduct of work environments where top administrators hold unreasonably high expectations of middle managers, who in turn feel they must berate employees into trying to meet those expectations with insufficient resources.
“Produce at any cost is the mantra, and they don’t pay enough attention to how it’s done,” Namie said.
That is a sentiment echoed by union activists, who are hoping the survey results will force the university to put in place better training programs for managers and systems for rooting out bullies. As with alcoholism, Livingston said the solution begins with the admission that a problem exists.
“I’d like to see the university acknowledge that they do have a bullying problem,” Livingston said. “We hear all the time about how many employees just live in dread of their bosses.”