January 24, 2008
"Healthy Workplace Bill" would protect employees who feel the bite of a tormenting boss
Special to The Seattle Times
In her nightmares, Jaymie Lennon's former boss calls her an idiot, undermines her confidence, tells other employees that Lennon is "unstable" and "mentally ill," and regularly threatens to fire her.
Just, she says, like in real life.
Cary Stidham says the same boss called him "stupid" in front of others, and degraded him in meetings with clients. He saw her throw phones, and kick walls and file cabinets.
They're talking about Louise Long, director of the Seattle Marathon Association. While her organization is under scrutiny for its finances and her possible conflicts of interest, what's come to light is a problem familiar in lots of workplaces: Long — hardcharging, intense and, some would argue, successful — was seen by some as an office bully.
While recently visible, she's hardly alone. Abrasive bosses haunt the corridors of power (former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton browbeat subordinates), the basketball court (Bobby Knight was famous for throwing chairs to express his displeasure), or the smallest office.
More than one-third of workers — 54 million Americans — say they have experienced workplace bullying, according to a 2007 Zogby International poll commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute.
Do you have an office bully story?
- Workplace Bullying Institute
- Project for Wellness and Work-Life, Arizona State University
- Washington Employment Lawyers Association
A workplace bully may shout, swear, call employees names, intimidate, humiliate, tarnish reputations, sabotage and destroy workplace relationships. And unless the victim is part of a protected class (defined by gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability) or covered by an employment contract, such behavior is legal.
"There is no law that says you can't be a bully," says Chris Young, an employment attorney with Peterson, Young, Putra, Fletcher in Seattle.
Psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie, founders of the Bellingham-based Workplace Bullying Institute, want harassed workers to have better options. They're pushing the "Healthy Workplace Bill," sponsored by Rep. Kelli Linville (D-Bellingham), which would give employees the right to sue their employer if their health or economic livelihood is harmed by an abusive workplace.
While the bill doesn't use the term "bully," Gary Namie defines it as "repeated nonphysical, health-impairing psychological mistreatment that falls outside discriminatory harassment."
According to the Zogby poll, 44 percent of the time employers react to reports of bullying by doing nothing.
"Employers are not motivated to stop bullies because there is no law, no consequence," Namie says. "They write it off as someone's 'management style.' And there are benefits; companies think the bullies get results, think they are indispensable."
Workplace bullying takes a toll, on employees and on business. Health studies show that work-related stress can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, strokes, heart attacks, chronic fatigue and economic devastation from being fired or forced to leave.
Tales from the front
Jaymie Lennon, 28, remembers crying every day during the four months she worked for the Seattle Marathon Association. One time, Lennon was at the hospital, literally sick from stress.
"She kept calling," Lennon says of Louise Long. "She would say, 'I don't care if you're sick. You need to get back here.' " One day Lennon went to lunch and never returned to the office.
Cary Stidham, now 29, quit the Marathon Association soon after Lennon did, at the end of 2006. After being denied unemployment benefits, he appealed and described to a judge why he quit: the yelling and screaming; how Long called him "stupid"; how, in a meeting with a client, she laced comments about Stidham with profanities; how she rolled her eyes when he told her she shouldn't speak to him like that. The judge ruled in Stidham's favor.
"I didn't want to be a whistle-blower," Stidham says. "[But] I have literally never met anyone who treated people like that."
Long acknowledges that her management style has been abrasive, but she says that the months just before and after the marathon are stressful.
"When you're working on an event, the staff has to be willing to keep up with that kind of pace," she says.
Long won't talk about claims that she threw things or swore at employees; she does say that about a year ago her board of directors gave her a set of "management expectations" to work on. She says she has made changes.
"It's pretty calm around here now," she says. "Anyone would be happy to work here."
The bottom line
A bullying boss is bad for business, experts say. Talented people leave, companies get a bad reputation, morale plummets. And there is a cost to the company in absenteeism, lack of productivity and high turnover.
Nowhere is it written that a boss can't be petty or mean — except in England, Norway, France and Sweden, whose health-and-safety laws include protection against bullies.
Four other states will consider a version of Namie's Healthy Workplace Bill this year. In all, he has pitched it to 13 states, but none has adopted it. An anti-bullying bill proposed in Washington's last legislative session never made it out of committee.
"We have animal cruelty laws," Namie says, "but we don't have human cruelty laws."
Rebecca Morris has been a broadcast and print journalist for 34 years. She teaches journalism at Bellevue Community College.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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