Cardiologist Lowell Gerber might seem the unlikeliest of targets for workplace abuse. Hired in 2007 by a small hospital in rural Maine to start a cardiology program, he says he started having trouble on the job after he questioned hospital management about the circumstances of a patient’s death. He claims that soon after, his bosses tried to undermine his ability to do his job. He was assigned exam rooms on opposite ends of the hospital, which cut into his productivity. Equipment and staff he asked for never arrived. He wasn’t given an office, but a cramped exam room to work out of that he shared with a co-worker.
After six months, he was fired and never given a reason.
He wasn’t alone—several of the hospital’s other doctors, on a staff with only 22 physicians--were forced out and not told why, according to a report in the Bangor Daily News. (One said it likely was because he’d cooperated with Maine’s Attorney General in an investigation into one of his hospital colleagues.) The next year, the administrator who fired Gerber was himself ousted, in part because an investigation revealed numerous failures in the hospital’s emergency room procedures, according to the Daily News. Down East Community Hospital spokeswoman Julie Hixson told The Fiscal Times that the hospital will not comment on Gerber’s allegations or the Daily News stories.
Gerber believes he was the target of workplace bullying— defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute as verbal abuse, offensive behavior that threatens or humiliates, or sabotage that keeps work from getting done, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, which studies the issue. (If so, Gerber’s case falls into that last category.)
Bullying has become a buzzword in recent years, following several tragic teenage incidents have highlighted a problem that experts say doesn’t go away once victims and perpetrators leave the schoolyard and enter the office. Victims have a few options for stopping their antagonists, though as in Gerber’s case it usually ends when the target leaves or is fired, say experts. Employers ignore bullying issues on the job at their peril given the long-term costs to their organizations.
In practice, of course, it can be difficult to determine whether the actions of a supervisor represent actual bullying or just a boss’s abrasive personality clashing with a subordinate’s thin skin. Under an anti-workplace bullying bill introduced this year in the Massachusetts legislature, “verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature…” is included in the definition of workplace abuse and could be grounds for an employee to sue.
Jonathan Segal of Philadelphia law firm Duane Morris and SHRM’s Pennsylvania legislative director finds that definition too subjective: “You can see cases that would be obvious, where three employees decide they don’t like one employee, so they yell at him, sabotage him, destroy his work…. But think about the word ‘intimidating.’ Power is intimidating. Is it intimidating to mention to an employee ten times that she hasn’t gotten her job done?” he asks.
Still, a study last year by the Society of Human Resource Management found that 51 percent of companies reported incidents of bullying, and one in five HR professionals say it’s increasing.
Many workplace bullies appear to benefit from keen political skills. In fact, a study in the Journal of Managerial Psychology earlier this year suggested that bullying is exactly what helps the perpetrators stay in favor. “Many bullies are very socially skilled and use their bullying behavior strategically to coerce others into providing them the resources needed to achieve their work-related objectives,” said the researchers.
BAD FOR EMPLOYEES AND EMPLOYERS
Bullying exacts no small toll on employees and companies. More than half of bullying targets reported having panic attacks as a result of the experience, 30 percent said they’d been diagnosed with PTSD, and about 60 percent had heart palpitations or hypertension, according to WBI.
Companies in which bullying occurs pay a price in output: Targeted employees are less productive, feel less dedicated to their organization’s success, and use more sick days, according to Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. In organizations with bullying, morale is lower, stress or depression levels are higher, and trust among co-workers is decreased, a SHRM survey found.
WHAT CAN VICTIMS DO?
Targets of bullying do have choices, says Catherine Mattice, author of a book on stopping bullies and founder of Civility Partners, which trains workers and supervisors on building a positive workplace. First they need to reframe the situation and start thinking of it as a challenge they can get past. “You have to recognize that you’re empowered,” says Mattice.
Equally important is setting up a support system through friends and family. Victims also can try getting support from co-workers, she says, but that’s risky since they can’t appear to be trying to bring their colleagues over to their side; that could be used as evidence that they’re trying to sow division and undermine workplace harmony.
Targets also should find out whether their employer has policies proscribing the bully’s behavior, says Sue Ellen Eisenberg, whose Michigan law firm focuses on employee rights. Some organizations now have specific anti-bullying policies, she says. (Forty percent of those surveyed in 2011 by SHRM did.) Others have guidelines that might cover bullying, like those that protect whistle-blowers, prevent retaliation, prohibit workplace sabotage, or ensure that there’s an open door to management to report behavior that’s disrupting workplace functioning, she says.
A 2012 Wharton study of bullying within the nursing profession found that even in workplaces with an anti-bullying policy, it’s often perceived as unfair or unfairly applied. So workers should document everything; they should start a journal and collect emails and other supporting materials. The goal is to assemble evidence about what the bully’s behavior is costing the organization, says WBI’s Gary Namie. That might include evidence of past litigation by employees who were bullied, settlement of past lawsuits, and workers comp claims related to the person’s behavior.
Then take it to the highest level you can, he suggests. Unless you’re working in a mom-and-pop business, there will be someone who monitors the bottom line. “Find that person and go in like a consultant would and make a fiscal presentation... Strip the emotion away,” Namie says.
Eisenberg says victims can also consult an employment lawyer. Though there are no state laws prohibiting workplace bullying, depending on the specifics the abuse could be covered by harassment, discrimination, or stalking provisions of state or federal law. The WBI cautions that filing a lawsuit can cost $10,000 or more.
For their part, companies are well advised to adopt policies that promote a positive work environment, says Philadelphia attorney Segal. Some of his clients have created guidelines that, while not mentioning bullying, encourage a respectful work environment; many also provide training on the policy and evaluate staff and management on whether their behavior promotes it.
HR departments also need clear guidelines for investigating complaints, says Robert Miller, human resources director at the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District.
In fact, one metric indicates that more companies are getting the message that workplace bullying matters, says Namie. The 2012 WBI survey found that in five percent of cases, bullying ended with the perpetrators, not the victims, being fired. It may not seem like much, but it’s more than double the two-percent figure reported the last time WBI did the survey.
“Management has the ultimate responsibility to understand and manage this behavior,” says Miller. “Just because a person is a high performer is no excuse to accept it.”