Workplace bullying 2010: “Bullycides,” Breakthroughs, and Backlash

The year 2010 was a significant one for the emerging American movement to stop workplace bullying. Here is my attempt to characterize major developments of the past year.

“Bullycides”

An unfortunate but apt term entered our lexicon this year, “bullycide,” referring to suicides linked to bullying at work and schools.

In the workplace context, two such deaths became especially prominent. One involved the July suicide of Kevin Morrissey, an editor at the University of Virginia’s Virginia Quarterly Review, which was linked to severe bullying by his supervisor, the journal’s editor-in-chief.

Another involved the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, a health care worker whose story was shared with the Wisconsin legislature when it deliberated upon the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (see below for more on the HWB). We also heard about similar tragedies in other countries, such as the bullying-related suicide of Brodie Panlock, a young Australian woman who worked as a waitress.

On a very related note, suicides of bullied children figured prominently in the news this year. For example, the suicide of 15-year-old Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince attracted national news coverage. The suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi following the Internet posting of his intimate encounter with a man led to proposed federal legislation to protect college students from bullying and harassment.

Breakthroughs

Workplace bullying became more prominent in the realm of employment relations and in the public eye generally. The most significant breakthrough was how the movement to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill entered the mainstream of the news. Although the bill has yet to be enacted, the state senates of both New York and Illinois passed versions of it, with the progress in New York attracting considerable media attention.  (Go here for my brief interview on MSNBC and here for a piece in Time magazine by Adam Cohen.)

Growing public support for workplace bullying legislation was evidenced in an online poll by Parade magazine, a popular Sunday insert in dozens of newspapers across the country. Some 93 percent of respondents voiced support for the proposition that workplace bullying should be illegal, a remarkable showing even taking into account the non-scientific nature of the survey.

Backlash

It is a truism that the mass media like to build up and then tear down. We saw that turn with workplace bullying in the U.S. during the second half of 2010. Less flattering stories questioning the basis of the anti-bullying movement and characterizing it as an increasingly well-heeled industry appeared in prominent news outlets.

In addition, opposition to workplace bullying legislation showed a more public side. For example, after the New York state senate passed the Healthy Workplace Bill, the Society for Human Resource Management, the nation’s largest association of human resources professionals, came out in opposition to it. Others continued to opine that the legislation is a “job killer” because the threat of litigation would chase employers elsewhere.

Work to be done

The end of a calendar year provides a convenient opportunity to look back and assess. I think there are firm grounds for optimism: A term that few people used and understood a decade ago has now entered the mainstream of American employment relations, and even the backlash is a sign that the message is getting through.

But make no mistake about it, the abuse continues. Untold numbers of people suffer because of it, and thousands of organizations — knowingly or not — lose productivity and employee loyalty due to this form of mistreatment. In sum, the progress we have made to date must inspire us to do more.

8 responses

  1. Jodie’s Auntie here – What a great piece, David! And move on we will, in every way possible. Three years ago I was so aware of what was happening to Jodie. Her many tearful calls recounted incident after incident that one would have thought had been left behind on the childhood playground or the high school commons. But not so.

    Time and again I would encourage her to document, document, document. But her woeful response would be “I feel ridiculous writing these things down.” In and of themselves, each incident would seem ridiculous, but compounded month after month they took their toll on her self confidence, her spirit, her very soul. We would try to laugh them off in our phone conversations, think of solutions, and remind her that just months before the abuse started, the supervisor had written in Jodie’s review “If I could clone Jodie I would..” [though part time, her work and attitude were exemplary.] Shortly thereafter the supervisor’s abuse became a living hell for Jodie, as well as co-workers witnessing the abuse.

    But nothing ever prepared me for the call, that at age 31, Mommy of two little children, my beautiful niece whose neck I had just nuzzled and kissed goodbye three weeks earlier in our beloved Florida, had ended her life.

    If one believes there is a purpose in life, then I believe Jodie’s story is the drive behind the spirit in which she lived, and now the torch I have picked up, and carry on in her behalf.

    So here we are today. Instead of Googling WorkPlace Psychological Harassment hoping to find a way to deal with what had happened to Jodie, one can now Google: Jodie Zebell, and scores of articles mention her name, including Beverly Peterson’s documentary “No Job is Worth Losing the Precious Gift of Life”, and Dr Lisa Barrow’s book “In Darkness Light Dawns: Exposing Workplace Bullying”.

    So here I quote a legendary figure in U.S History; a tireless champion of the down trodden; a relentless politician who knew the art of compromise to achieve legislation; and, who, for a brief time, I had the privilege of working with, the late Senator Ted Kennedy:

    “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

    So with this motto, I too champion, with all who have taken a stand to pass a law to end Work Place Bullying throughout these United States, as well as the International Community.

    May your Holidays be cherished and the New Year bring us all the fruits of our labor.

    God Bless you all!

    Joie Bostwick
    aka/Jodie Lynne Jones Zebell’s proud Auntie

    • Joie, what can I say but thank you for your resilience and commitment to stopping this form of abuse. It takes a special strength for surviving relatives of someone who died in this way and for this reason to become public advocates for change. You are making that difference in such a courageous manner.

    • I have suffered for so long. I was just diganosed with extreme PTSD and have been forced to take medical leave. I have been with the company for nine years as a star employee.
      It started with death threats on the job and my supervisor making fun of me and offering no protection. The breaking point was a public attack on Facebook for three days in a row. Just because I said on Facebook ” welcome to Tucson Mr. president”

      I feel lucky I had a friend help me understand that I had to get away and heal my self.

      Reading this and orher stories such as this helps a lot knowing that I am not alone and that the problem in rampant in the work place.
      Thank you. From Sunny Tucson Arizona.

  2. Pingback: Workplace bullying 2010: “Bullycides,” Breakthroughs, and Backlash (via Minding the Workplace) « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  3. I only just became truly aware of the impact of workplace bullying last Spring when I did some research on it for a class. Bev Peterson’s videos were especially moving, and were things I could show in my class presentation, along with statistics from the Workplace Bullying Institute. The human faces, the stories of Jodie and Marlene, moved me very much. Sometimes it was hard to be objective in reporting on the subject. Ms. Bostwick, your niece turned me into an activist on this front. I know you will always miss her. It’s the least we can do to get laws passed in every state that make workplace bullying illegal. I cannot believe it is possible to bully a person to death in this country and there are virtually no penalties.

  4. Workplace Bullying is alive and growing in the workforce.
    I beg all of you to please, please stand and be heard! Let’s do everything it takes to stop this torture.
    I was forced to quit a job due to bullying and constant harrassment by another female (boss). My doctor recommended it due to mental, emotional, and physical demise. We have got to take a stand!!!

  5. We’re working down here in Texas for the bill as we’ve identified this as a serious problem in our area. Healthcare organizations can be the worst. It’s all about raising the level of awareness, educating our representatives, etc. Female on female bullying is especially prevalent and destructive. Also, people don’t always realize that managers can be bullied by their staff, so it’s not always top-down. I have so many stories told to me by individuals in the hospital where I used to work that would break your heart. I wonder if some will ever get over what they went through. Counseling can help, and I urge everyone to seek it. Also, it’s critical to choose your exit strategy. Exert as much control as you can if/when you leave.

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