Bullying at work gains visibility
The worst moment of Katina Perry's job nightmare happened to take place at home. One afternoon in 2001, in the fog of depression, she decided to end the torment. She called a few...
Seattle Times business reporter
The worst moment of Katina Perry's job nightmare happened to take place at home. One afternoon in 2001, in the fog of depression, she decided to end the torment.
She called a few mortuaries, got some price quotes on funerals. Then she went into the bathroom and grabbed a razor blade.
Her daughter walked in before Perry could make the first cut. After her panicked husband grabbed the razor, a defeated Perry lay down and fell asleep.
The cause of Perry's misery was a bully, a man who she says flirted, needled, sexually harassed and stalked her, triggering an emotional slide from which Perry hasn't recovered.
Workplace bullying has gained visibility in recent years, partly because a weak economy has miserable employees tolerating bullying a form of psychological abuse that ranges from mild but prolonged teasing to threats of violence because a bad job is better than no job at all.
Unlike Perry, whose bullying included sexual harassment, victims often cannot seek recourse under job-discrimination laws, which protect workers from bias based on race, gender, ethnicity, age or disability.
Bullies' styles differ: Some overtly abuse through humiliation and screaming, others through more-subtle means such as sabotage and gossip. They all have one thing in common, however.
"They have a tremendous need to control," says Gary Namie, a psychologist and founder of The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute based in Bellingham. "They're addicted to it."
Perry was working at the optical lab in Costco's Tukwila store when one of her co-workers began to flirt with her. When she didn't respond, his teasing became sexual and persistent until one morning, after their shift ended at 4 a.m., he exposed himself in the parking lot, according to a lawsuit that Perry later filed.
"His shorts were down and he was doing a little dance," Perry says.
She reported the incident, but Costco's investigators concluded that it was her word against the co-worker's. The company reassigned him to the day shift, and gave Perry a transfer to a Federal Way store.
When the bully began to show up in Federal Way, glaring at Perry as he waited in the checkout line, Perry's fragile emotional state worsened. She began to call in sick and was sleeping excessively. She felt isolated, lonely and angry that her complaints about the bully weren't being taken as seriously as she'd hoped. Her tormenter was still working.
Costco believes this was a case of one person's word against another, and that it handled the matter appropriately.
"I can tell you this," CEO Jim Sinegal says, "we don't tolerate bullying in the workplace and we have plenty of instances where we can show you that's the case."
Even after her legal victory, Perry remains on medical leave and still takes anti-depressants.
"I can't explain it," she says. "I still feel lonely."
Going home in tears
One in six American workers experiences some sort of bullying on the job, according to a 2000 study by Wayne State University in Michigan.
And while there's little scientific research on workplace bullies and their victims, an informal survey by the bullying institute sheds some light: Most of the bullies are bosses, although women are just as likely to be abusive as men. Eighty-four percent of female bullies target other women.
This is the case with one technology worker in Everett, who requests anonymity for fear of losing her job. She says her boss, a woman in her 50s, is giggly and deferential to men, yet jealous, manipulative and controlling with her female employees.
The boss has copied clients on e-mails scolding her team's performance, set up employees to fail with unrealistic expectations, and meddles for no other reason than to remain in control, the worker says.
"I'm used to being an empowered employee. Hand me a task and I'll do it. She can't let a task go without being a part of it."
The bully also frequently denies time off, saying that the workload won't allow it. She once reprimanded the tech worker for holding her husband's hand on company property, saying that such a display of public affection was inappropriate.
The bullying has caused the woman's stress level to rise to the point that she suffers headaches, depression and a stomach ailment that causes her to vomit at work.
"I go home in tears probably two or three times a week. She makes me feel like I'm not valued, that I'm not responsible. There's this very deep feeling of inadequacy and I feel trapped."
More than 80 percent of those bullied lose their jobs, and 41 percent suffer clinical depression, the bullying institute found.
Such psychological abuse carries a price: Workers with high stress levels cost employers 46 percent more in health-care costs than unstressed employees. And those suffering depression cost 70 percent more, according to a 1999 study by the Health Enhancement Research Organization, a national coalition of hospitals and public-health organizations.
Most companies have anti-harassment policies, which often prohibit abusive, insulting or demeaning behavior in general. But in the case of the tech worker, the person charged with enforcing that policy was her bully, the supervisor.
In instances of peer bullying, human-resources departments often chalk it up to a personality clash between co-workers.
Namie, the psychologist and co-author of "The Bully at Work," wonders why employers ignore or minimize the threat of psychological violence.
"We are social animals. You want to mess with people? They'll lose their validation if enough people turn on them and convince them that they're mean, stupid, cruel and worthless."
Teasing gone too far
Even good-natured ribbing can become bullying if it's unwelcome and persistent.
In October, a factory quality-assurance manager filed suit against Newly Weds Foods in Lakewood, Pierce County, for emotional distress when his boss and a co-worker continued to tease him after he'd asked them to stop.
"It got to the point where anytime I had to go to the front office they would make fun of me," says Christopher Eiden, 33. "The way I walked, the way I talked, the way I dressed."
Eiden said it wasn't the nature of the teasing that bothered him, but the fact that it was, in his view, unrelenting. Newly Weds Foods declined to comment while the case is pending.
Many employers might dismiss Eiden's reaction as overly sensitive, but Namie likens such harassment to water torture.
"No single incident would rise to the condition of outrageous conduct. That, reasonable people would agree about," Namie says. "But I will tell you from our experience it's the cumulative impacts, the unremitting exposure that causes the harm. These can seem to be small incidents, but you have to look at the pattern."
Eiden complained to management and received reprimands for his attitude, he says.
He eventually was fired. Eiden couldn't sue under job-discrimination laws because the incidents were not based on his race, gender, ethnicity, age or disability. The only other legal basis is the "intentional infliction of emotional distress," a claim that hasn't been too successful in court.
"If this employee was bullied, treated terribly, there were constant jokes, he does have an arguable claim for emotional stress," says Seattle attorney Michael Reilly, who represents employers.
But he'd have to show that his distress was severe, Reilly adds, and that the bully's conduct was outrageous a high threshold for many victims to meet.
Several countries, including the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden and France, have protection against bullies in their employment or health-and-safety laws.
Namie and Washington state Rep. Kelli Linville (D-Bellingham) are promoting a bill that would educate employers on the effects of workplace bullying. The Legislature is expected to take up the matter next year.
Other states, including Massachusetts, California, Oklahoma and Oregon, also are considering legislation on bullying.
Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or firstname.lastname@example.org