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Dealing with bullies in the workplace

Victims say the problem is tangled by workers’ fear of retribution, lack of legal protections, and concerns about what constitutes abusive behavior.

Carol Anne Geary (center, with husband David and Representative Ellen Story) says bullying led to her being hospitalized, and eventually fired.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Carol Anne Geary (center, with husband David and Representative Ellen Story) says bullying led to her being hospitalized, and eventually fired.

Carol Anne Geary is a veteran librarian who loved her profession and went back to school, while working, to earn a master’s degree in library science. But her passion turned into a nightmare when, she says, she was bullied on the job to such an extent that she was hospitalized with high blood pressure and other health issues.

Geary, who lives in Shrewsbury, was working at a library in another town where she says other staffers verbally abused and excluded her, spoke to library patrons about her in derogatory terms, and made disparaging remarks about gay issues, knowing that she has a gay son.

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When Geary took a short leave, on her doctor’s orders, she was bombarded with phone calls, asking her why she couldn’t work from home. The truth was, she could hardly get out of bed. The library, she says, fought her workers’ compensation claim, and then fired her when she was too sick to return to work. “Workman’s comp — they understand if you hurt your leg on the job. But it’s almost impossible to prove that you’re sick because of bullying,” says Geary, who doesn’t want to identify the library because she fears her former co-workers. “We need to make the workplace safe and healthy.’’

In recent months, a spotlight has been turned on the issue of workplace bullying by some high-profile local cases, including Suffolk County Register of Probate Patricia Campatelli, who was suspended over allegations of punching a subordinate after a holiday party. A report by a court-appointed investigator said she “created a fearful atmosphere” in the office.

In July, Leslie Berlowitz resigned as head of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge following several accusations that included subjecting employees to frequent tirades, prompting some to quit in a matter of days or weeks. One former worker recalled that Berlowitz barred entry to the employee kitchen for weeks by posting yellow crime scene tape over the doorway because a worker left a dirty spoon in the sink.

Research suggests that the problem is widespread, with as many as one in four workers saying they have been subjected to abusive conduct on the job. And state legislators are considering a bill to combat it.

Given the apparent scope of the problem, why does it remain so shrouded?

‘[S]tories . . . are heart-breaking about people who suffer because this is not yet illegal. Sexual harassment is illegal, but bullying is not.’

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For starters, workers fear retribution. Most of those who agreed to speak to the Globe about workplace bullying did not want their names used because some still remain on the job while others are seeking new employment. Some who got a settlement from their employer said they could not speak because a confidentiality agreement was part of the deal.

The stories they tell are darker than ordinary on-the-job stresses and strains. They include bosses so toxic that doctors have recommended workers quit their jobs for the sake of their health. There are public humiliations, exclusions, ostracism, impossible demands, threats, and even physical confrontations.

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According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying constitutes “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.”

An institute survey shows that 27 percent of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work, and another 21 percent have witnessed it. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents are aware that such bullying occurs.

Gary Namie, a social psychologist who founded the institute with his wife, Ruth, says that 65 million workers are affected by bullying, either as targets or witnesses. The institute is behind legislation that would outlaw it. “The stories out there are heartbreaking about people who suffer because this is not yet illegal,” says Namie. “They’re treated as if their complaints are illegitimate. Sexual harassment is illegal, but bullying is not.”

Last winter, when she walked into a pub in a town south of Boston, the new waitress thought she had it made. The place was new, it was cool, and as a veteran waitress of 20 years, she thought it would be a good gig, not too far from her Foxborough home.

“Almost immediately, bad things started happening,” says the woman, who did not want her name used. Her second week, a waitress was fired after a rumor spread that she’d said something unflattering about the owner. Female staffers were regularly reprimanded by managers and the owner, who would sit at the bar and drink and “get in your face and yell at you,” she says.

Two months after she started, she was fired because she had placed an appetizer order two minutes late. The manager told her that her customers were “going hungry,” though no one had complained to her.

“I was stunned,” the woman says. “This is the first time I’ve ever been fired. Getting yelled at, having rumors started about you, and public humiliation were literally all part of a day’s work.”

For years, school bullying has been in the news, and in 2010, Massachusetts passed legislation in the wake of Phoebe Prince’s suicide after she was bullied at South Hadley High School. Less well known is the case of her teacher, Deb Caldieri, who after she criticized how the school dealt with the bullying behavior that led to the suicide, said she felt humiliated by administrators and was forced from her job. School officials have denied mistreating her or acting unfairly.

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A bill currently before the Massachusetts Legislature would allow a victim to sue an employer, a co-worker, or both for reinstatement, back pay, medical expenses, and damages for pain and suffering. “It creates a civil legal claim for severe workplace bullying, if it can be proved that it caused physical or mental harm and was intended to cause stress or harm,” says David Yamada, a Suffolk University law professor who wrote the legislation.

The bill, he says, also provides incentives for employers to minimize liability if they can show they acted responsibly and had policies in place that they followed. But the Healthy Workplace Bill is stuck in a House committee, and the legislative session ends July 31.

This is the third attempt to get it passed. “There’s so much employer resistance to this,’’ Namie says. “It’s just sickening.” Massachusetts would be the first state in the country to pass a comprehensive workplace-bullying bill.

Part of the opposition to the measure involves questions of how to tell the difference between innocent teasing and harassment or a tough boss and a bully.

Representative Keiko Orrall, a Lakeville Republican, opposes the bill because she believes the definition of bullying is too subjective. “You may think it’s bullying, but I may be just kidding around,” Orrall says. “I just don’t see how it could be proved.”

Orrall also believes the bill could hurt business in Massachusetts. “To me, it feels like another mandate. It doesn’t help business, and I think it could inhibit businesses from hiring people. Employers need to have freedom to work with their employees.”

Though she says she opposes any sort of bullying behavior, Orrall says more awareness, not a law, is needed.

Yamada disagrees. “Most of us can distinguish between a bad boss and a malicious boss or co-worker,” he says. “It boils down to some type of malicious intent. This is going after someone with the intent to rub them out of the workplace.”

Which is what one man says happened to him at a prominent Boston area university where he had worked for eight years, with colleagues he liked and good job evaluations. He had worked his way into a relatively senior position, and then a new boss arrived.

“I began to realize I was gradually being marginalized by my supervisor,” says the man, who is in his early 40s. “I was not being included in meetings, the more interesting aspects of my job were being farmed out to others, and I was not being given information germane to what I do.”

When he went to the university’s human resources department, he was told that he was making a serious complaint against a co-worker. “I felt very much that rather than helping me out, HR was on the side of what I consider the aggressor,” he says.

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The man’s blood pressure soared, and he developed insomnia. On his doctor’s recommendation, he took a month’s leave of absence, but when he returned, he learned that human resources had not acted on his complaint.

That’s when he decided to quit. Others have left, too, but the alleged bully remains. “What’s insidious about bullying is that it’s under the radar because people solve the problem by just getting another job,” he says.

In 1997, Greg Sorozan became president of the SEIU/NAGE Local 282, which represents 2,700 state employees. Sorozan is the Massachusetts co-coordinator, along with Yamada, of the Healthy Workplace Bill. He became an activist after, he says, he was bullied out of the state Department of Social Services.

Sorozan was a longtime employee at DSS — now the Department of Children & Families — starting as a caseworker and working his way up to unit supervisor. He’d been there 20 years when a new manager came in.

“This person commenced to basically ruin every single project that our unit had been working on,” says Sorozan. “She caused half the unit to quit. My job kept changing almost every day with more expectations, requirements, and things I was not provided adequate resources to do. Over a period of eight months, I was getting sicker and sicker. As a longterm employee of DSS, I knew the dynamics of abuse and neglect inside and out, and this director was a horror.”

Sorozan called his union, but the issue of bullying was not covered in the contract. Vowing to change that, Sorozan became more active, eventually becoming president. The contract between the union and the Commonwealth now says that “behaviors that contribute to a hostile, humiliating or intimidating work environment are unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” and it allows for grievance procedures.

But private employees are not covered, and Sorozan has about 5,000 volunteers who are lobbying for the Healthy Workplace Bill, most of them victims of bullying.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, men are the perpetrators in 69 percent of the cases, women in 31 percent. Men are the targets 40 percent of the time, women 60 percent.

Though bullies are sometimes fired, they often aren’t.

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Joseph Grenny, a social scientist who focuses on workplace issues, did a recent survey in which nine out of 10 people say they have witnessed excessive office bullying for more than a year, and more than half say that the bullying persists for more than five years.

The study reveals that bullies often have longer job tenure than their targets. Grenny, coauthor of “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High,” attributes that to a culture of silence. According to his survey, two in three people say they deal with bullies by avoiding them, while only 31 percent confront them.

“There’s this collective powerlessness, which is remarkable,” says Grenny. “Social control is the most effective way to stamp out bullying, but that’s not happening.”

One man who recently quit his job at Boston University says that particularly in a weak job market, workers may feel they can’t help one another. “I don’t want them to lose their kid’s tuition because they stood up for me, or lose their retirement. If there were plenty of jobs around, people would stand up, but the reality is it’s hard now.” The man had been at BU for 13 years when a new boss began to exclude him from meetings and badmouthed employees and programs.

While the pub waitress was struggling with her difficult bosses at work, her husband understood completely. He had been bullied out of a job at a Walmart store south of Boston after a new manager took over and yelled at and belittled employees loudly enough for customers to hear.

“I was afraid to stand up to him because I needed my job,” says the worker, who despite good evaluations over four years was now being written up for infractions such as taking too long on a break. When he finally did speak up, his boss denied everything, called the man “a cry baby,” and fired him.

The employee is now working in a job he loves for a boss he admires. “He’s awesome. It’s a good working relationship. It’s a world of difference. It’s professional.”

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Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.
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