Bellingham couple working to shed light on bullying in the workplace – and help employees to know what their rights are.
by Dave Gallagher
In 1995 Ruth Namie was surprised to discover first-hand that bullying was not just something that happened at the schoolyard, but also in the workplace.
Namie, a clinical psychologist, experienced bullying from “an out-of-control female tyrant,” who represented an HMO.
What was even more disconcerting to Ruth and her husband, Gary, was the fact there was nothing they could do to address the problem from a legal standpoint. Current job discrimination laws protect workers from bias based on race, gender, ethnicity, age or disability. Ruth’s case didn’t fall into those job discrimination rules, because she was being bullied by a female employee.
“Ruth was being harassed, but there was no law to address this kind of issue,” Gary Namie said.
That experience prompted the Namies to launch a campaign against workplace bullying in 1997, which led to the founding of the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute, headquartered in Bellingham.
The campaign has had a huge impact on the Namies’ lives as well as others across the country. They have counseled thousands of people individually, held seminars in the United States and Canada, written a book called “The Bully at Work” (and are starting a second book focusing on what employers can do to address the issue), as well as being interviewed by more than 500 television and print media journalists. Most recently they were interviewed by the Today Show on NBC.
“We’re proud of the fact that we’re considered experts by the media and they have been helpful in getting the word out about this troubling issue – but what is disappointing is that we’re the only ones talking about it,” Gary Namie said. “Workplace bullying can be devastating not only to the targets of the bullying, but ultimately to the company’s bottom line as a result of a high employee turnover rate, low morale and low productivity. The business community is not addressing something that would be in their own best interest to fix.”
Whatcom County Water District No. 10 recently had to address the issue of bullying in the workplace. Jim Naher was hired as the manager of the agency in May 2003, and in his first year he noticed problems with his 15-person staff.
“My employees weren’t talking to me, and there was a real morale problem,” Naher said. “As a manager, I was having a difficult time doing my job because there was so little communication taking place.”
Naher suspected there was some sort of intimidation taking place, so when the County Council began asking its agencies to organize workshops that dealt with harassment, Naher decided to hire the Namies.
After a day-long workshop on identifying bullying in the workplace, there was an opportunity for the employees to talk about it – which nearly all of them did.
“We were stunned to find out what was going on in this agency; there was much more than we suspected,” Naher said. “I think the employees knew that something was wrong, but they didn’t know what to call it. There was one person doing the bullying who was very artful at it. When the other employees realized there was bullying taking place, they were better able to describe what was happening.”
Once it was established that bullying was taking place – with employee intimidation and spreading of false information about other co-workers – Naher decided it was time to create a written policy addressing the issue.
“With the help of Gary (Namie) we became one of the first local entities to put together a workplace policy specifically dealing with bullying in the workplace,” Naher said.
The policy focuses on encouraging employees to step forward and report the problem. Depending on the severity of the accusation, the agency will either begin a resolution process or an investigation.
“Most of the time, the issue isn’t severe and the accused bully doesn’t realize that something they are saying is hurting another person,” Naher said. “Once the problem is pointed out, the situation is resolved.”
With the new policy on workplace bullying in place, Naher said he’s seen an improvement in employee morale.
“At first many of the employees waited to see if I was serious about this new policy. Now people are getting along much better, and you actually hear employees laughing and talking at ease, which was not the case before the new policy was implemented,” Naher said.
Naher suggested that if other companies are having issues with employee bullying, they should first get professional assistance to help develop a policy.
“I think it’s something the state should consider doing as well. We don’t need a huge code book; just a few guidelines. It is a problem that really hurts people as well as productivity,” Naher said.
New legislation a tough sell
While trying to raise public awareness about the issue of workplace bullying, the Namies have also been active trying to create legislation to fix the problem. So far, they’ve had legislation introduced in five different states, but all of the proposed legislation has either died before it came to a vote or did not pass. In Washington, state Rep. Kelli Linville sponsored a bill addressing workplace bullying, but it died in committee.
“One of the biggest challenges is to overcome a reflexive and uninformed business community, who don’t see how this can help the business owner,” Namie said. “With this kind of legislation, the bully is liable, not the company. The business just needs to have policies in place.”
Critics of creating legislation to address workplace bullying say it should be up to companies to handle it through their own policies. Namie disagrees.
“There needs to be a law addressing this issue, because our culture hasn’t been able to address this problem and Americans respond better to laws than just company policies,” Namie said. “When we first started talking about this issue, we had to get past a lot of snickering before we could convince people this is a serious issue. We still have work to do in that regard.”
Workplace bullying is fairly easy for a business owner to spot. Namie said it’s just a matter of looking at the employee turnover rate.
“Bullies tend to drive employees out of the company, so if a particular department is experiencing turnover and a business owner can’t find other reasons why people are leaving, it’s just a matter of figuring out who is doing the bullying,” Namie said.
What is more difficult for business owners is getting rid of the bully. Even though Washington is a state that allows business owners to fire employees at will, Namie has found the employee most likely to leave the company is the one being targeted by the bully.
“A workplace bully tends to be very manipulative and is usually very polite to their bosses while at the same time intimidating all the other employees,” Namie said. “Workplace bullies are also very good at anticipating the moves of the boss, creating situations where other employees are involved in the bullying, and using manipulative techniques such as being overly nice to the boss to protect themselves from being fired.”
“Business owners can fire a bully, but that usually leads to a confrontation, and people in general don’t like confrontations,” Namie said.
Bullying comes in many forms
Namie said workplace bullying can involve a wide range of situations, from teasing that never seems to stop to harsh, aggressive intimidation that includes screaming at people. Namie said it is hostility that is deliberate, repeated and severe enough to harm the person’s health.
“Many times the bullying isn’t a one-time situation of outrageous conduct, but a situation where the incidents accumulate over time, like water torture,” Namie said. “That’s where the genuine harm occurs.”
The tactics used by a workplace bully often include screaming at people, gossiping behind an employees back and smearing that person’s reputation. There is also “the critic,” who finds fault in everything a person does, and “the gatekeeper,” who sabotages an employee’s work by setting unreasonable deadlines and denying proper training.
According to a study by Wayne State University, one in six American workers experiences some sort of bullying on the job.
In his research, Namie found that most of the bullying is done by bosses, and that women are just as likely to be abusive as men. He said 84 percent of female bullies target other women.
When the Namies launched their campaign against bullying in the workplace, they gave out a toll-free number for people to call if they had questions. The response was overwhelming.
“We lost count after 4,300 calls,” Gary Namie said. “We had to change our strategy and offer more seminars. The experience certainly gave us plenty of material for our first book.”
Based on the phone calls they received as well as their own research on the topic, the Namies have found the health-care and education sectors are most prone to having bullies in the workplace.
“There has been a culture of bullying in the health-care industry for some time now. It is so entrenched that nurses almost come to expect it,” Namie said. “What is really disturbing is that as a society we are not taking care of our teachers and students. There are situations not only where teachers bully their students, but administrators bully the teachers. The children witness this bullying and learn that’s the way it should be.”
Despite the huge volume of people he’s talked to who have experienced workplace bullying, Namie believes the number of bullies in the workplace is relatively small. The problem, he said, is that one bully can impact quite a few people.
“It can also take months for a business owner or employees to recognize the problem, and by then, a lot of people have been affected,” Namie said.
As a society, Namie is finding that Americans have not identified workplace bullying as a problem. Namie’s best-attended seminars are in Canada, particularly in Quebec, which has laws in place to combat workplace bullying.
“Canadian businesses have more of a ‘we must tackle this issue’ attitude when it comes to workplace bullying, while American businesses haven’t reached that point yet,” he said.
Steps on dealing with workplace bullying, from the Namie’s book, “The Bully at Work”:
Get support from family and friends. Talking about the problem eases the burden and lowers the chances of stress-related illnesses.
If the bullying is so serious that you are experiencing a loss of sleep or appetite, see a doctor or therapist.
Get witnesses to help build a case against the bully.
Assemble one or more witnesses and confront the bully.
File a complaint. It can be risky for your job, but it does establish a paper trail.
Build a case to remove the bully.
Show the employer the costs of keeping a bully.
Here are some ways to tell if you are being bullied at work, according to Gary and Ruth Namie, founders of The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute. More information about the topic can be found at www.bullyinginstitute.org:
On the job:
You attempt the obviously impossible task of doing a new job without training or time to learn new skills, but that work is never good enough for the boss.
Surprise meetings are called by your boss with no results other than further humiliation.
Everything your tormentor does to you is arbitrary and capricious, and includes working a personal agenda that undermines the employer’s legitimate business interests.
Others at work have been told to stop working, talking or socializing with you.
You constantly feel agitated and anxious, experience a sense of doom, waiting for bad things to happen.
No matter what you do, you are never left alone to do your job without interference.
People feel justified screaming or yelling at you in front of others, but you are punished if you scream back.
The Human Resource department tells you that your harassment isn’t illegal, that you have to “work it out between yourselves.”
You firmly confront your tormentor to stop the abusive conduct and are accused of harassment.
You are shocked when accused of incompetence despite a history of objective excellence, typically by someone who cannot do your job.
Everyone – co-workers, senior bosses, human resources – agrees that your tormentor is a jerk, but there is nothing they will do about it (and deny saying this later when asked to support you).
Your request to transfer to an open position under another boss is mysteriously denied.
Outside of work:
You feel like throwing up the night before the start of your work week.
Your frustrated family demands you stop obsessing about work at home.
Your doctor asks what could be causing your skyrocketing blood pressure and recent health problems, and tells you to change jobs.
You feel too ashamed of being controlled by another person at work to tell your spouse or partner.
All your paid time off is used for “mental health breaks” from the misery.
Your days off are spent exhausted and lifeless; your desire to do anything is gone