WBI-LC Media Story

Taking On Workplace Bullies

By MATT BURGARD
The Courant, Hartford, CT
February 27, 2008

Sarah Ford was fresh out of high school when she took a job as a server in a restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y., a 19-year-old eager to show she could make it on her own.

But within weeks, Ford found her spirit all but crushed by a verbally abusive boss who chastised her in front of customers and other employees. On one occasion, she recalled Tuesday, her boss leaned into a cabinet full of pots and pans and swiped them all on the floor, then ordered her to pick them all up and organize them.

"It was so demeaning. I was down on the floor on my hands and knees in front of all these people," said Ford, who testified at a hearing before the state legislature's labor and public employees committee in support of a bill that would crack down on so-called "workplace bullying."

Ford, who two years later works happily at a Starbucks coffee shop in Bristol, said it was hard for her to overcome the emotional trauma she endured on her first job. She said she hopes the legislation being considered -- which, if adopted, would be the first law of its kind in the country -- will make abusive bosses and co-workers think twice about how they treat their employees.

The bill, which has the support of committee chair state Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, is actually a revised version of a similar bill that failed to reach a full vote of the assembly last year because of concerns about how it might affect businesses. In particular, opponents worried that the bill, which would allow workplace bullying victims to sue their tormentors, could expose employers to potential damages even if they had consistently tried to create a safe environment for workers.

The new legislation aims to protect employers who have acted in good faith by making them exempt from liability if they can show they took steps to prevent bullying behavior on the part of individual employees or supervisors.

Katherine Hermes, who is the head of the Connecticut chapter of the national Workplace Bullying Institute, testified that a national survey conducted last year showed that 34 percent of U.S. workers, or roughly 54 million people, said they had experienced workplace bullying of one kind or another in their lifetimes.

Hermes said her best friend, Marlene Braun, a manager of a California national monument area, killed herself two years ago because of constant harassment and intimidation by her boss. Yet although the majority of bullying cases involve instances of bosses bullying their employees, Hermes said the survey showed that an increasing number of cases are being reported in which employees have bullied either fellow employees or, in some cases, their bosses.

"It's a nuanced thing, and sometimes the subordinates have the power over their bosses," she said. "It's not always top-down."

Hermes said the survey also showed that, although the majority of bullying victims are women, an increasing number of men have reported being bullied as well. And the majority of people who have been identified as bullies, more than 58 percent, were women, Hermes said.

"It's a changing dynamic," she said, adding that academic studies are now being done to understand the phenomenon.

After Ford tearfully testified about her experience with workplace bullying, Prague said the proposed bill will be put to a committee vote in the months ahead and, from there, would probably need to clear the judiciary committee before making it to the assembly floor.

"It makes me very angry that someone would do this to you," Prague told Ford. "But in the end, he'll get his."