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Apr 06 2011

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Bullying at work draws attention

By Thomas Olson, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW

Nancy Sadie of Ambridge is not easily intimidated, but a bully tested her limits in her last job.

A co-worker at the former Bellevue Suburban General Hospital where Sadie was a staff nurse from 2000 to 2003 frequently became confrontational, she said.

“She was really rude. She would bark at you,” said Sadie, 58, who recalled that when she returned to work after an excused two-hour absence for a friend’s funeral, the bully “went ballistic and chewed me out really good.”

There is no law — state or federal — against such conduct, legal experts say, giving victims little recourse other than to leave the job.

“I went to the (human resources) department and was totally ignored,” Sadie said. She got no further with her inquiry at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sadie now teaches coding and billing to nurses Downtown.

The former Bellevue Suburban is now a campus of Allegheny General Hospital, part of the West Penn Allegheny Health System. Spokeswoman Stephanie Waite would not comment, citing employee confidentiality.

About 35 percent of workers believe they have been bullied in their places of employment, according to a Zogby International poll of 4,210 Americans last year. The institute defines bullying as “repeated verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation or humiliation” by a boss or co-worker.

The survey, commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash., found 62 percent of bullies were men and 58 percent of targets were women. The poll did not offer data by state or metro market.

“It’s unfortunate and unfair, but under the law, the (bullying) has to be because of race, sex, religion, disability, national origin or age” to violate law, said David Spear, a labor and employment lawyer at Goldman Schafer & Spear, Downtown.

Yet the issue is drawing attention, if not legal protection, experts say.

“The more enlightened management teams develop policies and training, so they don’t engage in that type of behavior or tolerate it,” said David Baker, CEO of HC Advisors LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Sewickley. “Others are back in the 1960s.”

HC Advisors sometimes includes bullying or “hostile work environment” material in its training sessions at companies nationwide, Baker said. He could not provide client names.

In 2003, California became the first state to consider legislation to end workplace bullying, though legislators didn’t pass a law. Since then, 19 other states introduced similar legislation, according to the institute, but none passed laws. Pennsylvania is not among the states.

West Virginia lawmakers looked at curbing bullying with a “Healthy and Safe Workplace Act.” The bill, referred to committee, never made it to the House floor for a vote and died when the legislature adjourned for the year on March 12.

“We don’t need lawsuits. We just need employers to pay attention,” said Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute. The organization seeks to publicize such bullying and ways to eradicate it.

Bank of New York Mellon Corp. views vigilance against workplace bullying as a matter of “basic human dignity” and “employee retention,” said Carl Melella, head of employee relations.

“Through our code of conduct, we outline a work environment that is free from discrimination, harassment, intimidation or bullying of any kind, as those types of behavior are inconsistent with our values,” Melella said.

Michael Mullin, H.J. Heinz spokesman, said his company “has a comprehensive policy that does not tolerate harassing conduct that interferes with an individual’s work performance, or that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”

U.S. Steel, said spokeswoman Erin DiPietro, “prohibits discriminatory or harassing conduct by our employees and any non-employees working under the control of our company. Specific company policies, rules and procedures clearly outline the consequences for engaging in such behavior and provide detailed instructions for how employees can report potential violations.”

Namie, a native of Washington, Pa., founded the institute in 1997, after his wife was the victim of a bully at the California psychiatric clinic where she worked.

“They were both professional women, and we didn’t know what to make of that,” Namie said. “Current laws don’t give you a solution to that.”

“We get inquiries about (bullying),” said Colleen Ramage Johnston, a labor and employment attorney at Rothman Gordon, Downtown.

“If an employer doesn’t think the bullying will lead to litigation, they might just interpret it as a personality conflict and do nothing,” she said. “Because the employer is not liable under the law for having a bully in the workplace, the victim has to see if they can take legal action against the bully. But that’s often not successful.”


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