Nancy J. White, "Life" Writer
in advertising was going well, until a new manager took over the department.
"Life went to hell," says the 38-year-old woman.
He repeatedly belittled her, nagged her, stole her ideas, nit-picked about
her work, made lewd comments, tried to control her whereabouts and threatened
to fire her.
she complained to the human resource department or to his boss. A few
of her colleagues also reported ill treatment. But nothing was done. In
fact, the bullying increased.
Finally, she broke. "I became like a zombie. I couldn't eat, couldn't
sleep, couldn't control my emotions. I'd cry walking down the street."
She went on health leave and hired a lawyer. After more than a year, she
and the company settled, although for less than she had hoped and with
no admission of wrongdoing. "It's very disappointing, but I needed
the money," explains the woman, who is now out-of-work. "In
the end, they won. I feel very
jaded about the whole process."
Earlier this year, this woman and about 20 others contacted the Star after
the Life section ran a story about workplace bullying. They were men and
women from a wide variety of occupations:employees of hospitals, colleges,
unions, banks, high-tech companies, the city and the federal government.
They all had endured persistent hostile treatment from a boss or a co-worker
that had taken a heavy toll on them, eroding their self-confidence and,
for many, seriously impairing physical and mental health.
"I went from a fully functional, productive person to a nervous,
paranoid, depressed individual," wrote one woman.
Some were on sick leave. Some were trying to battle back. All were looking
According to a U.S. study, one in six workers is affected by workplace
bullying. "It's like a cancer that gets into your system and
keeps eating away at you," says one man who quit a job because of
a malicious boss.
Like other types of aggression, workplace bullying can escalate. The perpetrator
may get physically violent or the target may retaliate. In 1999, Pierre
Lebrun, a former Ottawa bus worker with a history of depression, killed
four former co-workers and then himself after years of harassment over
The jury at the coroner's inquest made numerous recommendations, including
workplace protection from psychological violence, such as bullying, teasing
and ridicule. Most cases of such violence are not covered under current
legislation, but some recent legal and policy changes might help bullied
workers, say lawyers. Also, a small body of case law is slowly developing
that extends employees' rights to a hostile-free workplace.
"Changing laws will help, but raising awareness is critical,"
says Lauren Bernardi, lawyer and human resource adviser.
"Companies have failed to see this as equally important as sexual,
racial and other forms of harassment."
enlightened companies offer bully protection, many don't. For the target
of the abuse, there's no easy advice on strategy.
"I wish I'd done it differently," says the 38-year-old woman
mentioned earlier. "I was so bloody naive." Today she would
recognize that. This is just a job. They don't define who I am.' Then,
I'd very enthusiastically look for a new
job while I was still there. I would insist on exit interviews and explain
why I was leaving and provide documented proof. For my mental and physical
health, I would have been a lot better off."
At the Campaign
Against Workplace Bullying, based in Bellingham, WA, president Gary Namie
talks about "bully-proofing," "recognizing that the problem
isn't you, it's the harasser," and "bully-busting" or exposing
"You need to divorce your identity from the job," says Namie,
a psychologist. Sometimes, people need the support of a professional counsellor
to do this. And it's psychologically healthier, he says, for the victim
to reveal the bully. "You're not leaving with your tail between your
He advises appealing to the bottom line, how the bully is harming morale,
productivity. "If the victim speaks emotionally about being hurt,
he's likely denigrated as thin-skinned, a loose cannon."
Many choose to stay and fight, out of principle or practical need. Finding
another job is rarely easy, especially in today's economy.
Strategies will depend on who is the bully. The toughest, says Julian
Barling, associate dean at Queen's University, is when the aggressor is
a subordinate. "Who are you going to cry to? Your supervisor will
say you're supposed to be in charge, and your peers will wonder what's
wrong with you."
But more than 80 per cent of the time, says Namie, the bully is the boss.
A union can be helpful, especially if the collective agreement includes
anti-bullying language. Without a union, it's not always clear where to
go. "Some workplaces are so toxic, it's difficult to know who
to talk to," says Loraleigh Keashly, associate professor of urban
and labour studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.
A frank and non-confrontational talk with the boss early on might prove
successful, depending on why he or she is bullying. Sometimes the person
is well-meaning, but lacks managerial skills. Often, however, it's
a power play: the boss is covering up his or her own inadequacies.
Or the person may perversely enjoy manipulating others.
"It was like the devil just came out of the ground, and bang, he
was my boss," says a 43-year-old man, who had been a rising star
before the bully arrived. "I went through four years of living hell."
The boss isolated him from co-workers, left him in the dark about plans,
was always dissatisfied with his work and kept reducing his duties. "He
kept shutting doors until I was useless." A powerful figure in the
industry, the boss spread the word not to hire this man. Eventually the
employee took a job in a different field, outside the bully's sphere of
influence. "I took a severe hit financially."
"He (the boss) is a very smart, very shrewd, very sick
employee, lawyers say, needs to keep a journal of events: time, place,
quotes, witnesses. Is the problem an occasional bad day or a consistent
pattern of abuse? The worker should also save any pertinent letters and
e-mails, preferably making hard copies and storing the paper trail at
"You can tell someone who has been bullied," says the woman
in advertising. "We have mounds and mounds of paperwork. It's like
we hang on to it as a talisman or protector." The human resource
department may be helpful if the company boasts a strong anti-harassment
or code of conduct policy, says lawyer Bernardi. But many anti-harassment
statements are limited to sexual, racial, religious issues.
Going to the boss's boss can be smart or suicidal. "He might have
hired the person and likes his style," warns Namie.
The backing of colleagues boosts a case. At a head office meeting, a sales
representative for a retail chain was explaining how her manager bullied
her, when four other staff members showed up on her behalf. They presented
a letter detailing how the manager had singled her out for discipline
"I was taken aback that they came," says the woman. "A
former manager told them I needed help and they showed up. I know it had
a big impact on the meeting." With the support of her union, she
was eventually transferred to a different store. The manager later quit.
count on support, say bullying experts. Many co-workers are afraid they'll
be the next target if they speak up. "I was tainted," explains
the 43-year-old man whose boss shut him out of his field. His former friends
deserted him. "It was as if my boss had spray-painted me orange.
I was a marked man."
To do nothing, though, can be dangerous. "In the face of abject humiliation,
who doesn't want to hit back?" says Queen's associate business dean
Barling. "A person ends up taking all their depression and anger
home. If it makes you the kind of person you don't want to be, at some
point you use all your options, even quitting."
One Northern Ontario man tried to ignore his boss's demeaning comments,
threats and curses. But he dreaded going to work and had trouble sleeping.
"I dreamed one night that I beat the crap out of the guy," says
the 53-year-old man. "It was very upsetting. I'm not that type of
person." When the boss threatened him again, the man had to walk
out of the office. "A couple of minutes more and I would have punched
him." The worker is currently on sick leave.
The law is no bulwark against bullying. The Ontario Human Rights Code
offers redress if discrimination can be proved under its 15 prohibited
grounds, such as sex, race, religion. A private member's bill has been
introduced amending the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act to
protect against psychological violence, such as bullying, teasing, ridicule.
But private member's bills rarely become law.
"I introduced it to get the government thinking," says sponsor
Rick Bartolucci, a Liberal MPP from Sudbury.
A case last year, Shah vs. Xerox, makes a worker's rights clearer. Xerox
employee Viren Shah quit and sued for wrongful dismissal. The trial judge
found that a new manager had acted impulsively and without justification
toward Shah and that the treatment made Shah's continued employment intolerable.
The judge awarded Shah damages equivalent to 12 months' notice. The decision
was upheld on appeal.
"You are in effect dismissed when someone makes your life hell,"
explains labour lawyer Marisa Pollock of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell. In Canada's
Labour Code, which covers federally regulated employees, the definition
of danger has been broadened. This could allow for protection against
bullying, say lawyers, although it has not yet been tested. In addition,
a draft policy of the Workers' Safety Insurance Board includes stress-related
illnesses, which, if adopted, could allow bullied employees to claim any
illness that resulted from the bullying as a compensable injury, says
labour lawyer Jeffrey Goodman of Heenan Blaikie.
To educate both managers and workers, some companies are holding seminars
about respect in the workplace. "If employers don't signal their
expectations, no one feels protected," says lawyer Pollock, who runs
such seminars. They're often a joint initiative of unions and management.
She encourages people to talk to their bosses about bad behaviour. "Don't
just suck it up and seethe," she says. "When people hear the
rules apply to everyone across the board it's quite empowering. You don't
have to be Norma Rae to speak up."
Besides a strong anti-bullying policy, a company needs the unflinching
will to enforce it, says Namie. "You can't have the CEO come down
and say, `Oh no, it's Bob. I like Bob.'"
An enlightened head honcho can win hearts and minds. When several sick
leave requests came from one department, the CEO of a small hospital decided
to investigate, says Keashly of Detroit's Wayne State University. The
manager of the afflicted department had gone on holiday, leaving an impossible
workload for her employees. They feared incurring her wrath on her return.
She frequently intimidated the staff and
managed by bullying, according to Keashly.
When the manager returned from holiday, the CEO gave her a choice: work
with personnel to improve her managerial skills or leave. She chose the
former, and was told not to talk to anyone about the matter. Two days
later, she cornered a staffer and accused her of ratting. The staffer
told the CEO, who promptly fired the manager. Says Keashly, "The
loyalty and commitment that CEO won from his staff was phenomenal."