Workplace bullying can be so severe that the target can literally find no way out. If the harassment became too severe, most of us would just quit the job, but others could find themselves trapped for professional, financial, or psychological reasons. A 2003 study of 1,000 people who self-reported themselves as victims of workplace bullying showed that 25% had suicidal thoughts and 39% were diagnosed with depression.
In January, a Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) examiner, Stuart Levitan, ruled the firing of employee and alleged workplace bully, Rachel Koester, was justified, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. She’s implicated in the longstanding and severe workplace bullying of Philip Otto, who was 52 when he killed himself in March 2012. At the hearing, his wife, daughter, and co-workers detailed a pattern of bullying by fellow employees at the state’s Oakhill Correctional Institution. Otto was a 20-year veteran of the Department of Corrections. He died just months short of retiring with full benefits.
Levitan ruled the firing of Koestner, a correctional officer, justified based on an internal investigation of Otto’s death involving dozens of prison staffer interviews. Specifically, he found the following:
- Oakhill officials failed to investigate or properly respond to several alleged instances of bullying and harassment among staff, including some reported by Koester after Otto’s death.
- The Department of Corrections (DOC) committed “widespread errors” in the transcription of investigative interviews with “several witnesses testified that statements attributed to them were inaccurate.”
- Correctional officers, including Otto, who had transferred from a juvenile facility that had closed were harassed because their seniority made it easier to get better shifts, overtime, and vacation days at Oakhill.
- Oakhill Sgt. Anthony Hakenson told investigators that Otto had informed him that “there were four employees on second shift—Mudd, another woman, and two men—who ‘every single day they called him a fag, worthless, a coward, a snitch, a big (expletive) sissy. Every day. He told me that there were four people doing it on a regular basis.’”
- Koester “was an active participant in creating, and attempting to cover up, a toxic environment that profoundly impaired the operations at (Oakhill).”
- “A corrections officer who treats co-workers as Koester treated (another officer) and other (Ethan Allen School) transferees, and then lies during an investigation into her conduct, forfeits her right to employment by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.”
A Wisconsin DOC spokeswoman claimed they handled the fallout from Otto’s death with a thorough investigation and took what they believed were appropriate personnel actions.
Koestner, who denies bullying Otto, noted that the decision isn’t finalized and will be reviewed by the WERC. Two other DOC sergeants are also appealing their firings, while another accepted early retirement. After Otto’s death, Oakhill’s warden, Deirdre Morgan, was promoted.
Local Anti-Bullying Laws
Both Maryland and Virginia have introduced “healthy workplace” bills meant to prevent workplace bullying.
State and federal anti-discrimination law can provide some protections if bullying can be linked to a protected basis such as race, color, sex, or religion.
Common-law causes of action (those developed over years of court decisions, not through state or federal statutes) offer a possibility for seeking compensation due to workplace bullying. They could include the following claims:
- intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress,
- breach of contract, or
- unlawful termination.
Intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress is one of the more common torts when bullying is an issue. In these cases, a plaintiff needs to show (1) that the defendant’s conduct was intentional or reckless and (2) that it was outrageous, extreme, and intolerable, going beyond the limits of what would be considered generally acceptable behavior. The plaintiff would also need to show the conduct caused severe emotional distress that resulted in harm.
Victims of workplace bullying may also be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if they develop mental health issues like chronic anxiety, chronic sleep loss, and depression, even if these conditions are temporary.
Summing It Up
Some of the practical steps you could take when dealing with a workplace bully, as suggested by US News & World Report, include the following:
- Be objective: Look at the situation objectively and try to decide whether the situation is as bad as you think or whether you might just be reacting emotionally. Get feedback from co-workers.
- Stand up for yourself: Unlike the bully, act like an adult. Be polite and professional. If you allow yourself to be bullied, it will never stop. Try to set boundaries.
- Document: Keep notes and memos of what happened, when, and who was present.
- Get superiors involved: Once you’ve documented your situation well, discuss the situation with human resources or the bully’s supervisor (assuming there is one). Realistically, you may not make much headway, but as long as you handle it professionally, you’re doing the right thing, and you can hope for the best.
- Move on: When all else fails and getting help is no help, leave so you can keep your health and sanity. This isn’t about the bully winning; this is about taking care of yourself.
- See a lawyer before you quit: An attorney may be able to help you get out of the job AND negotiate a monetary severance agreement.
If you find yourself the target of a workplace bully, contact our office so we can talk about the situation, what’s been done, what harm you’ve suffered, and how to move forward. Ignoring the problems won’t make it go away.