When Rohna Moniz, a former probation officer in Northern California, first met her new boss, she had no idea her life would plunge into a living hell.
According to Moniz, her new boss was rude and abusive. She frequently yelled at subordinates, berated employees in public and punished those who questioned her authority by handing out undesirable work assignments.
"The whole effect in the department [was] that no one wanted to talk to anyone else," Moniz said. "Everyone was afraid of losing their jobs if they didn't do exactly what she wanted them to do."
Moniz believes she was singled out for abuse because she got on her boss' bad side. And she says the results were traumatic. Her blood pressure rose. She developed stomach problems, and she rarely had a proper night's sleep.
||Do you think employers are more hostile or less hostile toward employees than 20 years ago?:
|| More hostile (39%)
Less hostile (31%)
About the same (19%)
I don't know (11%)
When the chance came to retire, she jumped on it.
"It wasn't until months later that I began to realize I (was) laughing again, and that I had a sense of humor," she said. "My children used to say 'Mom, you've got to lighten up.' They never associated it with what was happening at work and neither did I."
Moniz told her story last month at a conference in Oakland, Calif., sponsored by the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying. The group invited several speakers to address what some say is a growing problem of emotional abuse on the job.
To be fair, work tensions and personality conflicts between bosses and their employees are hardly new issues. Surely, no one expects a workplace to routinely function in a pleasant, cooperative manner, especially in a competitive environment where aggressive, "take-charge" attitudes often get rewarded.
Nonetheless, some observers believe workplace bullying goes further. True harassers cross the line by using fear and intimidation to control and dominate subordinates. The results can be serious for those on the receiving end, prompting stress-related illnesses and depression.
Psychologist Gary Namie, who co-founded the campaign with his wife, Ruth, a psychotherapist, defines workplace bullying as "repeated, deliberate mistreatment that harms the recipient," or as "the intentional infliction of emotional distress."
|What do you think is the number one thing that makes employers belligerent?
|| Inexperience (10%)
Difficulty in striking work/life balance (14%)
Small labor pool has supplied managers with employees with less experience than they are used to (11%)
Pressure to produce (51%)
None of the above (13%)
That could include everything from downplaying or belittling a worker's
contributions in front of others, to verbally harassing a worker, to simply ignoring requests for information.
"This is not about rudeness," Namie said. "These are systematic assault
campaigns. The bullies try to redefine the target's persona. They interfere with their reputations. They turn co-workers against them."
Namie and his wife founded the group because of experiences that Ruth had on a job with an emotionally abusive boss. They say they have unearthed a large, "silent epidemic" of bullied employees who can't get their employers to take action on their complaints.
"Schoolyard bullying is recognized and well-documented, but no one talked about the workplace," he said.
Yet, other workplace observers say most large companies have some channel for conflict resolution, whether it's between co-workers or between a boss and an employee.
But Namie insists that victims rarely take their complaints to higher ups, because they often are dismissed.
"The first place they run is human resources," Namie said. "But human
resources denies it happens. They trivialize it minimize it. They say you have a thin skin and you've got to learn to take it."
Namie's goal is to bring the issue to the forefront. And so far, he and his team are making some progress.
||What should HR do about "bullying"?
|| More closely survey employees about treatment they receive (35%)
Increase training of managers (42%)
Watch for hostile behavior more closely in pre-employment testing (19%)
Nothing because as far as I know, bullying isn't a big problem (1%)
None of the above (3%)
In a survey of over 1800 Michigan residents, Loraleigh Keashly, a professor at Michigan's Wayne State University, found that over 20 percent indicated they had been "significantly mistreated" by someone at work in the last twelve months.
Such mistreatment includes being glared at, belittled in front of others, ignored, blamed for other people's mistakes or having false rumors spread about them.
"There are a lot of people who have a lot of hostility directed to them," Keashly said. "Very little attention is paid to these types of behaviors, and yet its very frequent. When you talk about it, people know what you're talking about."
David Yamada, an associate law professor at Boston's Suffolk University, has begun to explore the legal ramifications of emotional abuse on the job. Overall, he said victims of workplace bullying have little recourse in the courts.
"The existing laws are not adequate," he said.
That's because personal injury lawsuits or discrimination complaints do not address emotional abuse in the workplace. We are where we were 30 years ago regarding workplace sexual harrassment, according to Yamada.
"We knew it existed, but it was seen as part of having a job," he said. "But the bottom line is it's a devastating experience for anyone."
The problem is giving the courts guidelines for identifying workplace
bullying, and that means defining it in terms of action and frequency.
Until a clearer picture emerges, not much can be done to protect victims.
"We are sailing in somewhat unchartered waters here," Yamada said.