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Pushing back

Public Employee Advocate
Summer 2014
Feature story

Workplace bullying is a serious problem that should not be tolerated.

IT CAN BE LOUD and visible, or it can be subtle and discreet, but any way you cut it, workplace bullying is a serious and dangerous problem. Defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators,” workplace bullying—and the emotional and physical toll it takes on its victims—is increasingly attracting the attention and concern of unions and employers.

Efforts to address workplace bullying are consistent with the AFT’s initiative to reclaim the promise of safe and healthy workplaces.

In February, the Kansas Organization of State Employees and AFT-Kansas led the charge in pushing for the introduction of an anti-workplace bullying bill in the state Legislature. “Around our country, from school lunchrooms to professional football locker rooms, the problem of bullying has increasingly come to light,” a KOSE statement about the proposed anti-bullying legislation says. “Kansas is no different, and state workers are asking their legislators to require all state agencies [to] acknowledge and address this important issue.”

A recent KOSE survey of hundreds of Kansas state employees revealed that 69 percent had been bullied at work in the past two years, and 78 percent had witnessed bullying in the workplace in recent months.

Workers who are being bullied should not have to suffer in silence, says John Bates, a correctional officer for the state of Kansas and a KOSE steward. He shakes his head at those who suggest that victims of bullying “grow thicker skins.”

“Growing a thick skin is not the answer or an option, especially when someone’s rights are being violated,” asserts Bates. “The message needs to be delivered that we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Bullying behavior can be obvious and aggressive. Examples include:

  • Abusive, insulting or offensive language;
  • Teasing or regularly making someone the brunt of practical jokes;
  • Displaying material that is degrading or offending; and
  • Spreading gossip, rumors and innuendoes of a malicious nature.

Workplace bullying can also be subtle, such as:

  • Deliberately excluding, isolating or marginalizing a person from normal workplace activities;
  • Intruding on a person’s space by pestering or spying on them, or tampering with their personal effects or work equipment; and
  • Intimidating a person through inappropriate personal comments, belittling opinions or unjustified criticism.

Needless to say, bullying can have serious negative effects on employees, including stress, absenteeism, low self-esteem, depression, insomnia, and other physical and mental problems. Victims may experience anger, frustration and the feeling of being disrespected or treated unfairly to such a level that they plan to quit or do quit.

Lynette Lewis has worked at Larned State Hospital in Kansas for 14 years. She had always enjoyed the work she did for the state and its citizens—until a change in job assignments and supervisors resulted in her being bullied. “I went through five months of pure hell,” she says.

The experience led to Lewis attending the workplace bullying workshop at the AFT’s joint public employee-healthcare conference in Baltimore last spring. “Everything that I heard applied to my situation and what I was going through,” she says.

Lewis says she has since made her co-workers aware of the anti-bullying resources that are available “so that they can learn how to recognize bullying when they see it.”

Employers “should have a policy that clearly states the consequences of engaging in bullying behaviors,” says Joyce E. A. Russell, who writes a career advice column that appears in the Washington Post. “Then, they must act to rid the workplace of the bully and his or her behaviors. Otherwise, they will most likely lose many of their very talented employees.”

Being bullied is not ‘part of the job’

Darryl Alexander, who directs the AFT’s health, safety and well-being department, credits the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health with raising awareness of the problem; NIOSH expanded its definition of workplace bullying to include verbal threats, harassment and bullying.

“There’s a recognition that bullying has adverse consequences for both individuals and the workplace, including reduced productivity,” Alexander says.

She applauds the Workplace Bullying Institute for its advocacy for state-level legislation, which has resulted in anti-bullying bills being introduced in some 26 state legislatures. “The Workplace Bullying Institute has given voice to this issue over the last five to six years,” she says.

Alexander is regularly called upon by AFT affiliates to conduct training in workplace bullying—how to recognize it and how to respond to it.

Earlier this year, Alexander conducted workplace bullying training for members of North Dakota’s public employees union, North Dakota United. One participant, who asked to remain anonymous, said the training drove home the importance of “speaking up for others if you witness bullying.”

Unions can play a critical role in getting its members to support each other in exposing bullying, the North Dakota member said. “Having the backing of others can alleviate fear of speaking up or retaliation.”

Alexander encourages leaders and stewards to work with agency-level managers, where possible, to put policies in place that protect workers from harassment, intimidation and bullying. “This is the kind of discussion that can take place during labor-management meetings,” she says. “There are steps that can be taken now to make the workplace more civil, including training supervisors.”

Bullying, she adds, should not be tolerated or viewed as “part of the job,” as was often the case in the past.

Putting people on notice

An outgrowth of KOSE’s survey on workplace bullying and its members’ concerns about a hostile work environment in some state agencies, the Kansas anti-workplace bullying bill is “a natural expansion of anti-bullying legislation passed for the state’s school district employees,” KOSE Executive Director Rebecca Proctor points out.

“Last session, the [Kansas] Legislature passed a measure requiring all school boards to adopt policies against bullying—not only bullying against students, but bullying against teachers and school staff,” she says. “All public employees deserve these same protections.”

The legislation being sought by KOSE and AFT-Kansas would require all state agencies to adopt a policy prohibiting workplace bullying. It would include a mechanism to allow for reporting bullying, protections for whistle-blowers, specified discipline for violators and the annual public reporting of the levels of bullying within state agencies.

Bates says bullying is common at the large correctional facility where he works. “There’s management bullying of employees, inmate bullying of correctional officers, and officer-to-officer bullying,” he says.

“There’s a high turnover rate here at the correctional institution where I work, and a good part of that is because of bullying.”

A lot of the attitudes and behaviors in the Kansas prison system “go back to the ‘good old boys’ days of the 1950s and ’60s, where they cover each other’s backs” rather than report incidents of bullying and harassment, Bates says. “We need to put people on notice that if they violate other people’s rights, they will be reprimanded or prosecuted.”

—Roger Glass