If you watch a workplace bully in action, he or she tends to follow a predictable pattern of behavior:
- The bully initially repeatedly reprimands the better than average target for trivial matters and those that would be described completely differently by the target. The bully repeatedly puts the target down.
- The bully convinces others that the target is incompetent, so others can begin to shun the target and unwittingly participate in the emotional abuse.
- The bully drives the target to report the problem to the bully’s boss or to Human Resources and then escalates the bully behavior.
- The bully makes their tactics so outrageous that the target’s support system (family and friends) doesn’t believe the target and can’t offer advice. Then these family and friends become tired of hearing the target obsessively repeat issues that can’t be resolved.
- The target is now very much alone and increasingly vulnerable to suicide. Targets try everything and then give up hope. If not stopped, the prolonged abuse causes depression and often suicidal thoughts. “Targets who sense that they’re about to be fired and cannot cope with that eventuality are vulnerable to suicide,” adds reporter Natasha Wallace in her article “Suicide, When Related to Workplace Bullying.”
Why bullies bully
Researchers tested to see if qualities of workplace bullying targets brought on uninvited psychological assaults but found nothing: zero data to support reason to blame the victim. In other words, targets are not simply those with exploited weakness.
In fact, evidence shows the opposite. Targets are often high performing, highly ethical employees whose competence poses a threat to their low performing, low ethical bosses. Targets often:
- Refuse to be subservient (58% claimed this to be a reason for being targeted)
- Are technically more competent than their aggressors (56%)
- Are envied, and thus resented, for their cooperativeness and being liked by others (49%)
- Report illegal/unethical conduct, whistleblowers (46%)
- Are vulnerable in some way (38% had been previously traumatized in or out of work) (The Bully At Work, 2009).
The bully’s only real motivator is to battle the target while having the upper hand – an unethical tactic used to uphold the image they long for but are unable to get through competence:
- They abuse their power. They care about hurting, manipulating, controlling, and eliminating the target (generally after two years after the employee’s start date). They are kiss up, kick down managers who are masters of deception.
- They deceive others into thinking the target is the problem. They use the emotional abuse they caused to convince others that the target is mentally ill, setting the stage for mobbing, in which coworkers join in to isolate the target.
The trouble with competence and ethics
Normally having competence and ethics would help someone sleep at night. But with these traits, a workplace bullying target can find themselves on a slippery slope to suicide contemplation – or “bullycide” – and it can happen to any of us.
Workplace bullying can cause a target to abandon hope over time, to not see a future or alternatives. Abuse tactics are often so outrageous that no one believes the target when a bully attacks. They think the target must have done something wrong or exaggerates. Then abandonment by coworkers and impatience of family members and friends lead to utter loneliness and despair. When everything they try fails, they lose all hope. “Bullying causes severe health harm, much more acute than is experienced by those sexually harassed. Anxiety (80%); panic attacks (52%); depression (49%); PTSD diagnosis (30%); suffering intrusive thoughts/flashbacks (50%); sleep disorders (77%); hypertension (59%) to name some of the negative health consequences,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Bullying can also produce confusion, emotional numbness, and the fight-or-flight reaction normally associated with traumatic stress.
These responses are natural. “Depression is caused by the unremitting abusive conduct. And their lives unravel if it is not stopped…. It is the nature of the human stress response. With prolonged exposure to distress, changes in the brain occur. Thanks to modern neuroscience studies of social phenomena like ostracism, stress, and bullying, we know that atrophy of key areas of the brain impair decision making. Thus, it is highly likely that a brain flooded with steroidal glucocorticoids is not capable of clear, rational thinking. Suicide is the result of the failure to imagine alternatives to one’s current reality,” adds WBI.
All health harm from bullying is attributable to prolonged exposure. “Ending the distress allows the person to recover. The brain literally ‘heals’ thanks to its property of plasticity. Restored gray matter volume brings back lost cognitive abilities — better decision making, optimism, a visualized future,” says WBI.
Three workplace bullying targets who took their lives
Sadly, these three workplace bullying targets never made it to the healing phase and took their lives:
Marlene Braun, a highly ethical employee prevented from doing her job by an unethical boss
Workplace bullying target Marlene Braun ended her life on May 2, 2005 in California after her claims of torment from her boss Ron Huntsinger.
Days before he left office in 2001, President Clinton proclaimed the greatest concentration of endangered wildlife in all of California, the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain, a national monument. Braun became the first Carrizo Plain National Monument Manager, hired to develop a highly controversial “resource management plan that would put for the first time the health of native species ahead of cattle grazing interests at the Carrizo” mandated by the Secretary of the Interior, according to reporter John Peabody in the San Luis Obispo New Times article “To Die on the Plain.”
“The plan, though, would never see the light of day. Braun’s supervisor, Ron Fellows, retired, and that’s when things took a drastic shift at the Carrizo. From March 2004, when Ron Huntsinger took over as field manger, until Braun’s death on May 2, 2005, the draft would be revised at least four times, and the Carrizo Plain managing partners would start to lose faith in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s management of the Carrizo. Huntsinger blamed Braun, but Braun retained her support from the plain’s managing partners,” explained Peabody.
Braun said that under Huntsinger, she felt intimidated, humiliated, and abused, all while she was able to keep cattle off the land. “Some suspect that Huntsinger was hired to ‘fix’ the resource management plan, that as it stood it was not friendly enough to grazing interests,” said Peabody. “This shift in planning has caused many to speculate that someone higher up in Washington was turning the screws on California’s BLM, and that Huntsinger was assigned to drive Braun from her post.”
“Marlene had strong principles, was a hard worker, and believed in fairness. She caught and pointed out his mistakes. Until her new boss came, she never had a black mark on her record. Therein lies the paradox: contrary to stereotypes, it is not the weak who are bullied; it is the strong,” said close friend Kathy Hermes, who would later become the Connecticut Healthy Workplace Bill coordinator. Others commented on how passionate Braun was about the Carrizo Plain.”Braun was straightforward and expected the same from others,” Hermes added.
A month after Huntsinger began, he began removing responsibilities from Braun and hired on a lead for the plan, excluding Braun from meeting, never documenting why she was not doing a good job, and re-writing already reviewed parts of the plan.
Soon after, Braun told managing partners over a conference call that she suspected changing national politics influenced looser rules over cattle grazing. Huntsinger yelled at Braun for “leaking” internal information and would not let Braun defend herself. Braun felt demoralized. Huntsinger repeatedly ignored Braun’s emails after that episode and refused to consider changing anything he did. Eventually, after Braun accidentally cc’d Huntsinger on an email saying he misinterpreted grazing regulations, Huntsinger banned Braun from speaking with the managing partners altogether and then gave her a five-day suspension, skipping a written complaint in the progressive discipline process despite the suspension being reserved for egregious offenses. After Huntsinger said he would never help her get a transfer to another area, Braun felt like Huntsinger was trying to ruin her career.
Ultimately, Braun resigned herself to the situation. “Braun became withdrawn and anxious. She saw doctors who prescribed her antidepressants, but the medicine didn’t help.” said Peabody. Within a year of Huntslinger manipulating Braun through abusive tactics, Braun took her own life.
Jodie Zebell, a model employee tormented after receiving accolades and a promotion
Jodie Zebell ended her life on February 3, 2008 at the age of 31, the day before she was to receive a poor job review. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, married with two young children, and a part-time mammographer at a clinic, Zebell was historically praised as a model employee. However, coworkers unfairly blamed her for problems at work and intensified their bullying after Zebell was promoted. After Zebell had a run-in with her supervisor, the supervisor joined in the harassment, “filling Zebell’s personnel file with baseless complaints about her performance and loudly criticizing her in front of others.” The harassment continued for months until Zebell’s suicide.
Kevin Morrissey, whose complaints fell on deaf ears after bullying by an alleged narcissist
Kevin Morrissey took his life on July 30, 2010. The 52-year-old managing editor of the award-winning Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) at the University of Virginia suffered from depression, a result of bullying from his boss, Ted Genoways, and the university’s failure to respond to repeated complaints about the bullying, including 18 calls to campus offices in the two weeks leading up to his death.
Other employees complained about bullying from Genoways, but the university did nothing to protect them. Genoways denied the bullying allegations and even dismissed Morrissey as “prickly,” blaming Morrissey’s darkened mood in the months leading to his death as the reason for their strained relationship rather than understanding his role in the darkened mood.
Genoways even went on to say that Morrissey “felt less important to me professionally as our staff grew…. As Kevin struggled through these issues, particularly in the last year, his work suffered and his demeanor, to my mind, was often unacceptable for the workplace. We feuded over this often, and the majority of the VQR staff sided with Kevin.” Genoways chalked up their conflict to Morrissey’s history of disagreeing with bosses and admitted that their conflicts fed Morrissey’s depression instead of taking accountability for possibly causing the depression in the first place. After an argument with Morrissey and another employee, Genoways banished the two from the office for a week and ordered them not to communicate with colleagues. Coworkers often heard Genoways yelling at Morrissey behind closed doors and openly dismissing Morrissey. Morrissey reportedly marked the pages of the book Working with the Self-Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities on the Job by Nina Brown. Genoways’ reactions are consistent with narcissism.
When Morrissey had repeat meetings with human resources, the ombudsman, and the president, telling them that working conditions were untenable, they chalked it up to “working with creative people is sometimes difficult.”
“He was anxious about his job,” said Morrissey’s sister. “He doesn’t know why he’s in trouble. He’s got a condo that he’s got a mortgage for. He got a new car that he’s got a note for. He doesn’t have a college degree and there aren’t a whole lot of jobs for the managing editor of some literary journal. He’s looking at having to uproot his entire life if he doesn’t get help. He found himself utterly trapped.”
Share your stories
If you know of an employee who committed suicide from workplace bullying, email email@example.com.
Change the rules
If you live in Massachusetts, write to your legislators and demand that employers be held accountable for workplace bullying through legislation.
If you live outside Massachusetts, find out how to help end workplace bullying in your state.