In the high-profile texting case, Michelle Carter was found guilty of manslaughter in the suicide of Conrad Roy III. This case wasn’t only unusual in how it happened. It was unusual in that it found that “a person’s words can directly cause someone else’s suicide,” said Kathleen Bonczyk, Esq..
“It’s an excellent sign the courts are beginning to see things in a different way. There must be accountability civilly and criminally if a defendant’s actions are physical in discharging a gun or driving a car into an innocent person or verbal as in bullying,” said Bonczyk. “Actions and words can and do hurt others. If one behaves in a reckless immoral and illegal matter, one should be held accountable in a criminal court.”
The Michelle Carter case wasn’t the first case in the last year where a defendant was charged with involuntary manslaughter for their words. Bonczyk outlines the significance of the charging of a Dairy Queen manager for felony involuntary manslaughter following bullying leading to the December 21, 2016 suicide of Kenneth Suttner of Missouri »
Advocate Shakeena Appleberry will bring attention to bullying. She’s spearheading Boston’s First Annual Bullying Walk & Roll-A-Thon, to be held in Boston on June 3.
Shakeena seeks volunteers to help with such areas as:
- Course helpers
If you can lend a hand, sign up to volunteer. It will be a great event to bring focus to bullying.
Workplace bullies tend to follow predictable patterns 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).
“Bullied targets are not weak,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Many targets are strong and stubborn to their own detriment, staying in abusive situations too long. Their health suffers (stress-related diseases start rather quickly) but the symptoms are negligible and are ignored until medical crises surface.”
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 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.
But if the person stays in the stressful situation, it’s another story. “If exposed long enough to severe workplace bullying, two outcomes become likely. First, the target’s health is jeopardized. Second, unremitting stress can cause loss of the ability to discern and make choices to get oneself to safety due to physiological changes in the brain. The second outcome can lead to suicide. One WBI 2012 study found that 29 percent of bullied targets considered suicide; 16 percent actually had a plan to execute.”
Five workplace bullying targets who took their lives
Sadly, these five workplace bullying targets never made it to the healing phase and took their lives:
Nicole Mittendorff, cyberbullied with character assaults
Virginia Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff was cyberbullied in an online forum “that appeared to target female emergency workers” according to the Huffington Post. She ended her life with a suicide note.
“Commenters went after multiple women believed to be Fairfax County employees and volunteers, making claims about their promiscuity, sharing their photos, and judging their attractiveness,” said Reporter Nina Golgowski. “In one case, a woman’s selection for a paramedic program is credited to the guys she regularly sleeps with, including her chief.”
“What is not clear is how long the fire department knew of the posts and how they were handled, if at all,” she added. Law enforcement can find out the identities of anonymous posters.
Annette Prada, a New Mexico government worker whose managers avoided dealing with workplace bullying as much as possible
At the New Mexico state agency the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) in the Corporations bureau, Annette Prada dealt with both verbal and written abuse, including demotions, in the last five years of her 23 years at the PRC according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Annette’s daughter reported that her mother was “only two years away from retirement. She tried to stay strong” but had health problems. The trouble with waiting even one year is that severe stress shortens lives.
Annette’s best friend from work, Mercie Roybal, who worked at the PRC for 33 years, confirmed that Prada complained she had been bullied at work. Former staff told The New Mexican reporter Staci Matlock that “they claimed in letters and in lawsuits that the PRC has a pattern of harassment and bullying,” said WBI.
Johnny Montoya, PRC Chief of Staff, was unaware of Prada’s complaints from Prada. “Montoya is the operational chief of the agency with responsibility for all divisions. He counts on division chiefs handling issues. If he legitimately never heard of complaints from Prada, it is either because they never bubbled up to his level, squelched by in the Corporations division by that boss. Or it could be that Prada never formally complained. Clearly she was close to her retirement goal, at age 50, and worried that a complaint would bring certain retaliation, threatening her path to a pension,” explained WBI.
“Montoya’s case-by-case resolution strategy allows the PRC to play favorites. For some cases, serious investigations ensue. In those cases, the alleged perpetrators are not part of the inner circle and they are dispensable,” said WBI. “For insiders, a different set of rules exist. It matters little what policies say. There is sufficient ambiguity to allow Montoya to make exceptions for high-ranking managers and personal friends. Always be wary when you hear management claim the right to be flexible using the case-by-case excuse.”
“Stacy Marie Starr-Garcia, Corporations Bureau Chief, would not even comment. Prada worked in her unit. With five years of bullying, she either is the perpetrator or knew who was. She is guilty of either direct aggression or reckless indifference for enabling it under her watch. Her silence speaks volumes,” added WBI.
PRC Deputy Chief of Staff for Legal Affairs and Attorney, Bob Parker, told Matlock that “he doesn’t believe there is a pattern of employee bullying at the agency. His job is to villify those who dare complain about mistreatment by the state. There is no pattern to him because no complaint is legitimate. All complainants are to be disparaged, discouraged, and banished — that’s his job,” explained WBI.
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.
- 85 percent of nurses have been verbally abused by a fellow nurse.
- 1 in 3 nurses quit because of bullying.
- It’s bullying, not the wage, that is the major cause of the global nursing shortage (the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2022, there will be a shortfall of 1.05 million nurses).
- Many hospital units don’t give nurses time to eat, take a walk, or even go to the bathroom.
– Claudia Sanborn, author of The Yellow Sick Road
Where she believes bullying comes from
Sanborn attributes workplace bullying to bullies’:
- Need for power
- Poor self-esteem
- Poor leadership training
- Learned behavior in their own family
- Lack of rules or consequences
- Lack of funding. “Funds are cut back in medicine, so nurses have more patients. They then take their stresses out on other nurses to survive. Nurses resort to politics so they don’t have to care for the more demanding patients,” explains Sanborn.
- Fear of becoming the next target or losing their jobs
Why she wrote the book
How we change the culture
- Speak up. Sanborn spoke at a nurse rally in DC in May about her book. She’s networked with other leaders. She’s had book signings. She spreads the word on Facebook. She’s trying to get on talk shows like Dr. Phil. “I am semi-retired now and can’t be blackballed. I can’t be fired or laid off,” explains Sanborn of her ability to speak up.
- Get involved. “Be involved in legislation and get laws passed to make workplace bullying illegal.”
- Get support. “Join unions and have them fight for you.”
While we’re gearing up for a t-shirt decorating and sign-holding event in Providence today with the Rhode Island Healthy Workplace Advocates in preparation for Boston’s first annual bullying walk next weekend, it’s the perfect time to remind us all of our power to create change: by posting an event on our Action Team event page, you can:
- Spread the word about what workplace bullying is and why it needs to end.
- Mobilize advocates in your area to support each other and to feel empowered.
- Show legislators how much of a force is behind this cause.
There’s no better way to take back the power than to take action (if you’ve healed from the trauma of workplace bullying). You can:
- Host a gathering at your home to talk about what workplace bullying is and what you can do in your local area to spread the word about ending it.
- Hold signs while the weather is warmer and politics are on people’s minds. For less than $10, you can buy posters, markers, and some cocoa and pick a high-traffic corner in your town to stand on for a couple of hours.
- Get creative. Come up with another easy concept to bring people together and spread the word.
We’re behind you 100%. You have our full support to take action to help make history. All you need is a couple hours and a partner. We’ll even post the event on Facebook for you to help spread the word.
There’s a stereotype that homelessness results from physical and mental disabilities. But experts say that most homeless people “have been thrust into homelessness by a life-altering event or series of events that were unexpected and unplanned for” (Homeaid.org).
According to Homeaid, those life-altering events or series of events include:
- Loss of loved ones
- Domestic violence
- Divorce and other family disputes
- Job loss
Experts believe that addressing these issues can help end homelessness in America.
A deeper look into job loss
Job loss often results from mistreatment. While some find themselves unemployed after firing from poor work performance or layoffs from cutting expenses, many are either forced out or quit from mistreatment. In fact, 66% of aggrieved employees quit to end the bullying says The Conference Board Review. (Even if employees don’t quit from bullying, depression and post traumatic stress disorder alone from bullying can send them on the streets, according to Homeaid.org.)
Let’s look at the number of people at-risk for homelessness due to job loss:
- Roughly one in three Americans will suffer from workplace bullying. That’s around 33% of the workforce.
- If 66% of those employees leave their jobs to end the bullying, then around 20% of all employees will likely leave their jobs to end bullying.
- Statista.com reports that 125.5 million people work full-time in the U.S.. So roughly 25 million are at-risk to leave their jobs from workplace bullying. That’s about the number of people who live in the entire state of Texas.
Sure, many of those employees leave for another job. But if the bullying is brutal enough, many employees are forced to choose between the lesser of two stresses: the toll on their health from bullying or living without an income. So many choose to leave rather than suffer the blow to their health, including depression, chronic anxiety, and even suicide contemplation.
With a steady income, those employees could likely manage paying for a car repair or illness. But when those who’ve been bullied out of work don’t have another job lined up or a strong support system and find themselves living in poverty or close to the poverty line, these once just annoying “everyday” life problems can put them out on the street.
And who knows how long taxpayers have to pay for services for targets of insecure bullies. According to one study, regaining employment at all and getting back to normal life doesn’t look promising. That means that getting off the streets or saving money to move out of assisted living in affordable housing to market rate housing doesn’t look hopeful either.
So who loses when a bully stays on payroll? Not just the target. And not just the business either. Taxpayers do when they’re left to fund services for some of the best employees who were simply in the path of insecure bosses. It’s not good for targets. It’s not good for businesses. And it’s not good for society.
Two years ago, House Speaker DeLeo led the effort to pass anti-bullying legislation in Massachusetts for schools. Back then, he said “I am proud to join my colleagues in strengthening our anti-bullying laws…. It is our duty to ensure students are safe…. I believe this legislation will allow us to better understand and prevent bullying,” according to the Winthrop Transcript.
Now we’re hoping he sees it equally important to ensure healthy workplaces. Speaker DeLeo has a chance to prevent bullying in the workplace by making the Healthy Workplace Bill, H 1771, into law.
We’re trying to move the bill forward by speaking with contacts in the State House. But we also need your help to encourage Speaker DeLeo to make workplace bullying legislation a priority:
- Call Speaker DeLeo at 617-722-2500 or email him at Robert.DeLeo@mahouse.gov to ask him to make the bill a priority.
- Email your State Rep (list under House once you type in your address at this link) and ask him or her to support it and to convince the House leaders to make the bill a priority.
- Ask colleagues and friends to do the same.
We only have until this summer to pass this bill or we have to start over again next January. So the more people you can get to contact Speaker DeLeo and their State Reps, the sooner we can make workplace bullying illegal in Massachusetts.