Tagged: suicide

Another suicide from workplace bullying

We’ve reported before on suicides from workplace bullying. We’ve learned of another one:

Graham Gentles was driven to suicide after a walk of shame in California

Gentles

Photo from LiveJournal.com.

Graham Gentles was a 22-year-old in Pasadena who committed suicide on July 18, 2014 after Target store management allegedly accused him of stealing, handcuffed him, and paraded him through the store in front of both customers and coworkers. Gentles jumped to his death from the top of a hotel just three days later.

During the abusive humiliation and shame tactic, it is alleged that “police forcefully grabbed him, emptied his pockets, and pulled his hat off,” explains ABC7. Meanwhile, a shocked and confused Gentles had no idea why police were arresting him. Police took Gentles into custody, released him the same day, and never charged him. Gentles told his mother he never stole anything.

Allegedly, an argument between Gentles and a coworker at a bar outside of work hours may have prompted the incident. The coworker made the allegations of theft after the argument.

Other Target employees suspected of stealing report a similar “walk of shame.”


 

If you live in Massachusetts, call your Massachusetts state legislators and ask them to support Senate Bill 1013 to make workplace bullying and mobbing illegal.

If you live outside of Massachusetts, visit HealthyWorkplaceBill.org for information on how to make workplace bullying illegal in your state.

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Recent cases show courts determine that someone’s words can contribute to suicide

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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 »

Five people who ended their lives from workplace bullying

Bullying concept in workplace.

Workplace bullies tend to follow predictable patterns of behavior:

  1. 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.
  2. The bully convinces others that the target is incompetent, so others can begin to shun the target and unwittingly participate in the emotional abuse.
  3. The bully drives the target to report the problem to the bully’s boss or to Human Resources and then escalates the bully behavior.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. Refuse to be subservient (58% claimed this to be a reason for being targeted)
  2. Are technically more competent than their aggressors (56%)
  3. Are envied, and thus resented, for their cooperativeness and being liked by others (49%)
  4. Report illegal/unethical conduct, whistleblowers (46%)
  5. 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 info@mahealthyworkplace.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.

Find out how many people took their lives from job problems in Massachusetts

Punishment at work

The National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) reports the number of suicides associated with job problems in Massachusetts per year:

screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-10-45-36-am

What this data says

These stats tell us a total of 322 people took their lives from job problems over five years. And we know that workplace bullies drove at least some of these people to suicide.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health last September revealed that bullied targets are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who were never bullied. Pioneer Heinz Leymann estimated that 10 percent of those bullied take their lives, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) article “The very real link between workplace bullying and suicide: Twice as likely to contemplate suicide.”

Researchers defined bullying as harassment, badgering, and freezing out that:

  • Occurred repeatedly over a period of time.
  • Involved two parties in which one had a higher ranking than the other.

It happens so often that there’s now a term for it. “Bullycide” happens when the cause of suicide is attributable to the victim having been bullied.

How workplace bullying can lead any of us to suicide (“bullycide”)

Researchers also tested to see if qualities of workplace bullying targets warranted uninvited psychological assaults. They 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. 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.

A bully’s typical recipe:

  1. 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.
  2. The bully convinces others that the target is incompetent, so others can begin to shun the target and unwittingly participate in the emotional abuse.
  3. The bully drives the target to go to report the problem to the bully’s boss or to Human Resources and then escalates the bully behavior.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”

“There is a body of research identifying bullied targets as more emotional than others. But anxious personalities are not rare in our society. Witness the prevalence of anti-depressant drugs prescribed,” says WBI.

Our false perceptions of suicide

The public often finds fault with the people who take their lives. And mental health folks rarely understand the severity of abusive conduct at work’s effect on targets’ lives, so they discount the contribution of abuse at work and instead point to family and financial matters as root cause.

But the reality is that 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,” adds the WBI.

These responses are the 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.



Write your legislators to let them know workplace bullying needs consequences.
It’s plain and simple: people are dying over workplace bullying. It needs to stop. We need a law. The time is now.

A new way to let your legislators know that workplace bullying can drive targets to suicide

screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-9-58-20-am

When we launched our tool to let you easily send a letter to your legislators about the anti-workplace bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, we built templates around costs to businesses and your own story. Now we introduce a third template that lets your legislators understand the link between workplace bullying and suicide (“bullycide”).

Based on our recent blog posts showing the clear connection between workplace bullying and suicide, the template links to the research, explains the connection, and tells three stories of ethical, competent workplace bullying targets who took their lives after the downward spiral from workplace bullying.

Send your legislators the message that workplace bullying can lead to suicide.

Yet another study links workplace bullying to suicides. When is enough enough?

Tired woman in the office

We reported earlier this year that a Norwegian study revealed that bullied targets are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who were never bullied. Pioneer Heinz Leymann estimated that 10 percent of those bullied take their lives, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI).

Researchers defined bullying as harassment, badgering, and freezing out that:

  • Occurred repeatedly over a period of time.
  • Involved two parties in which one had a higher ranking than the other.

It happens so often that there’s now a term for it. “Bullycide” happens when the cause of suicide is attributable to the victim having been bullied.

Now researchers in Australia report similar findings. In June 2016, Australian researchers determined that workplace bullying or harassment was associated with 1.54 greater odds of suicide ideation.


How workplace bullying can lead any of us to suicide (“bullycide”)

Findings show that none of us have a thick enough skin to be exempt from the workplace bullying-suicide connection. Not only did researchers find nothing to support the idea that targets are not those with a weakness that brings on psychological assaults, but evidence shows that targets are often high performing, highly ethical employees whose competence poses a threat to their low performing, low ethical bosses. 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.

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 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,” adds the 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.

“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.


How you can help

So when will legislators say enough is enough? How many more competent, ethical workers will lose their lives from workplace abuse before we address this epidemic trough law?

We’ll change the rules when enough of us take a stand. School bullying legislation sat on desks until the tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince forced attention on the issue. Our goal is to help legislators understand that workplace bullying can and does cause great workers to take their lives. Read about three highly competent, ethical workers who took their lives from workplace bullying.

Share your stories
If you know of an employee who committed suicide from workplace bullying, email info@mahealthyworkplace.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.

How workplace bullying led three competent, ethical employees to take their lives

Stressed business woman

If you watch a workplace bully in action, he or she tends to follow a predictable pattern of behavior:

  1. 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.
  2. The bully convinces others that the target is incompetent, so others can begin to shun the target and unwittingly participate in the emotional abuse.
  3. The bully drives the target to report the problem to the bully’s boss or to Human Resources and then escalates the bully behavior.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. Refuse to be subservient (58% claimed this to be a reason for being targeted)
  2. Are technically more competent than their aggressors (56%)
  3. Are envied, and thus resented, for their cooperativeness and being liked by others (49%)
  4. Report illegal/unethical conduct, whistleblowers (46%)
  5. 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.”


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