What should an employee do if he or she knows a co-worker is being threatened, teased, demeaned, called names, glared at and ostracized? I think we can all answer this question — the employee should report the matter or stand up to the bully. Whether or not they will do so depends on your organizational culture. Does your organization see the value of respect in the workplace? Does your organization live by its values? Bullies can only thrive if leadership allows them to do so by overlooking their behavior or diminishing its impact and importance.
Last month, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) affirmed the terminations of two Department of Corrections prison guards in a case of workplace bullying with a truly terrible outcome.* An employee, referred to as “Z” in the case (not his real initial), committed suicide in 2012 following a little more than six months of intense humiliation and bullying. According to his wife, there were no marital or financial issues and nothing troubling him other than the ongoing bullying he was experiencing at work. According to most of his co-workers and his supervisors, Z was hard working, ethical and interested in learning and improving.
Z told many people at work what was happening and many others personally observed it. No one reported the bullying. The testimony was that the institutional culture was stacked against reporting for a number of reasons, including that leaders knew about the behavior and didn’t report it, leaders themselves engaged in rule violations and employees had no confidence in the confidentiality of those receiving the reports.**
Rachel Koester, Justyn Witscheber, and Sergeant Sherri Mudd taunted, intimidated, glared at, ostracized and worked together to isolate Z.*** Mudd and Koester referred to Z “trying to get some back door action” when they saw him talking to another male employee. The foursome called him “gay boy,” “faggot,” “snitch,”**** “cry baby” and many other derogatory names. They made baby crying sounds when they passed him and, they would stare at him and laugh. This was just a fraction of the behavior, which was described as ongoing and constant for months.
In her appeal, Koester argued the behavior was just “normal” workplace behavior, amounting simply to social faux pas and not deserving of any discipline at all. She also argued her employer was trying to turn work rules into “a social code of etiquette” for the employees. The WERC rejected those arguments, noting the prison setting is a unique workplace: stressful, potentially dangerous, and staffed by a paramilitary organization, where unit cohesion is vital for safety and security.
With respect to the employees who failed to report Koester’s and the others’ behavior, the WERC stated:
“There were numerous OCI employees who witnessed, experienced, or were told by Officer Z of the harassment by Koester and the others; they were responsible for reporting what they had seen and heard, and they did not do so. Some did not report it because Officer Z asked them not to do so and they complied. Some may have feared retribution or just did not want to get involved. All regret their silence.”
Employees who did not speak up undoubtedly recognize they were complicit with the bullies at this point. Without diminishing personal accountability for the behavior in this case, we must ask “why?” Did everyone behave this way because they were just “bad” people?
Undoubtedly all of these people are members of their community, have parents and possibly spouses or partners, maybe children, and hopefully friends. This also applies to the perpetrators. They could be our next door neighbors, our pew-mates at church, our running partners, our carpool parents, or our kids’ soccer coaches. Yet they made a choice to engage in this behavior or not to speak up. Why?
It is too easy to blame people, dust off our hands, heave a sigh of relief and assume the problem has been solved. We have to look deeper, at the unseen, unwritten but palpable-to-employees systems in place at work which allow this sort of thing to occur.
Next time: Poor organizational culture part two: conflict, bullying or harassment?
**The hearings examiner’s report, which was affirmed by the WERC, contained more detail about the working environment. http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/wiscnews.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/9/33/93334ea4-f858-569c-865a-53144c6621c9/551a7c054e2c5.pdf.pdf
***Another employee, Matthew Seiler, was also terminated, but the WERC reduced that termination to a ten day suspension because if found that the DOC didn’t prove that Seiler actually threatened Z with filing a report that Z had sexual contact with inmates just before his suicide. http://werc.wi.gov/personnel_appeals/werc_2003_on/pa33993-B.pdf. Seller’s suspension was for dishonesty. Mudd retired.
****Mudd and others referred to Z as “snitch” because of an incident in which Mudd erroneously believed Z had reported her to a supervisor.