April 16, 2007

Educated workers: the bully's pick

SAN FRANCISCO — A new national poll reveals that America's work force perceives abuse by supervisors to be a common experience.

The poll, released recently by the Employment Law Alliance, found that nearly one-half of the employees surveyed report having been subjected to a range of bullying behaviors including mockery and personal insults, as well as job performance criticism in front of co-workers. Employees who are older, more highly educated or work in the Northeast United States are the most likely to experience workplace abuse, while younger and Southern workers are the least likely.

"When this many employees perceive they are being mistreated, employers need to pay attention, especially because almost two-thirds of the American work force believes employees should be able to sue the abusive boss and the employer," said attorney Margaret Wood Hassan, a member of the Employment Practice Group at Pierce Atwood LLP in Portland, Maine, and Portsmouth and Concord, who is also a New Hampshire state senator.

The poll addressed abusive behavior by supervisors not typically regarded as serious enough to warrant special legal protections against harassment or discrimination based on race, religion, sex, disability or other protected classes.

Highlights of the poll include:

* 44 percent said they have worked for a supervisor or employer whom they consider abusive.
* More than half of American workers have been the victim of, or heard about supervisors/employers behaving abusively by making sarcastic jokes/teasing remarks, rudely interrupting, publicly criticizing, giving dirty looks to, or yelling at subordinates, or ignoring them as if they were invisible.
* Southern workers (34 percent) are less likely to have experience with an abusive boss than are their Northeastern (56 percent) and Midwestern (48 percent) counterparts.
* Workers with some college or a college degree (47 percent) are more likely to have been a victim of abuse by a supervisor or employer, compared to workers with a high school education or less (34 percent).
* 64 percent said that they believe an abused worker should have the right to sue to recover damages.

"There's a growing recognition that abusive bosses are more than just an annoyance, but a very real problem and that employees will increasingly demand protection, if not from employers, then the courts," said Stephen J. Hirschfeld, ELA'S CEO and an employment lawyer with the California-based law firm of Curiale Dellaverson Hirschfeld & Kraemer LLP.

Hirschfeld noted that the survey comes at a time when nearly one dozen state legislatures are considering laws specifically prohibiting bullying in the workplace, when workers increasingly use the term "mobbing" to refer to employee abuse by co-workers, and a nonprofit think tank, The Workplace Bullying Institute (www.bullybusters.org), is regularly featured in national and global media as it promotes workplace victims' rights.

In reacting to the poll results, Dr. Robert Sutton, Stanford University professor of management science and engineering, and co-director of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization said, "This national survey adds to the growing evidence showing that abuse of power is a rampant problem in the American workplace. It is time for senior management to realize that this conduct damages their people and is costing them a fortune.

"Demeaned workers respond with a reduced commitment and loss of productivity, and they run for the exits to find more humane bosses," Sutton said. "And these costs will keep escalating as more victims realize that they can fight back in court."

According to Hassan, companies need to closely examine their personnel policies, supervisor-employee relations and management training to ensure these issues are dealt with proactively and costly litigation is avoided.

"Most employers probably believe that mistreatment of employees doesn't occur in their workplace — that it's someone else's problem," Hassan said. "While it's true that abuse may well be in the eye of the beholder, a supervisor's idea of simply holding someone accountable may be, in the mind of some employees, a reason to hire a lawyer. The willingness of American workers to think in terms of litigation is a fact of life employers must confront."

Hassan noted that the trend should concern employers.

"Our work force is aging and our economy is transitioning from production workers on the factory floor to knowledge workers in the office," she said. "Given the results of the ELA poll, which indicate that older and college-educated workers are already more likely to see themselves as victims of workplace abuse, the likelihood that employers will face these claims is only going to increase."

Hassan added that if employers and individual supervisors can be sued over even the perception of mean-spirited treatment, they will be reluctant to hold employees to even reasonable performance standards.

"Employers need to correct this problem before legislators believe they need to step in and start enabling more lawsuits," the attorney said.

Companies need only look north for a cautionary tale. Recently, a Canadian employer was ordered to pay $5,000 as moral damages for inflicting psychological abuse under Quebec's anti-psychological harassment law. That law provides a right to recover damages for "any vexatious behavior" that affects an employee's dignity or psychological or physical integrity.

The poll, conducted under the supervision of Dr. Theodore Reed, president of the Philadelphia-based Reed Group, was based on a survey of a representative sample of 1,000 American adults in early March 2007. Detailed interviews were conducted with 534 full- or part-time workers. The confidence interval for this sample size is +/- 4.24%.

From: http://www.seacoastonline.com

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