March 02, 2012

Bully buster? VQR spurs UVA launch of 'respectful workplace'

A year-and-a-half after the suicide of the Virginia Quarterly Review's managing editor Kevin Morrissey launched a national debate about whether it was the scene of workplace bullying, UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan has launched the Respect@UVA program, a comprehensive workplace initiative designed to promote "kindness, dignity and respect."

But one workplace bullying expert thinks the reforms announced February 15 don't go far enough. Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, contends that bullying should be put in the context of real violence to avoid letting programs like this get "shackled by all its shortcomings."

In addition to educational resources, the UVA program includes a new complaint reporting system designed to allow employees to air grievances without fear of retaliation from their superiors, as well as a commitment to follow up within two business days.

"As president, I will hold myself accountable to the Commitment to a Caring Community," Sullivan says in statement, "and I will expect all leaders at all levels of the University to do the same. We will not tolerate retaliation against an employee who reports an incident."

As the Hook recently revealed, Morrissey expressed frustration about an alleged lack of oversight over his boss, VQR editor Ted Genoways, and reached out several times to UVA officials, including those in the President's office.

"In every instance," Morrissey wrote in one of his leaked emails, "either through advice given or interaction, the onus was placed on me to deal with the issue."

"It's very upsetting for me to have to think about how valiantly and doggedly Kevin struggled to be heard," says Morrissey's sister, Maria, "only to have everyone he spoke to ultimately say there was nothing they could do without the bully's cooperation."

Shortly after taking office in 2010, Sullivan established a Respectful Workplace Task Force, a group of 26 faculty and staff volunteers that, along with Human Resources vice president Susan Carkeek, created the new initiative.

"The task force members believe that to become best in class as a respectful workplace, we will need commitment from everyone working at all levels of the University," said Sullivan.

The program comes down particularly hard on managers, calling on them to serve as "role models of respectful behavior," bans retaliating in anger to complaints, and it even includes a questionnaire for managers to self-examine their management style entitled, "Could you be the bully?"

While Namie thinks the program is a step in the right direction, alleged shortcomings include the softer term "disrespect" to describe what is happening in an abusive workplace.

"Calling the problem what it is– psychological violence, abusive conduct, or bullying– fosters real outrage and systemic solutions," asserts Namie, claiming that while incivility and disrespect can cause stress and health problems, moderate to severe bullying has been linked to abusive conduct, deep despair, and even suicide.

"If they don't get it right the first time,"says Namie, "the program will not be re-visited and revised unless there's an on-campus murder or suicide, with notes left clearly indicating that abusive mistreatment was the root cause."

Maria Morrissey says she was struck by the fact that the program's examples of retaliation don't include abrasive emails or unjustified accusations of bad behavior against whistle-blowers, both of which were alleged aspects of the VQR situation.

"How will UVA deal with the supervisor who prefers to deal in less obvious forms of bullying and retaliation?" asks Morrissey.

She also wonders how the university– which now promises to ferret out bullying "regardless of position or status"– will deal with potentially untouchable supervisors such as big money fundraisers, literary and academic stars, or– in the case of VQR– a boss who formerly answered only to a busy university president.

"'Regardless of position or status' sounds lovely on paper," says Morrissey," but how will that really work in a hierarchy like a university?"


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't find this encouraging.

The institution I used to teach at had all sorts of policies with regards to things such as sexual harassment. It all looked good on paper and sounded nice in official announcements but they were selectively enforced, if at all.

They proved useful, however, if an administrator wanted to get rid of someone. That same administrator, however, often behaved as if those policies didn't apply to him or her.