If this were happening at home, we’d call it domestic violence.
My friend Marlene was a nerdy, athletic, brainy, beautiful girl when I met her in the seventh grade. She had long blonde hair that flowed down her back, and she’d pull it back in a ponytail when she played softball. She had a great arm and wasn’t bad at bat either. When she wasn’t on the softball field, she was arguing with me about politics or doing some earth science project.
It wasn’t a surprise to see that she grew up to get her bachelors degree in soil science and her masters degree in something even more complicated like bio-geochemistry. She loved being outdoors, and she loved science. In 2001 she was named to head the Carrizo Plain National Monument in California, a job so perfect her every talent that she told her friends she never wanted to leave it. She had tons of friends ranging from Sierra Club members to local hunters to bird watchers.
Then, in 2005, she was dead, at the age of 46, as a result of suicide.
We know the stories. The woman is belittled every day—“you stupid cow!” “You can’t do anything I tell you!” “Why can’t you follow directions?” “Do I have to do everything around here?”
Her accomplishments are sabotaged. “Oh, by the way, I put my name on that thing you wrote the other day, because I thought it would look better coming from me. It was great.” Her safety is threatened when no one else is around. She’s punished like a child. “Go sit on the chair in the hall and wait until I tell you to get up.” He gets so mad that his face is red and spit is flying from his lips when he talks to her.
Why doesn’t she leave? Because he controls the money. He tells her she’s worthless and she’ll never get another job. How will she get insurance? What’s she going to live on?
But he’s not her husband. He’s not her boyfriend. He’s her boss.
And what he is doing is not illegal. And ten years ago, when Marlene put a bullet in her brain — that brain that had been so brilliant — and stopped a heart that had been so loving —she was without anywhere to turn for help. She didn’t even have a name for what was happening.
It’s called workplace bullying.
And here we are in 2015. In a decade a lot has changed, but there is still no law against workplace bullying. Twenty-eight states and two territories (Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) have introduced the Healthy Workplace Bill to try to give targets some help. Puerto Rico passed the bill last year, but it was vetoed by the governor. Connecticut introduced the bill for the first time way back in 2006, but it hasn’t made it far in our general assembly, although awareness about workplace bullying is growing.
Connecticut now has a raised bill, 1035, that is coming up for a public hearing on today, March 5, at 2:30 p.m. in the Legislative Office Building. 1035 is not a good bill.
First, it applies only to state employees, and while public sector employees make up a large portion of the workforce, bullying is rife in many more occupations. Secondly, the bill only proposes training about workplace bullying. Why train people about it but stop short of actually helping them? And lastly, it proposes an advisory board chosen in a very political process—each party gets to select members of the board, but no qualifications of board members are specified. This is a costly burden to taxpayers with no guarantee that there will be expertise or efficacy.
The Healthy Workplace Bill, on the other hand, has no fiscal impact on the state. It’s just a simple private right of action that allows targets of abusive conduct to sue if they have suffered health harm as the result of intentional conduct that an employer knew about and did not stop.
The law provides for defenses for employers, too, so it’s fair and balanced. Moreover, the bill defines abusive conduct in ways accepted by the psychological profession and the legal community, something 1035 does not do. The HWB would provide a remedy, would encourage training, and will cost the state nothing to implement. It’s going through legislative hearings right now in Massachusetts and has a lot of backing. Why not introduce the Healthy Workplace Bill as 30 jurisdictions, including Connecticut, have done?
As with many bills, they need to come up over and over again to gain support. Advocates need to tell legislators why a law is important. Testimony is essential. But as with domestic violence, targets of workplace bullying sometimes have a very difficult time telling their stories.
If you have been the target of workplace bullying, and you can tell your story, please do so at this hearing. If your friend or loved one has been a target, please let your legislators know this at the public hearing. Marriages get destroyed. Children watch parents become helpless and unemployed. Targets suffer from all the physical and psychological effects of abuse, including PTSD.
We need this to stop. It won’t stop if no speaks up.
Marlene can’t speak for herself. As an old friend, I am adding my voice in place of hers for the Healthy Workplace Bill.
Katherine Hermes, J.D., Ph.D., is a chair of the History Department at CCSU. She is founder of Connecticut Healthy Workplace Advocates, a volunteer, grassroots organization working to eradicate workplace bullying and enact the Healthy Workplace Bill.