by Brandon A Perry
(Part 2 of a 4-part series from the Indianapolis Recorder.)
According to experts, millions of Americans deal with abuse of power in their workplace, yet many employees aren’t quite sure how to handle the situation.
“It is ridiculous,” said Cynthia in frustration when asked to describe her work environment. “If the economy wasn’t so bad, I’d be gone.” Cynthia, who did not want to disclose her full name because she feared retaliation from her employer, works as an assistant manager at a local department store. She said her supervisor talks down to her, denies her opportunities offered to other co-workers and frequently overrides her decisions.
“She had better be glad I have two kids to support,” Cynthia said of her boss. “Or I would knock her down.” Cynthia thinks like millions of Americans, who deal with abuse of power in business everyday from supervisors and coworkers. Blue-collar workers in service and industrial jobs, and white-collar employees in corporations face abuse that more experts are beginning to describe as “workplace bullying.”
“It is a non-physical form of violence, a measure of inter-personal destruction that can jeopardize an employee’s health, job and career,” said Ruth Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, one of only a few organizations dedicated to preventing and stopping abuse of power in the workplace.
According to a Zogby International survey commissioned by WEI, more than 35 percent (or 53.5 million) of Americans have experienced workplace bullying firsthand, and it is four times more common than racial discrimination or sexual harassment.
Namie said workplace abuse or bullying can include verbal abuse, shunning, threats, intimidation, sabotage, using foul language, threatening loss of a promotion or paycheck deductions, malicious rumors or gossip, unreasonable work loads and criticisms of an employee’s physical appearance, work skills and intellect.
“Workplace bullying is driven by the need for the perpetrator to control the targeted individual for whatever reason,” Namie said. “It can be devastating to both employees and the companies they work for.”
Employees are placed at higher risk for physical and physiological challenges such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem due to the stress caused by abuse. Companies can face lost productivity due to low employee morale and a significant financial loss from a lawsuit.
Workplace abuse is sometimes joined by its “evil twin” of discrimination, which also remains prevalent in many workplaces today.
Last week a federal lawsuit was filed in Indianapolis by the EEOC on behalf of 35 African-American employees and job applicants against a Hampton Inn Hotel on the Eastside. The suit alleges that a manager cut the pay of Black workers, and fired them when they complained about it. It is alleged that the manager also denied jobs to Black applicants, saying that she would hire Hispanics because they “work harder and complain less.”
A week before that, the EEOC filed another lawsuit on behalf of a woman who received constant unwanted advances from a manager while working at the Lighthouse Restaurant in Michigan City, Ind.
“Jobs might be harder to find these days, but you don’t have to endure discrimination or abuse just to keep a paycheck,” said Gilbert Holmes, director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. “That kind of behavior should never be tolerated. You can stop it just by learning what your rights are as an employee, and getting those rights enforced.”
Holmes noted that some states, including Indiana are “at will” states, meaning that employers can terminate employment for any reason or no reason at all. Still, employees in all states have rights that protect them from being terminated for certain reasons.
For example, federal and state laws prohibit employers from firing anyone on the basis of his or her race, gender, religion, disability status or age. Employees also cannot be terminated for refusing to comply with illegal orders or reporting illegal workplace practices.
In addition, the law also prohibits employers or coworkers from harassing employees with unwanted sexual advances or physically assaulting them. Employers cannot “fine” their employees, and can only make deductions from their wages for taxes, union dues, loans or charity. In addition, it is also illegal for an employer to “blacklist” employees, or unfairly defame their characters with untruthful information when giving a reference.
“Knowing what your rights are as an employee gives you a leg to stand on against abuse or discrimination,” said Namie.
Employees can report abuse or discrimination to the human resources department of their place of employment, if one exists. If the department is not helpful, then the situation can be reported to federal and state agencies that regulate labor practices, such as the local offices of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations or the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission.
When these agencies file claims on behalf of employees, most employers or the companies they work for are usually willing to reach an agreement, which generally includes removal of the person causing abuse. The company also may offer the employee who was abused some sort of financial compensation.
However, if no settlement is reached, the agency will take an employer to court.
In addition to holding abusers accountable, employees also can adopt ways to cope.
“I’ve been able to make it because of the love and support I receive from my family,” said Cynthia, the department store worker. “I also make sure I do at least one thing every weekend to have fun and de-stress. I might check out a movie or treat myself to lunch or dinner with a friend.”
Namie agrees that is a good approach to take.
“You have to put your health first, and don’t believe the lies the abuser is telling about you,” she said. “Spend time with loved ones and friends during stressful times like this. Isolation only makes the stress worse.”
STOP ABUSE OF POWER IN THE WORKPLACE
Know your rights
n Federal and state laws prohibit employers from firing anyone on the basis of their race, gender, religion, disability status or age.
n Employees also cannot be terminated for refusing to comply with illegal orders or reporting illegal workplace practices.
n The law prohibits employers or coworkers from harassing employees with unwanted sexual advances or physically assaulting them.
n Employers cannot “fine” their employees, and can only make deductions from their
wages for taxes, union dues, loans or charity.
n It is illegal for an employer to “blacklist” employees, or unfairly defame their characters with untruthful information, when giving a reference.
If you’re facing abuse or discrimination
• Recommend company events and activities to help co-workers get to know each other better.
• Discrimination should never be tolerated, but if minor verbal abuse occurs, attempt to work things out with the person who does it and share your thoughts. If the person lacks remorse for his behavior, take the case to senior management.
• Report it to the human resources department at your place of employment.
• If the response from HR is unsatisfactory, report the abuse to high superiors such as a district manager, or equivalent leader in the company’s corporate office.
• If no assistance is provided within the company, report the abuse/discrimination by calling the local offices of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations or the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission.
• To fight the negative physical effects of stress, exercise for at least 30 minutes three times a week and maintain a healthy diet.
• Make time for positive activities with family members and friends for balance in your life.
(You can e-mail comments to Brandon Perry at Brandonfirstname.lastname@example.org.)