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?"

This story is a part of the Turmoil at the VQR special.

12 comments

I think it's a good start. I was working under a bully at UVa. Hopefully this will alert this person that their behavior is not acceptable. Namie says that "Calling the problem what it is– psychological violence, abusive conduct, or bullying" and this is a good argument. But how many bullies will understand that what they are doing is abusive, violent and bulling? Certainly not my office bully who may respond better to a directive to behave respectfully in dealings with others.

President Sullivan actually did something. Astounding. She finally got around to doing what she promised the Board of Visitors she would do back in October of 2010 which was--lets see--one year and four months ago. I wonder what prompted her one year and four months later to do something? She hasn't fired Genoways of course but when his contract comes up for renewal, and let's hope she has the good sense to smile and wave goodbye to him. Fine job Ted, much appreciated, best of luck in your new career.

Having never had to work for a bully its hard for me to relate. I could understand the fear an employee or employees live through having to live with this knowing their job and home might be on the line if they should report it. Fear is a powerful motivator and most people will do anything to protect their job and their lifestyle. I can't help but wonder if this effort amounts to a feel good campaign much like Cvilles Diversity sham.

@Amazed, that this program was launched about a year after the task force was created is actually lightning speed for an institution like the University.

@Thoughtful, I think you are right--focusing on "disrespect" is an easier task for the actual bully, who probably is in complete denial of his/her bullying behavior.

Re: Maria's comments in the article: I think those pieces stated to be missing from the retaliation section are actually more a part of the overall disrespectful behavior--and those items are listed in that appropriate section. There would be no reason to repeat many of the disrespectful behaviors in the retaliation section, imo. Retaliation is more about having your job becoming more difficult or in jeopardy, thus that section highlights some of those pieces/what that would look like.

As for dealing with the power players exerting that behavior, that is unfortunately a common problem. The best you can do is to try to create the climate and do your best to have everyone participate. I think it is a good thing to at least try--rather than not do it at all just because it might not be 100% effective. If it helps even a few more employees than would have been helped before, that is a great start.

@ Amazed, on what prompted her...

I'm hoping stories, and comments, such as:

http://www.readthehook.com/102474/preferential-treatment-new-emails-offe...

I'm still not getting or understanding how anybody could let a "bully boss" hold that kind of power over them. NOBODY has that kind of power over us. It's called "quitting your job and upgrading to something better" when you have a bully boss that's making your job unbearable.

As somebody who's not only quit many a stupid job, but walked out in the middle of a work shift due to unsavory bosses thinking they could do or say whatever they wanted (did that on more than one occasion) I don't get it and never will. They don't hold power over me. They will not prevent me from finding something better, and never have. There isn't a job I've ever quit where I didn't immediately find something else - something that was usually a step up.

Then again, I also didn't paint myself into a corner in life with a mortgage, kids, and debt up the wazoo. I made smart life choices so that I could have my freedom at all costs.

Have that mentality and watch how far you go in life.

booo!, your comment makes sense for you, but not the majority of the rest of the world. People that have children do not feel painted into a corner, they chose to have them as that is something that is important to them/a valid and pretty normal life choice.

Obviously we couldn't all take your path of no children/no mortgage, as there would be very few people in this world. Obviously you were a child at one point, as were the rest of us. Funny how that is.

But you are right in that if you have those things it is very difficult to just walk out of jobs. I also don't think someone should have to--especially in a good functioning system that helps take care of bully issues, etc. There is also something to be said about the strength of character that can develop from dealing with the issue, and trying to have the patience to hang in there until a better opportunity comes up.

After many years of teaching and administrative service at a variety of colleges, universities and independent schools, I have come to the unimpeachable conclusion that bullying is part of the DNA of these kinds of institutions. In a strange way, it seems to permeate other types of nonprofits in Charlottesville. The common DNA strand here seems to be UVA. Many of the local nonprofits are headed by retired and former faculty and/or UVA grads. Is this strand of institutional DNA unique to UVA ? Sadly no, but it does seem to thrive here in the nonprofit arena.

I have to believe that President Sullivan has the right intentions, but for a program to succeed it needs much more than just a new name for an old idea. I have served on several boards at UVA and other nonprofits. I have witnessed first hand the inhuman and unprofessional manner by which UVA terminates high level administrators. One case in recent memory was of a long term administrator who received a letter telling her that she was terminated. When she tried to find out why, she was told that a former president of the University didn't like her. Not a good way to win friends and influence people!

The "culture" at / and of UVA needs to change. With few exceptions, I have never met a UVA administrator, director or grad who didn't think they were the "chosen people." And that they were better than most of the rest of the world. I have watched UVA folks treat waiters as if they were mentally inferior. The buzz around town is how grateful we in Cville should be that UVA is here and they can do what they damn well please and the rest of the town can pound sand! How many weekends do UVA move in/move outs, football games and other crowd generators take over the entire town making it very difficult for townies to get from one side of town to the other. The University has gone so far in support of football that it forced the Catholic Center to cancel Saturday night services so UVA could sell all the nearby parking spaces and block streets.

In my own experience, it has been clear that most bullies had some childhood trauma that causes them to seek and use power inappropriately. Adult children of alcoholics seem to be high on the list of bullies with nerds coming in next. Pick something from the DSM that relates to childhood problems and more than likely you will find a bully who hasn't fixed his or her life issues.

Change is hard; it takes time and genuine effort. UVA needs to take a hard look from the newest student to the oldest faculty member and every other person in between and make it clear that the things that may have contributed to all of the recent deaths are, simply, not acceptable to the institution.

Without the University might the town just be another Madison or Orange? I doubt it as the local history going back to the founding of our new democracy would have driven more interest here than many other towns. We are all works in progress, let's try to grow and learn from the past and create a much better future.

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Booo! What you say makes complete sense. But in reality it isn't so easy just to quit and go out and find a new job. And I don't have a mortgage or kids either. The last time I went looking for a job I got no offers and I have a good employment record and a lot of experience. It's not an easy economy to find a job in. Perhaps with your skillset it is easy, but not all of us have that luxury. Every other part of the job I liked and the other people were all fine. I didn't really feel like taking on this bully who was at the top of the heap, while I was at the bottom of the heap. As it was stated in the case of the VQR incident, the quirks of people who are good at what they do and hard to replace are tolerated. I could see that was what was going on in this case, so I stuck it out. I am personally very happy that Sullivan has introduced this initiative, because this person may finally get an idea of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior without having to actually admit to themselves that they are a bully.

And fortunately I have moved on to another job, but certainly as Respect says, it does build strength of character as you live through it, including the lesson that it is important to treat people with respect. I would never wish to treat someone as I was treated.

First, I think Dave McNair is to be commended not only for this piece but for his doggedness in sticking with this complex issue. Keeping this in the forefront and not fade into some blip on the media radar is the kind of investigative journalism that really serves the public. Thanks Dave.

President Sullivan's report on the Morrissey incident was a bit suspect. The task force as far as I know and I might be wrong didn't survey employees about the extent of the problem of bullying throughout UVA.

As to the developments, I think A Cville/DC/NYC Foodie nailed in his/her post. I have seen and experienced Bullying first hand at UVA. As far as the report and the new anti-bullying program it will take time to see if this is just another Institutional Impression management tool or if it is a sincere effort. Let's see how the new system of reporting without retaliation works. How will employees who have lived with years and years of good old boy and girl bullying, really trust this new system?

NYC Foodie is right its about cultural change. As I walked over to the Living Wage Campaign yesterday I passed an older African-American worker who works for a contractor of UVA. I asked him what he thought of the Living Wage campaign going on. He said sure hoped they succeeded because he was tired of living paycheck to paycheck. I asked him what would happen if he joined inn the LW protest. he said his boss would surely fire him.

Large institutions like UVA are really just made up of people. Small groups of people at the top have values, get together, interact, and take actions, of commission and omission,,that are either moral or immoral and that have effects on people. I don't think people in bureaucracies think much about the moral component of their actions, they are too busy focusing on attaining the institution's goals and protecting the institutions image. All of these changes spoken about by President Sullivan depend on change of people at the top and their management practice. I know in my unit at UVA there is a lot of fear among staff, and faculty (both tenured and non-tenured) and people just do not feel like taking risks associated with speaking out or protecting others who are bullied. There's a divide and conquer mentality at play. The morale is very low among many in all ranks in our unit.

I don't think everyone has the luxury of just quitting. Besides that's not the point, it leaves the mess for others to have to deal with and doesn't address the bullying behavior. Bullying will change when there is a leader who leads by example and stops playing organizational politic, publicly punishes bullies, and takes a moral stance. It stops when people who are in powerless positions band together to protect each other. The Culture of fear must be fleshed out. If I were President I would give the staff and faculty a chunk of money to hire a trusted outside consultant who would then survey and interview staff and faculty in an anon/confidential mode and get at the truth of the matter. Then allow that report to be circulated publicly and discussed and then I would act on it.

If I were president Sullivan I would encourage all UVA employees to participate in the Living Wage campaign and promise that none who did would be vulnerable to termination for that act or any trumped up act related to that participation. Then if there were any bullying associated with that participation, employees could use the new reporting system to deal with indirect bullying associated with that participation in the LW campaign.

The problem of bullying has been built op over the many years that UVA's organizational culture has developed. It won't go away without some drastic measures and actions at the outset of any change effort. This is also part of a larger issue that has to do with power and decision making. UVA power and decision making is so concentrated at the top, it makes it difficult for employees to fee like they are part of the solution. Work place democracy is the cure to bullying disease.