Laura Dunavent’s voice still quavers when she recalls the darkest chapter of her life.
“I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I knew is that it made me crazy.”
It wasn’t until after Dunavent, a registered ER nurse, quit her job as a case manager for an Orlando insurance carrier — “so I wouldn’t go out of my mind” — that she discovered a name for the emotional torture she says she experienced at work.
Bullying has been around since the first schoolyard. But its fledgling cousin, workplace bullying, is a work in progress with legal and academic experts seeking to define it, even as employee complaints of “bullying” grow. Employers have been left flat-footed by the new species of worker grievance.
About 5percent of employers have recognized bullying as a unique problem and only 3percent have taken steps to address it, according to a survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash.
For all practical legal purposes, bullying does not exist. No state or federal laws ban it. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definition of harassment lists race, color, sex, national origin, age and disability but makes no mention of bullying.
Yet it’s very real, said Gary Namie, a social psychologist who established the WBI in 1997 and says it’s still the only one of its kind in America. He founded it with his wife, Ruth, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, after she was bullied in the workplace. Statistics on workplace bullying are scarce.
A 2010 survey designed by the WBI and conducted by Zogby estimated that 35percent of the U.S. workforce (about 53million Americans) had been bullied at work. An additional 15percent of respondents said they had witnessed bullying at work.
But what exactly is workplace bullying, and how is it different from the yelling, cold stares, insults, arrogance, sabotage and general jerk behavior that employees have suffered silently forever?
“The difference is that bullying causes health harm. It’s psychological violence,” Namie says. “Research shows that the level of anger and depression is higher from bullying than sexual harassment. It’s much more akin to domestic violence — except the abusive partner is on the payroll.”
He could be playing Laura Dunavent’s sad song. She had spent two reprimand-free years at the Orlando insurance agency when, in 2003, a supervisor suddenly began a steady drumbeat of criticism and verbal abuse, says Dunavent, 56, recounting a three-month ordeal that ended with her resignation.
“She told me there were companies that didn’t want me on cases anymore. I asked why, and she wouldn’t say. She said she was going to put me on probation and monitor my work every day. It was all on the phone — she never put anything in writing. She refused to meet with me. She cut off all my support by making sure my colleagues wouldn’t speak to me. You become ostracized and start to go crazy.”
After a telephone browbeating in which the supervisor threatened to fire Dunavent, “I ended up in the emergency room. My heart rate went through the roof, and I couldn’t breathe. I knew it wasn’t a heart attack — I was only in my 40s. It was an anxiety attack that had been building up for weeks. The beauty of it is that it had a good outcome.”
Dunavent, divorced and mother of a son, now works as a mental-health case manager for another company and lives in Ormond Beach. She is Florida coordinator for a campaign to adopt a Healthy Workplace Bill that would make bullying subject to the same penalties as traditional forms of harassment.
Working bullying is still in the embryonic stages as a political issue. The WBI is chief advocate for the legislation drafted by David Yamada, a professor specializing in labor and employment law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
More than a dozen states — Florida not among them — are considering the legislation, Yamada wrote in am email, adding that Dunavent has her work cut out for her. “Florida has been quiet on this.”
But others increasingly have not stayed quiet: those who say they have been victims of workplace bullying. Sigridur Ward of Orlando says one episode of what she considered bullying made her quit her job.
Last year Ward, 44, was a customer-service representative at the call center of an Orlando bank. The reps were given a short script in Spanish to read to Spanish-speaking customers who had to be put on hold. Ward, who is from Iceland and speaks good English with an accent, told her supervisor she was uneasy with the order.
“I said I don’t want to insult the Spanish customers by spewing out a sentence I don’t know how to say. And what do I do if I get a question — say, ‘No comprende’? I asked why we were even having to do this.
“He turned around and yelled at me, ‘Because I said so!’ I am 44, not a kindergarten child. ‘Because I said so’ is not an explanation. For him to yell at me in front of everyone was humiliating. He should have taken me aside. I understand that he is my boss. But I’m not his child.”