Another Tragic Case of Bullying in the Workplace

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Bullying in the workplace, sadly enough, is one of those topics that never seems to go away.

The latest incident is one that took place late last month at the Virginia Quarterly Review, a literary publication at the University of Virginia. According to The Washington Post, the university president “has ordered a ‘a thorough review’ of the management of the school’s acclaimed literary journal, following the suicide of a top editor last month.”

Here are the details, according to The Post:

The death of Kevin Morrissey, managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, has drawn attention because of questions that a sister and some co-workers have raised about the work environment at the journal and Morrisey’s efforts to contact university officials before he shot himself July 30 near the Charlottesville campus. Morrissey was 52 …

In the two weeks before his death, Morrissey’s phone records show he made more than a dozen calls to university officials, according to Maria Morrissey, his sister. Morrissey said her brother suffered from depression but was pushed to suicide by “a very hostile work environment.”

Ted Genoways, editor of the journal since 2003 and Morrissey’s supervisor, is on leave and unavailable for comment, said his attorney, Lloyd Snook. “We’ve said all along that we welcome a university investigation,” Snook said. He acknowledged that there had been some “dissension in the ranks” of the journal’s staff.

NBC’s Today Show did a piece on this story this week, and the video here is well worth talking a look at because it’s a topic that just doesn’t seem to go away despite all that has been written and said about how destructive workplace bullying can be.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xejn20_nbc-today-show-did-boss-bully-emplo_news

There’s also this fairly in-depth article from the blog The Hook that gets into the circumstances around Kevin Morrissey’s death and points out how the university failed to act despite allegedly knowing about personnel problems and other issues at VQR over the past five years.

An ingrained workplace practice?

Although bullying has gotten a lot of media coverage over the past few years, workplace bullying is a problem that has existed for many, many years and shows no signs of going away. Yes, the ongoing economic downturn has played a big part in this recently (as this story we published over at Workforce when I was Editor there points out), but the recession has only helped to aggravate what was already an ingrained management practice for many.

I blogged back in 2008 about how verbal abuse seemed to be part of the corporate culture over at satellite provider Dish Network, to the point of spawning a fairly newsworthy lawsuit. The fact is, workplace bullying is tolerated (and even condoned) in far too many organizations. When it really gets out of hand, as is alleged in the case at Virginia Quarterly Review, the situation can sometimes turn from badly abusive to deadly tragic.

As someone who has dealt with more than his fair share of untalented and overcompensating bullies in the workplace, I’m all for workplace bullying being one of those “zero tolerance” behaviors that gets the perpetrator terminated with extreme prejudice on the spot.

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That’s not going to happen anytime soon, however, because all too often, the worst bullies are the people up in the executive ranks who get kudos and big rewards for the bottom line results they bring. In fact, it was only when Mark Hurd badly overplayed his hand with the Board at HP did the many stories come out that described him as a “tyrant, a bully, and a thug.” Where were those stories before he fell from grace?

Bullying: a dirty little workplace secret

You know the answer to that: no one wanted to hear those stories when Mark Hurd was riding high because he was improving the bottom line and increasing shareholder value.

One of the dirty little workplace secrets we don’t ever admit is that bullying behavior is acceptable and tolerated in managers and executives if you are hitting and exceeding your numbers. All too many HR professionals know this to be true, but the dirty secret doesn’t become public until the executive takes a tumble (like Mark Hurd) or a worker gets driven over the edge, as is alleged at the Virginia Quarterly Review.

The Today Show video is tragic and shocking. And it raises yet again the age-old question: why do we continue to put up with such bad and potentially lethal behavior in the workplace?

Yes, the question keeps getting asked, but will we ever come up with a good answer?

UPDATE: The New York Observer has weighed in with an article that defends the editor who is alleged to have done the bullying at the Virginia Quarterly Review. It’s a very personal defense of Ted Genoways, the editor in question, and here’s the crux of the defensive argument made by Observer writer Tom Bissell:

I would like to believe that I know enough about human nature to be able to sense within someone to whom I am close a monstrousness capable of tormenting a colleague into the dark embrace of suicide. What I do sense in the VQR tragedy, unmistakably so, is a far more complicated story about people who grew to despise one another, worked terribly together and had access to too much money and not enough support systems, whether personal or official. But “workplace bullying,” like the “Ground Zero mosque,” is a narrative so easy and pleasing it practically fits you for your toga. (Mr. Genoways has, he recently told me, begun getting death threats.)

It is probably not possible to run a magazine if the editor in charge of the magazine is structurally unable to fire those beneath him. But the cartoon villain described by anonymous VQR staffers in the stories that have been published about this tragedy simply do not jibe with the experience any of Mr. Genoways’ friends or writers have ever had with him. There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that Mr. Genoways is a Machiavellian genius able to hide his true nature from everyone with whom he is close. The second is that the staff of VQR has an ax to grind in framing their side of the story for “experts” who have something, and perhaps much, to gain.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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