Stood Up to Bullies
Why it happens. Why it will continue.
"The tiny percentage of
mobbing victims – like Pierre Lebrun –
who lash back in violent attack would probably have
lived out their lives peaceably and productively had
they been spared the excruciating pain of relentless
~ Prof. Kenneth Westhues,
the Mercy of the Mob: A summary of research on workplace
violence has become a pressing problem facing businesses
and society as a whole. Generally speaking,
workplace violence encompasses many behaviours which
constitute violence. However for the purposes of this
article we will focus on the most extreme form of
workplace violence which from time to time captures
the media's attention – workplace homicide.
What has gone so terribly wrong in these situations?
Why are so many of these incidents eerily similar?
We've all seen the news
reports. A lone gunman returns to his workplace or
former workplace to exact revenge for harassment that
has gone on sometimes for years. We learn
that the gunman has lashed back in the past at those
he considered to be abusing him, albeit in non-lethal
ways. We are told the gunman has been disciplined
in the past for his behaviour (reacting to the abuse)
and has been ordered to go to counselling or anger
management courses. Even though the precipitating
abuse may have gone on for years any response in kind
gives the bullies and management the opportunity to
turn the tables and claim that the victim of abuse
is the real problem after all.
Of couse what we don't
hear is that the bullies provoking this reaction are
almost never disciplined or required to attend
counselling themselves. At this point targets of mobbing
are often further humiliated by being forced to sign
so-called 'last chance agreements' which threaten
the target with termination if they dare to challenge
the bullies again. So once the target of harassment
returns to work after "counselling" they
are greeted by cynical bullies who simply renew their
attack with added vigor now that they know management
will do nothing to stop them and will even join in
the persecution. This tacit approval and participation
by management guarantees the situation will only get
News reporters interview the gunman's
co-workers, union respresentatives and managers. Those
not directly implicated in the harassement of the
gunman usually describe him in positive terms.
For example in the OC Transpo shooting in Ottawa a
co-worker of Pierre Lebrun, Ozzie Morin, commented
that Pierre was "a
pretty peaceful lad", "I didn't think he
was ill. I can't really say anything today
that would say he was whacko, you know." Another
co-worker, Grant Harrison remembered Lebrun as "very
clever, very nice". 1
While those closer to the abuse,
union reps for example, intent on distancing themselves
from blame, respond "We're
going to look for causes but really, I don't think
we're really going to find a cause," said
union head Paul Macdonnell. "This
individual was just sick."
Lebrun's mother believes that
taunts by co-workers about her son's speech impediment
sent him over the edge. "He
said a group of people were harassing him - not only
one person but a group of people," Jeannette
Lebrun told The Ottawa Citizen. "That's
why he went there - to kill the people who harassed
him." ... The trouble may have started
in 1996, when Ottawa endured a tense transit strike
and Lebrun, at the advice of doctors, took sick leave
rather than join his colleagues on the picket line.
After the strike, sources
say, Lebrun's fellow employees started to harass him.
It seems finding a cause,
the real cause, is the last thing the union would
just to label the victim of their harassment "sick"
and leave it at that.
Although the bullies who
tormented Pierre Lebrun deserve the bulk of the blame
for this tragedy, the balance of the responsibility
lies with incompetent management who did
nothing to stop the harassment. Bullying cannot occur
in workplaces with vigilant managers who understand
how counterproductive and destructive unchecked harassment
can be. Mobbing cannot occur without the tacit approval
and participation of management in the abuse.
The past few years have
been tumultuous ones at OC Transpo. A consultants'
review of operations last year painted an unflattering
picture of the company with rock-bottom morale
and poor management. "Quite apart from
what's alleged or otherwise with Mr. Lebrun's situation,
we know we've had a very unhappy work environment
for a long time," Loney* told Maclean's. (The
company has recently undertaken changes, such as management
shuffles.) In the mechanics department, for example,
where Lebrun got into a fight, Loney says minor altercations
"were not at all unusual" in the past. 1
*Al Loney, chairman of Ottawa-Carleton's
Management's failure to
take complaints about bullying seriously is key to
developing a dangerous and toxic work environment.
Especially disconcerting is management that have been
made aware of mobbing and its conscquences, including
workplace violence, but choose to allow the abuse
Claude Brazeau said it's time
OC Transpo started addressing the issue of harassment
at work. Brazeau witnessed the murder of his colleagues
while on the phone with police after he dialed 911.
"I've been working at OC Transpo for
22 years, I've been harassed and complained about
it and nothing got done," Brazeau said.
Many incidents of workplace violence
have elements in common other than incessant harassment
and complicite management. We learn that as
the shooting unfolded many were spared while only
certain individuals are shot. This
is a common theme in these kinds of workplace shootings.
In a shooting in Hawaii at a Xerox warehouse,
"Byran Uyesugi picked out the targets of his
rage, shooting two co-workers at close range in a
small office but sparing a third man who was working
at his desk in the same room..." 3
In yet another shooting, "Police ... said there
appeared to be nothing random about the killings at
the Kansas City ConAgra Foods Inc. plant. They said
he (Elijah Brown) passed by some co-workers, telling
them, "You haven't done anything to me, so you
can go." "This person acted with purpose,
he knew exactly what he was doing," Police Chief
Ron Miller said." 4
In reference to the OC Transpo
"It's very curious as to
why he selected certain individuals to kill and permitted
certain people to live," said Ottawa-Carleton
regional police Insp. Ian Davidson. "He could
easily have killed many more people." 1
There is nothing random
or senseless about it. Considering that targets
of workplace bullying and mobbing are subjected to
years of traumatizing abuse that has been equated
in its emotional and mental impact to rape, and that
this torture has been perpetrated by specific individuals,
it is not the least bit curious why Lebrun "selected
certain individuals to kill and permitted certain
people to live".
It is important to remember that not everyone who is killed in workplace violence incidents are necessarily bullies.
None of the four OC Transpo employees murdered by Pierre Lebrun were on his list of those he felt responsible for his abuse. For example, one of those murdered, Clare Davidson, was actually covering the position of someone else who was on Lebrun's list.
Workplace bullying not only takes the lives of targets (who often commit suicide) and bullies, but also claims the lives of innocent people – devastating entire families.
Unfortunately, after a
workplace shooting there is a willful ignorance that
falls on the scene.
The bullies responsible, including management, are
at a complete loss for a reason, other than branding
the target of their abuse "whacko" or "sick".
Since it is taboo to speak ill of the dead,
even if they should be, the police, the media and
politicians dance around the real cause and frame
the bullies as loving family men, beloved by all,
who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time
when, inexplicably, they were shot for no reason by
a guy who just snapped because God only knows why.
Mr. Ian Murray (Lanark-Carleton,
Lib.): Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the Government
of Canada, I want to convey ... Our sadness and grief,
in particular the sadness and grief of the victims'
loved ones, are made more acute and painful by the
senselessness of it all. It defies
human understanding and explanation. ...
One brief eruption of madness has
caused your lives to be changed forever. 5
Mr. Werner Schmidt (Kelowna,
Ref.): Mr. Speaker, in keeping with the tribute
just read, the deaths of those five OC Transpo employees
last week were senseless and heartbreaking.
Four innocent citizens of this community
were killed by a lone gunman ... No law or
social system could have predicted or prevented what
took place and there are no
guarantees that such an incident will not occur again.
Indeed, and willful ignorance
such as this guarantees that it will.
Even though OC Transpo
experienced a worst-case-scenario response to rampant
workplace bullying, it seems that little has been
learned. One can only imagine how much less
has been learned at companies which are equally abusive
but haven't had a violent incident - yet.
The following stories link to a
series of radio pieces by Katrina Roman of the CBC.
They describe a disturbing lack of response
to addressing the issues of a toxic workplace culture
at OC Transpo. Once the gunsmoke cleared,
it was back to business as usual.
Just click any of the headlines
below (or click
here) to go to CBC.ca, then click 'Listen' to
hear the full audio for each story.
Seven years after the OC Transpo shooting, have lessons
been learned? If the stabbing of a nurse in Windsor
is any indication, maybe not.
Challenge of Changing Workplace Culture
The OC Transpo shooting seven years ago shocked Ottawa
and the rest of the country. The jury at the coroner's
inquest made dozens of recommendations, many on how
to improve the workplace environment. Karina tells
the story of what OC Transpo is like today and how
it's an example of how difficult it is to change the
culture of a workplace.
Fear the Past is Becoming the Future
Seven years after the OC Transpo shooting, employees
are speaking out. They fear the organization is backsliding
to the days where bullying and harassment were rampant
and bosses did nothing to stop it.
Have the Bosses Learned?
Workplace experts say the OC Transpo shooting impacted
employers all over Canada. But some labour organizations
worry that as the tragedy falls further into the past,
corporations are forgetting the lessons learned.
No Friend to OC Transpo
Sources at OC Transpo say the organization's progress
towards fixing the workplace was slowed by having
to manage amalgamation at the same time. The mayor
and one of his opponent's in this year's election
have different takes on the issue.
Drags its Legislative Feet
Seven years ago the OC Transpo inquest made 77 recommendations
with the aim to prevent other such tragedies. Number
one on that list was for the province to create a
regulation to address workplace violence. Karina explains
how workers are still waiting.
If having four workers shot dead
and a fifth committing suicide isn't enough to wake
up management at OC Tranpo, and for that matter all
businesses in Canada, then what will? How
many more shootings and how many more lives will it
take before managers and politicians begin paying
of turning the blame on the real victim of abuse after
a shooting, why not put a stop to workplace bullying
and mobbing before it has to come to a violent conclusion?
Perhaps the next time something
like this happens and management is found to have
tolerated mobbing, the officers of the company should
be criminally charged for causing the deaths - along
with any bullies who happen to survive.
Perhaps companies will
only respond if the bottom line is threatened
and very, very heavy fines are imposed. Fines commensurate
to the size of the company and sufficient to cause
the executive managers and shareholders to shudder.
Body counts mean nothing
to some companies, so perhaps this is the only
way to get their attention.
Managers need to be convinced
that there is no 'shareholder value' in mobbing or
in blithely causing the deaths of their employees.
But it is unlikely that there will be the political
will to hold corporations and incompetent managers
accountable for their actions. Politicians know which
side their bread is buttered on, don't they.
Our government has failed
to address the issue of workplace harassment
and mobbing. (Except for Quebec which has lead North
America as the first jurisdiction to introduce protection
against psychological harassment of employees. More
info here - Commission
des normes du travail.)
your local MP and make him or her aware
that you are very displeased that the Canadian Government
is choosing to do very little to stop businesses who
support mobbing which can and does result in destroyed
lives, financial ruin, suicide and even homicide.
up your local MP here.
the PM's Office and do the same. Click
here for contact information.
Provide them with information about
mobbing, include links to this and other websites.
mobbing.ca - http://mobbing.ca
OvercomeBullying.org - http://www.overcomebullying.org/
Watch provides tips
for contacting politicians including hand writing
or typing a letter rather than sending an email. They
suggest it is important to send your letter to your
MP but to also send a copy to the Minister responsible.
It is time to demand government
and business leaders take action against bullying
and mobbing in our workplaces or face severe penalties
for failing to do so.
Enough is enough. Lives are
This is where I originally
intended to end this article, but unfortunately
simply passing laws is not only ineffective in itself
but would likely make the situation even worse for
targets of workplace abuse. With laws in place, feeble
and toothless as they would likely be, it still requires
companies to adhere to them. This may result in more
companies actually developing a psychological harassment
policy, but unless there is real will to enforce these
policies they are, like the laws, just meaningless
words on paper.
If our target of mobbing
dared to accuse bullies and/or management under such
laws they would not be protected from abuse, they
would in fact be subjected to even more.
They would now be whistleblowers and would be viciously
retaliated against - regardless of any feeble laws
against it. This has been a lesson learned the hard
way time and time again by whistleblowers. Click
here for more info on suppression of dissent and whistleblowing.
If, on the other hand,
our target of mobbing does not file a complaint under
such laws, hoping to avoid even further abuse,
the tables would eventually be turned on them anyway
and they would be charged
BY THE BULLIES! What!?
Yes, as the mobbing escalates the target eventually
responds to the abuse. Sooner or later the target
will say or do something the bully can twist and use
against their victim claiming that it is the bully
who is the REAL victim.
This is stereotypical in mobbing
cases. Even though abusive companies, such as OC Transpo,
allow bullying to go on unchecked sometimes for years,
talking back to a bully or even suggesting corporate
culpability or liability is not tolerated and is dealt
with swiftly and harshly. These companies are profoundly
cynical in this regard. Laws such as this would only
provide bullies and abusive managers with yet another
weapon with which to bludgeon their victim.
While society as a whole
remains ignorant about workplace abuse and mobbing
it is easy for bullies and companies to pull the wool
over our eyes and continue to get away with
savage abuses including using the very laws designed
to stop it against their victims. Laws
against bullying and mobbing are dangerous without
also educating people about the dynamics of
Once educated it is easy
to tell what is really happening, who the
real victim is. Once it is named and brought out into
the light for all to see bullies can no longer operate
in the grey area. Only once everyone sees
mobbing for what it is, brutal systematic psychological
torture, will it become unacceptable. Only
when co-workers, supervisors, department heads, HR
managers, EAP providers, corporate executives, doctors,
lawyers, judges and politicians understand what is
being done and comprehend the staggering toll it takes
on individuals, companies and society as a whole will
laws proscribing mobbing become effective.
In the meantime, the body count
will continue to rise.
~ Anton Hout