A secretary at a large Chicago-area hospital, she'd endured years of harsh treatment at the hands of a clique of nurses that basically ran her floor. The nurses referred to another secretary, a very large woman, as "fatty" and "fat-[butt]." They yelled at the secretary herself and scolded her when she stood up to them: "Watch your tone with me."
"Be nice to the nurses, [witch]" a man's voice said.
The secretary called the police, who helped her trace the call. But beyond that, they said, there wasn't much they could do.
She had already complained to her union and her manager, who often went along with the bullying. Her attempts to simply transfer off the floor—about 50, she says, since 2007—have been similarly unsuccessful.
"What else are you supposed to do?" she asked.
I had no idea, so I called up Gary Namie, co-author of "The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job."
"When bullying is this severe and this repeated and it involves stalking, [it's] abuse," he said. "They are treating her like a battered spouse they can kick around. This is domestic violence where the abuser is on the payroll."
Namie says it's important that the secretary knows that she didn't cause the bullying and she's not alone in experiencing it. According to a survey conducted by Zogby International for the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent of American workers have been bullied, or about 54 million Americans.
In this case, he says, the responsibility for fixing the problem lies with management.
"I guarantee you she's not the only one [being bullied] and she's not going to be the last one. It's on every floor and it's part of the culture of that place … they are a toxic workplace."
Unfortunately, in these cases low-level supervisors are often cowed or co-opted by bullies and offer little help.
"[The secretary] has to go high up the ladder" to upper management, he says.
"She has to ask for safety, but she also has to say, matter-of-factly, 'This is your leadership role. You're in leadership to make this a safe work environment so we can protect the lives of patients. We're here to cure, heal and rehabilitate and, by golly, this interferes with the mission.' "
The executive may respond that the secretary isn't a health care provider, but Namie strongly disagrees.
"The [heck] she's not," he says. "Families interact with her, people interact with her, staff relies on her, and when she's disrupted, the department's disrupted."
Namie also advises the secretary to take good care of herself during a trying time.
"Trust me, [the bullies] are hurting her," he says. "If she hasn't gone to a physician, she'd better go to a doctor right away. She's probably got blood pressure issues—gastrointestinal issues, a whole host of stress-related physical conditions."
It's not just the severity of the workplace hostility that takes a toll, Namie says. Frequency matters, too.
"It's the constant, unremitting exposure that causes stress, and the harm comes from the inescapability."
Office Hours appears weekly in TribU. If you have a work-related question — and remember, no question is too serious or too silly — send a note to Nara Schoenberg at email@example.com.