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Massachusetts Residents’ Experience with Abuse At Work

What's really happening with abuse at work in Massachusetts

In a survey of employees from March-June 2021, the Dignity At Work Act Massachusetts team found that roughly two-thirds of state employees in Massachusetts have been abused during their careers.

The Dignity At Work Act Massachusetts team distributed an online survey in March-June 2021:

  • To 45,000+ state employees, including in higher education and UMASS Medical School employees
  • Through email to our coalition and partner contacts
  • Through social media.

507 people representing nearly every county responded to the survey as of June 8, 2021.

344 of them — or 67.8 percent — reported they have been bullied at work during their careers.

Workplace bullying is defined as the unwanted abuse of any source of power that has the effect of or intent to intimidate, control, or otherwise strip a target of his/her right to esteem, growth, dignity, voice, or other human rights in the workplace.

Of the respondents surveyed, the most common industries were education instruction and library, government, healthcare, and scientific and technical.

In these four employment sectors that represent 80 percent of the respondents, at least 65 percent of respondents reported having been bullied during their careers.

These four counties with at least 40 respondents all had more than two-thirds reported having been bullied:

CountyBeen Bullied
Worcester75%
Suffolk73%
Hampshire72%
Middlesex67%

Four counties ranked highest in proportion of those reporting being bullied.

More than two-thirds reported being bullied.

Top tactics included:

  • Withholding of information that affected my performance.
  • I was humiliated and/or ridiculed.
  • I was ignored or excluded from important information, meetings.
  • Information was misused and affected my performance.
  • I was retaliated against for speaking up.
  • Undermining my work behind my back, without my knowledge.
  • I was persistently criticized for my work.
  • I was the target of someone shouting, a victim of spontaneous anger.
  • My work was excessively monitored.
  • (Negative) Gossip or rumors were created and spread about me.
  • My accomplishments were blown off.
  • I received inconsistent instructions followed by reprimands as a result of miscommunication.
  • I received excessive nitpicking or criticism for errors.
  • I was on the receiving end of angry outbursts.
  • I was the target of intimidating behavior like finger pointing.
  • I perceived hints or signals I should quit.
  • I received repeated reminders of mistakes or errors.
  • Others took credit for my work.
  • I was given unmanageable workloads.
  • I was frequently ordered to work below my level of competence.

Targets described the tactics used:

  • I was told not to report concerns to higher management. Not to address health and safety concerns with my clients to the providers. Not to talk in meetings.”
  • Not answering emails, passive aggressiveness, issuing verbal warnings and written warnings due to minor mistakes.”
  • OSHA violation retaliation”
  • Pressured to return to teach in person”
  • Former nurse worker had access to my medical record and shared my medical record with her mother and other people at work.”
  • Given tasks made difficult by a disability while withholding documented accommodations.”
  • “Wrongful write ups, wrongful suspensions, and have been known to target those who they want out. Not conducting full and proper investigations, believing he said/she said, and siding with supervisor and targeting other employees who speak up.”
  • “Criticism and judgment of personal/non-work choices”
  • “Not one of the guys”
  • Favoritism toward one employee over others”
  • Accusing people who raise concerns about COVID protocols in the building of being sarcastic, insubordinate, inflexible, graceless, and impatient.”
  • Organizing a situation for multiple people to attack my character and ability”
  • Written up for something that did not occur without being asked about the situation prior to receiving reprimand. Got union involved and write up rescinded. They refused training specific to my job description. They restricted my ability to communicate with state employees outside of the direct supervisor.”

Results show a discriminatory impact on:

Workers ages 40-69:

Age Group Been Bullied
30-39 69%
40-49 91%
50-59 91%
60-69 80%

Women:

Gender Been Bullied
Women 73%
Men 49%

Non-white workers:

Race Group Been Bullied
Non-white 76%
White 65%

Non-Binary category had too few people to report.

Non-white:

Race GroupNumber of Respondents
Black or African American40
Asian15
Native American6
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander2

 

Impact on Health and Quality of Life

344 of respondents — or 67.8 percent — reported they have been bullied at work during their careers. This section details findings about those who’ve been bullied.

Of those bullied, nearly 95 percent of targets said the abuse affected their health, with stress symptoms and loss of confidence topping the list.

Health OutcomeExperienced
Stress symptoms: anxiety, depression, digestive issues, heart disease, high blood pressure, eating problems, or loss of sleep92%
Loss of confidence: loss of faith in my own competence76%
Grief symptoms: feelings of shock, anger, helplessness, and isolation leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or suicidal thoughts56%
Damage to personal relationships: marriage strain, damage to relationships with friends and family who get tired of listening to your rehashing of the abuse44%

After the abuse, the majority of targets sought help through an internal remedy: Management, Addressed Bully Directly, Human Resources, and/or their Union.

With every option, no solution was the most frequent outcome.

Sought Help/Remedy About The Bully FromResult of Target’s Contact:
Did NOT Find A Solution
Human Resources93%
Addressed bully directly86%
Management85%
Union79%

Targets described the process, outcomes, and futility of filing complaints:

  • “I’m Black, and that’s just the way it is.”
  • I was bullied by the ED of a national org…. When I reported it to my board, they were initially sympathetic…, but I was then branded as someone who wouldn’t work.”
  • Contacted HR and the legal department, and things only got worse from there.”
  • I am too afraid to file a complaint.”
  • The entire office submitted a complaint. The bully was re-assigned for a period of time but then was put back in charge.”
  • Supervisor was hesitant to do anything out of fear of making it worse.”
  • I tried to use the ‘anonymous’ system at work. Unfortunately, I learned that it goes directly to HR. I received a call from the top HR lawyer in my company, and she informed me that the top executives believed strongly that women are not top performers. Her job, she said, was to minimize promotions of women while managing ‘the optics’ by allowing a few select promotions of women in less strategic areas…. She threatened me and then fired me.”
  • HR ignored the situation.”
  • All managers quietly confide there is a systemic problem.”
  • Asked for months to be addressed. Was told to hold on — it would be addressed. It took months.”
  • I had two meetings with the Vice Provost. She heard my concerns, understood them, explained why they were occurring, and promptly told me she was unable to help. It did not make sense.”
  • Supervisors never reported [my claim] to HR or put it in the bully’s file, so when an investigation happened, the union protected the bully from being fired because there was no record of past complaints in her file.”
  • Everyone keeps their head down either waiting for someone else to address or just trying to get through the day unnoticed.”
  • “Had to frame it as a potential legal liability before I was taken seriously (spent a year trying to speak with HR, Union, managers, and the bully herself). Eventually met with union stewards and my org’s lawyer. They improved my conditions but did not take clear responsibility for the bullying, found softer ways to justify reassigning me to a new supervisor, etc..”
  • Nothing would even be done if a complaint was filed, so what is the point?”
  • “Psychiatrist suggested filing with MCAD/EEOC, but I was too psychologically injured to complete the application before the statute of limitation.”
  • Filed a harassment lawsuit, but the contents of my lawsuit ‘were lost,’ and no records were left behind by the investigating agent. They had 18 months to come up with a decision. When I hadn’t heard anything, I contacted the state. This is when I was Informed that the investigating agent left and left no records behind. The state then had to put the case on the ‘fast course’ and said that they would have an answer in two weeks! Needless to say, they found my cause unsubstantiated. My boss has numerous connections, new and old. I decided to retire earlier than expected by two years. But my health was more important.”
  • Union strongly encouraged me to file complaint. But I’m afraid of retribution from manager.”
  • When I went to HR, I was asked three times if I was going to retire. Employee Human Relations director told me the manager may have broken state and federal laws. HR director said the manager should be retrained or fired. I was fired eight working days after I filed a second complaint with HR and fired one day after my Family Medical leave ended.”
  • Talked to other peers that had filed HR complaints, and they didn’t go anywhere.”
  • I filed a complaint of discrimination, and I was terminated.”
  • I don’t feel comfortable going to HR. They have not been helpful in the past and have often sided with management or the interest of the organization.”
  • I have multiple investigations placed. Nothing has been done. Now it has escalated to my physically being hit. Still nothing was done.”
  • I spoke with the union, which resolved some incidences but not over-arching issues.”
  • I reported it at least three times over six years, resulting in response of defending the bully who continued to undermine my authority and role.”
  • “My employer’s labor relations person send out emails stating that I spoke ‘evil’ of my supervisor in her presence. It was completely false, and the supervisor was not even there at all. My coworkers that bullied me constantly were outside the door to the room. I had a meeting regarding my disability (HR rep, union rep, labor relations person, my manager, and me), and the door was left open during that meeting. After this meeting, the labor relations person sent an email stating that my coworker and anonymous person had complained about my supposedly horrible behavior. I ended up hospitalized for a month due to severe depression, anxiety, and PTSD.”
  • It was obvious that my days were numbered, but I could not leave because I am in immigrant, and my work visa was held by my employer. So I tried moving to HR for a transfer to another department, but I was put on a PIP and was declared not eligible for a transfer or to apply for new positions within the company.”
  • I was discouraged by the Ombudsperson of my institution from filing a complaint because of an institutional climate of silencing those who speak up. The leadership was and remains complicit in mobbing, retaliation, and cover up of violations. They are beyond reproach and exercise a lot of power to destroy careers. It’s an abusive and traumatic milieu.”
  • Our organization did not have HR department, so I did not have many other avenues of support.”

Of those bullied, the most common reason for no longer working with the bully was the target leaving, while the least common was termination of the abuser.

Reason I No Longer Work with the BullyExperienced
I left49%
Bully left24%
I was terminated15%
Bully was terminated6%

Targets reported the outcomes and losses of their abuse situations:

  • Taking away my leave time I am entitled to resulting in missed days of pay”
  • “Almost eviction”
  • My income of $64K for three years”
  • I had a long standing career, was successful, had a happy marriage, beautiful home, was engaged in my community, I had received performance recognition and citation. I never had seen a psychiatrist prior to being bullied and harassed by a new supervisor. I suffered an emotional breakdown, was diagnosed with PTSD, Panic Disorder. I went out on FMLA for a year but had to return or face losing my job. The union and Employee Relations did not ensure I returned to a safe environment. I continued to be harassed and bullied and retaliated against. I submitted a request for ADA accommodation for flexibility in my schedule for medical appointment, rest periods due to my illness, and not to be assigned cases/workload that was the equivalent of more than two jobs (retaliation). I lost my marriage, my home, and my out-of-pocket medical expenses, and payment of the full cost of my health insurance premiums while out on FMLA were well over $20k. Cumulative loss of income was well over $100k so far and counting. Because I worked for the Commonwealth of MA, for over 10 years I did not qualify for SSDI and have been at the mercy of the MSRB to process my disability claim. That case has been ongoing for over two years. The process is inhumanely drawn out, and the medical panel is prevented from opinioning on cause of disability. It is a system designed with automatic denial forcing either a lengthy appeal process with no adherence to timelines or for people to just give up. I honestly don’t know how they can legally get away with what they do. Reform is needed. They are taking advantage of people who are disabled and vulnerable.”
  • I was forced to pay for my own sham psychological evaluation that set me back $10k even though it was employer-mandated. My treating providers disagreed with the evaluation vehemently, and the institution did not care one bit. I was forced into traumatic and degrading oppression at the risk of losing my career for which I had spent decades in school and that cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. I had to hire an attorney — not to sue my institution, but to defend myself from further damage. In all, it cost $50k just to be able to retain my career. The institution continues about its ways unchallenged.”
  • “$100k at the minimum. I moved to an expensive apartment near to work thinking I would produce more and I started investing in education, therapy, and help to write my complaints and documentation — all this after struggling through depression for over a year.”
  • Medical and legal bills: approx. $15,000 (and counting)”
  • “I was suspended without pay for something a subordinate did.”
  • “Out of work for over a year.”
  • “The increase in the expenses for healthcare treatment of every kind sky-rocketed relative to prior employment. I was surprised the insurance company did not flag my record to see what was going on. I probably tripled the time and spending on healthcare. The loss of income was significant. About 35% of our household income was lost for about five years now.”
  • Entire quality of life has been affected in terms of contributing to the household finances; therapy co-pays totaled over $3,000; heart medication and medication for PTSD cost me and my insurance a lot of money.”
  • Loss of a half a year of salary, which was about $20,000. I ended up applying for disability (SSDI) because after being bullied and harassed around disability at two jobs even with accommodation requests, I decided apparently I’m unemployable.”
  • I had to take a much lower paying job while looking for a legal job. The interim loss of income affected my ability to support my elderly parent.”
  • “Legal bills”
  • “Excessive medical bills”
  • “Late bills”
  • I was denied paid work opportunities that male employees were granted. I needed to seek medical and mental health care. Stress and anxiety have had impact on day-to-day routines (paying bills, etc.), and this may have incurred financial loss. Needed to hire an attorney to address the ongoing issues.”
  • I took a $7.00 per hour pay cut to get out of the toxic environment.”
  • “I was given a bad reference by someone I work with. The Berkshires are small. Everyone in the industry knows or knows of everyone. Even if not listed as a reference, it’s likely this person gave a negative recommendation.”
  • I stopped working for two years because I knew going back to a job with two kids at home would be too difficult since my workplace wrote me up every time my child was sick and I couldn’t go to work.”
  • 20 years of fear and mental anguish that impacted my marriage, family, and mental health. Thousands spent on therapists for workplace harassment, bullying, gaslighting, sexual gestures, undermining me, challenging my competency, blocking and obstructing my work, and stalking. Legal fees for consultation, though Title 9 case settled. All despite complaints from other faculty and staff. Individual in question continues to prey on other women including students.”
  • Lost health insurance, retirement benefits, and two years’ salary. Financial loss was about $98k.”
  • I never got my unemployment because I quit due to nothing changing for the better but resulting in a mob mentality and more drama coming from my complaints. I fell into debt and ruined my credit. I am on track to repairing the damage now, but it will take a few years. My career is okay now, and my current supervisor at my new job is a true leader.”
  • Unemployment and loss of health insurance during a time I was dealing with a chronic illness”
  • Had to switch careers and take a pay cut.”
  • “Complete loss of confidence in management and my skills. Lost job and struggled to re-enter workplace. Did not apply for promotions that I was qualified for due to having to work closely with abusers. Lost savings of ~$20k due to rent, medical bills, etc..”
  • Excessive use of my leave time in order to mitigate exposure to said bully.”
  • Loss of income for almost two years: $230k.”
  • “Divorced”
  • “Reduced hours, so I often was left scraping by without assurance that I would be given more work”
  • I was out of work for almost a year which led me to fall behind in all my bills and not be able to pay rent until my unemployment kicked in, which was not enough.”
  • I left a job due to bullying which caused me to be hospitalized for mental health for 11 days. I was blackballed from this industry and forced out of my positIon. Eventually I had to file for bankruptcy and lost my home in the bankruptcy. After leaving the position I could no longer afford to own my home.”
  • Needed vacation time was entirely used for sick days because of so many needed ‘mental health’ days.”
  • I was passed over for eight advancement opportunities because the bully refused to select me and intentionally chose less qualified individuals.”
  • I medicate to go to sleep, to wake up, and to manage my day.”
  • I am diabetic and had stomach issues because of bullying boss, high blood sugars, and sought more medical care to help control diabetes. $2,000 in unpaid medical debt.”
  • I was on leave for a serious medical issue, and even being salary, my pay was docked around $40k that year. I went back to work without medical release due to threats of termination and loss of pay.”
  • “Denied unemployment”
  • It negatively impacted my career and thus long-term salary.”
  • It is a constant drain on my emotional and physical state.”
  • Therapy bills and serious medical bills due to onset of major seizures due to lack of sleep and stress”
  • I had to leave my job and couldn’t collect unemployment because I left voluntarily. So I had no income until I found a new job.”

 

Sought Help Outside the Workplace

Friends and Family

The majority of those bullied confided in friends and family to address the issue but reported it was not effective or helpful.

Confided in Friends and Family and Found EffectivePercentage
Yes29%
No59%

12% did not confide in friends and family about the bullying.

Therapist

Fewer than a third of targets found help through a therapist.

Sought Therapy and Found EffectivePercentage
Yes22%
No20%

57% did not seek therapy to address the bullying.

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