The Healthy Workplace Bill: Marlene’s Law?


This is testimony submitted by Dr. Katherine Hermes, the Trustee of the Living Trust of Marlene A. Braun, to the Connecticut Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee in 2008.

Testimony provided at Senate Hearing, February 26, 2008

Katherine Hermes, J.D., Ph.D.

Connecticut State Coordinator

For the Workplace Bullying Institute

And

Trustee, the Living Trust of Marlene A. Braun

P.O. Box 1765

Torrington, CT 06790

Just a little more than two and a half years ago, the term “workplace bullying” meant nothing to me. I am a history professor with a law degree from Duke and a Ph.D from Yale. My best friend was a scientist who worked as the manager of a national monument. Her name is Marlene Braun, and she is the reason I am standing before you now.

On May 2, 2005, Marlene’s employer called me to tell me that was dead. I had no idea then what I came to know later: Marlene’s boss, who had bullied her, found out from an email she sent that she intended to commit suicide. He sent two men on a 2-hour drive to the remote monument. He did not call 911. When the men he sent called dispatch and got the U.S. Forest Service, the bully boss forbade the Forest Service to attend to Marlene because she might have a weapon. Indeed she did. She had used it to shoot herself. And she lay there for hours, still breathing, before anyone arrived. She shot herself at 9:30 and died at noon. In her suicide note to me, she said her boss had made her life “utterly unbearable.” He made her death pretty miserable too.

Marlene’s journal recounted the story of her bullying day by day, from the times in the office when he would scream at her, to the time he handed her a suspension out of the blue, the first black mark she had in a career of 13 years in government service, to the time he blocked her with his truck on a narrow road in the middle of nowhere and got out and physically threatened her, telling her she had “brought this” on herself.

Marlene, who had a rational and scientific mind, became confused, anxious, depressed. She lost 40 pounds in little over a year. When she asked for a medical leave, the first one she had ever asked for, and presented him with a doctor’s note, he told her the note was not good enough. She needed to fill out the long form, the one used for employees who abused the sick leave policy.

He saw what was happening to her and he did not care. Even when she was dying, he did not care.

This bully wanted Marlene destroyed and he succeeded. This man was not a jerk. He was not an inept boss. I am a historian and I do not know what a psychologist might diagnose him with. My diagnosis: He is the bully we are trying to stop today, the one who is maliciously harming the health of his employee by humiliating her, sabotaging her work, inflicting on her as much pain as he possibly can. Today Marlene’s bully still has a job with the same agency, because like many employers, his agency did not know what to do with him. So they promoted him up and out.

I tell you Marlene’s story, because it is the story of targets and bullies. Targets are frequently over-achievers who love their jobs and won’t leave them—and that makes them perfect targets. They will be in there for the long haul, the bully presumes. They exceed the bully in competence. The bully begins to isolate them from their peers and colleagues outside the system. I got a phone call from a young woman this morning who decided she was too fragile to testify. Everything I have told you about Marlene, even down to some of the particulars, is true of her situation also. I could tell you similar stories from every target who ever contacted me. Every single one of them just wants the bullying to stop. If it stopped this minute, you would not have a single lawsuit.

For targets, this bill is about sending a message that bullying will not be tolerated, hoping that employers forward that message across their workplaces. The law is necessary, because past experience tells us most employers won’t act on their own.

This law addresses a common problem which for years has had no name. It is a fair and just bill. It does not allow someone to sue a bad boss and it especially does not allow someone to sue a good boss. As someone with legal training but who is not a legal practitioner, and as someone who believes strongly in fairness, what impresses me about this bill is its equanimity. The threshold for plaintiffs is high: they have to prove the behavior of their bully was malicious and they have to show it harmed their health. This is a hurdle that is high, but it will provide redress for targets. There is an affirmative defense for employers. If they have acted in good faith to stop the bullying, they are not liable for what the bully does.

This legislation is the impetus for the creation of better workplaces all across Connecticut. When bullying stops, people can get down to work. Businesses can be productive. Work life can get less stressful and more rewarding. My friend Marlene thought the best job she ever had was working at the monument. She never stopped loving her work. She would have been happy to do it for many more years to come, until life itself became so unbearable. Because of a bully she couldn’t imagine returning to work, or even spending another day on earth.

Thank you for your consideration.

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One Response

  1. There are 14 states and some place in Canada like Ontario trying to get these laws passed!

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