Twenty-five miles west of Chicago, in a city that a scandal has surfaced involving workplace bullying at the city department of Wheaton, Illinois, that the Chicago Tribune reports the city tolerated and largely “ignored for years”. Wheaton, with a population of 54,000, is described by the Chicago Tribune, in an November, 2008 article, as “a place where kids play kickball in the street and neighbors chat over backyard fences.” Money Magazine listed Wheaton among the best places to live in America.
However, recent allegations involving toleration of workplace bullying at the city department, a hostile work environment, and lax discipline meted out in response from city officials, have cast a shadow on workplace bullying policies in this affluent Chicago suburb.
Included in the ongoing bullying episodes, which lasted for years according to the 47 page investigation, were verbal abuse, name calling, crude pranks, improper touching and taunts about sensitive personal issues, as well as physical harassment, including assault with a glow stick. Suburban Life reports that the employee “endured taunts, abuse and a case of alleged assault”.
The bullied employee was reportedly afraid to come forward for fear of being considered “a snitch”. When investigators questioned the harassed worker, whose name was not made public, the man simply stared at the table shaking his head. After years of abuse he did repeatedly stated that he did not want to get his fellow workers into trouble. It is not determined if the assault with a glow stick was sexual assault. It is suggested that the employee lacked the self-esteem necessary to come forward in his own defense.
Gary Namie, a social psychologist who co-founded the non-profit organization, Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Washington, states that Wheaton city officials should be held accountable for the way that they apparently mishandled ongoing bullying at the city workplace. Bullies often “can act with impunity,” as was the case for years with the ongoing atmosphere of bullying and aggression against a non-aggressive coworker in Wheaton. A 2010 survey reported by the Institute indicates that 35% percent of workers have experienced some sort of bullying at the workplace committed by bosses and coworkers.
In a paper prepared by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, Safety, and by the Health Assessment & Research for Prevention, workplace bullying refers to “repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine,” and which might also “create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s).” According to the report, some of the more subtle forms of workplace bullying can include, “unwarranted or invalid criticism, blame without factual justification, being treated differently than the rest of your work group, being sworn at, exclusion or social isolation, being shouted at or being humiliated,” and “excessive monitoring or micro-managing”.
The Mayor of Wheaton, Michael Gresk, and the members of the Wheaton City Council deny any wrongdoing and state that they took “swift action” when they were first made aware of the incidents, and that the police and internal investigations began immediately and were properly handled. However, the Chicago Tribune reports that the administration did not inform the City council about the bullying situation at the municipality until two months after the employees had received one week suspensions, and only after the newspaper had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information that the city was reluctant to provide to journalists.
Tom Mouhelis, formerly of the Wheaton City Council, criticizes the way the matter was handled, stating that the discipline was far too lenient. The workers who had been suspended for only one week “should have been fired and put in jail,” Mouhelis is quoted as stating. The senior supervisor who was aware of the bullying, including workplace jokes about the “glow stick” assault directed at the harassed worker, never investigated the incidents and remains in charge of the department.
While city officials are defending their position on workplace harassment and bullying, others question why the hostile work environment was tolerated for so long, and why no new safeguards were put into check to protect employees from continued workplace bullying. The City Manager of Wheaton, Don Rose states that the current policies against bullying and harassment are adequate. He meted out what might be considered to be tepid discipline to employees of one week suspension without pay, transferring one of the harassers to another department. After the Chicago Tribune expose, city officials have no plans to change or update workplace policies.