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Documentary on Workplace Bullying Presents a Different View

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On July 30, 2010, 52 year old Kevin Morrissey, Managing Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, shot and killed himself, becoming one of over 37,000 Americans who died from suicide that year. Yet Kevin Morrissey's death has stood out from these tens of thousands of other tragic suicides because someone was quickly found to blame for his death. When his friends and family began to speculate on why he took his life, it was discovered that his boss, Ted Genoways, had sent him a reprimanding email that very morning. It was not the first of such emails Kevin had received, as his work life had become increasingly difficult and he had even been ordered by Genoways not to come into work for a week following allegations of unspecified misconduct. In short order, rumors swirled that his boss had bullied Kevin Morrissey, ultimately driving him to suicide.

"In his suicide note, Kevin blamed his boss, Ted Genoways, for driving him over the edge," reporter Jeff Rossen announced on the Today Show three weeks after Kevin's death. The allegation that Genoways was a "bully boss" who had tormented his employee to suicide brought renewed concern that better laws be enacted to protect workers from bullying bosses. After learning that Kevin had repeatedly appealed to the University of Virginia to help him but had found no one there to help him, Kevin's sister joined forces with the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) to advocate for passage of the WBI's "Healthy Workplace Bill." As she toured the country with the WBI and told the story of her brother's work life and tragic suicide, blogs soon flourished with comments demonizing Genoways; a Twitter account whose sole purpose was to humiliate Genoways was launched; and in no time Genoways -- an award winning writer in his own right who had brought the Virginia Quarterly Review an unprecedented number of awards and distinctions -- became America's most notorious bad boss since the Queen of Mean, Leona Helmsley.

But a new documentary soon to be released by filmmaker Beverly Peterson suggests that there's another story to explore in Kevin Morrissey's suicide. In What Killed Kevin? Peterson presents evidence that Kevin Morrissey had never even mentioned his work or Ted Genoways in his suicide note, and that while Genoways might well have managed his staff poorly, if not harshly, he and his family were devastated by Kevin's suicide -- and by the death threats Genoways subsequently received. Moreover, Peterson's film turns its lens on the Workplace Bullying Institute, suggesting that Founding Director Gary Namie is regarded by some as a bully himself and may have bullied his way right into the private and public conversations about why Kevin Morrissey ended his life. (I must disclose my own bias on this point. Gary Namie has harshly criticized me in his blog, and characterized me as a "positivist Pollyanna" who should not be taken seriously.

Peterson's film suggests that the portrayals of Genoways as a "bully" were due in large part to the intervention of Namie and the Workplace Bullying Institute, which she argues framed the issue in a simplistic manner that helped grieving friends and family make sense of such a tragic but confusing act, but may not have been entirely accurate or appropriate. In her own efforts to represent workplace relationships as complex and to humanize alleged "bullies," however, Peterson is careful not to exempt Genoways from fault altogether. But neither does she magnify his managerial flaws to suggest that they were inhumane, much less murderous. What she does do is explore how rumors began and intensified over time, how external actors intervened to shape and feed these rumors, and how once they had flourished, they affected the life and career of a gifted editor and his family. (Ted Genoways retired from VQR earlier this month, citing the damage to his reputation the allegation of bullying had caused. His most recent work appears in Mother Jones.)

In presenting the point of view of a man branded as a bully, Peterson does not in any way suggest that bullying behaviors never happen. A target of workplace bullying herself, Peterson was first drawn to the topic of Morrissey's suicide from her commitment to promoting healthier, more compassionate workplace environments. What she found in the process of exploring the story was that pointing fingers and reducing the narrative to one of a bullying boss and helpless victim did little to answer the question of what killed Kevin Morrissey, or how workplaces might become more civil.

"I think she is filling a void right now," Catherine Mattice, Director of Civility Partners, says of Peterson's approach to the topic, "because the media depicts bullies as horrible people whose behavior is purposeful and [who] must be eliminated from the workplace. But by helping people named as bullies gain better communication skills and better emotional intelligence, we can create more civil workplaces." Civility Partners addresses workplace bullying by helping organizations build more positive workplace environments -- which to her means not driving people out, but working with them to make workplaces more inclusive and civil. Could such efforts have saved Kevin Morrisey? "The film makes it clear that Genoways needed management training, and Morrisey needed someone to turn to," she says.

Indeed, if one thing is clear from watching What Killed Kevin? it's that Kevin felt helpless as his conflicts with Ted Genoways fell on deaf ears with the university and he found himself accused of "misconduct" instead. Organizational cultures are fast to address conflicts when they can point the finger at a "difficult employee" -- be it an alleged "bully" like Genoways or a worker accused of vague charges of "misconduct" like Morrissey -- but when it comes to addressing the collective nature of aggression -- the rumors that are shared, the collective framing of events to conform to a single perspective, or the forming of coalitions and sides - organizations tend to become impotent, waiting for a vulnerable player to happen along who can serve as a convenient scapegoat if action must be taken.

At UVA, it looked as if Kevin Morrissey might have been targeted as that scapegoat early on; but following his tragic death, the broader society turned its accusatory eye on Genoways. Credit or blame, as sociologist Charles Tilly has argued, allow us to set ourselves apart from others, to communicate our identity and morality. By holding Genoways accountable for the suicide of Kevin Morrissey, the multitude of ways aggression was played out in the workplace was obscured, and a lone bad guy was found to make sense of something as senseless as a suicide. What better medium for untangling the complexities of credit and blame than documentary, where multiple viewpoints can be presented and new evidence for old stories can see the light of day. In that respect, What Killed Kevin? is an excellent starting point for exploring these complexities of credit and blame and taking the conversation about workplace bullying one step further.

Make no mistake, workplace aggression is a serious social problem and does drive workers to suicide, and in all probability it did contribute to Kevin Morrissey's decision to end his life. But demonizing a single person for that decision is no more sensible than is closing our eyes to the reality of workplace abuse. Worse, it exacerbates aggression because it gives permission to attack, which so much of the anti-bullying focus has encouraged in its effort to end bullying. "People need to know that there are other solutions out there," Catherine Mattice says. Branding people with the bully label might be a quick and easy fix that helps us to communicate what types of behavior we don't want in our workplaces or our lives. But it's like executing people to make a statement that we don't tolerate murder. It doesn't solve the problem; it just creates a new one.

Kevin Morrissey's death cannot be undone, and no suicide is ever fully understood. But What Killed Kevin? provides a starting point for understanding workplace aggression as something that affects us all, in a multitude of ways and means that require thoughtful reflection, more than thoughtless reaction. It would be a far greater honor to the memory of Kevin Morrissey to learn from his death how greater compassion and understanding could have saved him, than to use his death to deprive others of it. In this way, What Killed Kevin? honors the life, and grieves the death, of Kevin Morrissey, in a way that casting blame for suicide can never do.