EHS OutLoud Blog

VQR Tragedy Raises Questions about Workplace Bullying

On July 30, Kevin Morrissey, managing editor of the prestigious literary journal Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), walked to an old coal tower in Charlottesville, Va., called 911 to report a shooting, and then shot and killed himself. What began as a personal tragedy for his friends, family and coworkers quickly spiraled out of control when his boss, Ted Genoways, was accused of bullying Morrissey and other employees.

The Hook ran an in-depth piece concerning the circumstances of the work environment at VQR leading up to Morrissey's death, and The Chronicle of Higher Education also examined the issue in "What Killed Kevin Morrissey?" According to sources close to VQR, Morrissey and other employees complained of a hostile work environment and attempted on several occasions to seek help from the University of Virginia administration.

As various sources painted the picture of Genoways as a bully (shouting, sending hostile or accusatory emails, cutting Morrissey out of decisions, isolating him during a week-long suspension from the office and more), a contributing editor -- who did not work in the VQR offices -- defended Genoways and accused workplace bullying experts of capitalizing on the situation without a complete understanding of the actual work conditions or Genoways' behavior as a boss. And an ethics professor recently called workplace bullying a "hot new social malady" that has become a magnet for media attention. He argued that journalists are acting irresponsibly by being so quick to describe Morrissey's suicide as a product of workplace bullying.

Indeed, Morrissey had struggled with depression for years and little else is known about the circumstances surrounding his suicide. Can one boss, no matter how big a bully, cause another person to commit suicide? No, perhaps not, but workplace bullying and its impact on employee well-being and mental health remains an important issue, and one that is relevant in workplaces across the country.

"This Has Got to Stop"

When I first learned of Morrissey's death, I read aloud to a friend an article that listed Genoways' alleged actions and Morrissey's attempts for help. "This is crazy," she kept saying. "This has got to stop."

The "this" she was referring to was workplace bullying in general. She had worked for bosses she would definitely describe as bullies. And after listening to her stories and complaints over the years, I'd have to agree. So this story resonated with my friend and led her to think that, while perhaps not the cause of Morrissey's suicide, it sure sounded like a bullying work environment.

While none of us can know exactly what went down in those VQR offices, and while an employee's depression can't be explained away by workplace tensions, we can still recognize that workplace bullying is a real thing, and something that appears in work environments across the nation. It's something that affects employees' well-being, productivity and more. And too often, employees feel powerless to stop it.

I remember what it was like to hear my friend complain about her dysfunctional work experiences. On more than one occasion, I said something like, "I would never put up with that!" But when you're in that environment, when you feel trapped and unsure of what to do, it can be difficult to leave or find a way to get the help you need.

EHS Today covers workplace bullying because any issue that affects the general health and happiness of a work force also impacts productivity, safety and workplace culture. Many companies -- at least as evidenced by the America's Safest Companies applications we receive -- also seem to recognize the value of a well-functioning, well-adjusted work force. And you can't achieve that if your workers feel bullied by the person in power.

The VQR tragedy and ensuing investigation have caused the venerable journal to close its offices and cancel its winter issue. Time will tell what is in the journal's future.

As for my friend, who suffered through several bullying bosses? She's currently self-employed.

 

EHS Today articles on workplace bullying:

Workplace Bullying May Be More Harmful than Sexual Harassment

The Curse of the Workplace Bully

Even in Hostile Working Environments, Employees Reluctant to Leave Jobs

Abusive Bosses, If Productive, Don’t Suffer Consequences

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