Yamada, the Healthy Workplace Bill author, said workers face the challenge of trying to prove bullying, which generally falls short of physical assault and is Machiavellian and difficult to identify. "I liken our understanding of workplace bullying to where we were with sexual harassment three decades ago," Yamada said. "A lot of people have had to deal with this for years but didn't know what to call it."
Bill backers say internal appeals processes often fall short, citing the case of Kevin Morrissey, who was managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review magazine. Morrissey shot himself to death last June after relatives and friends said his — and others' — repeated complaints about a bullying boss were ignored. The University of Virginia, which publishes the magazine, said it had handled the complaints properly and that the manager could not be blamed for Morrissey's death.
The recession has made it easier for bullies to carry on because jobs are scarce and employees are reluctant to quit or to speak up and be seen as troublemakers, bill proponents say.
Gant, who worked in a county courthouse, said that after a few months a new boss openly called her "stupid," humiliated her at meetings, and sent out office e-mails that belittled her work.
Gant is still at a loss to explain the behavior. Because much of the abuse was unseen by others — the pencil-throwing, the locking of the closet, the snide comments — it was difficult to make others realize how bad it was, she said.
"She was an attorney. I never felt she'd go that far," said Gant, who was haunted by the experience long after the woman's departure. One day, the woman returned to the office for a brief visit. Gant hid in an office until she was gone.
Gant remained on the job a few more months but has since taken another job that she enjoys. She said she also went back to school to study for a doctorate and bolster her self-confidence, "so if I ever see her again, I'll be ready."