The Danger of Workplace Suicide Lawsuits

Lawsuits are a counterproductive way to reduce workplace suicides.

Posted Feb 28, 2013

Open Letter to Maria Morrissey:

This article is obviously meant for the public, but I am addressing it directly to you because you, as the sister of the deceased, deserve more than anyone to understand why I wrote my review of What Killed Kevin? I hope the experiences I share with you will help spare you unnecessary future pain. Furthermore, we both have the same ultimate goal: to prevent people from suffering so they don’t end up despairing as Kevin did.

You are furious with me for tarnishing Kevin’s name. However, once you file a lawsuit against others for his suicide and use it to promote a political agenda, it is inevitable that what happened to him will be questioned. Even if you are absolutely right in the way you see Kevin, what happened to him will be questioned. The only way to have left his image untarnished is to have refused to drag him into a lawsuit and to use his suicide for political agendas.

What I wrote about Kevin is mild compared to what has already been written in the news, and even milder compared to what you will face once the trial begins. Ted Genoways and the University of Virginia will look for every avenue to put responsibility totally on Kevin because they do not want to lose millions of dollars. They and their lawyers will dig up dirt on him and his family and it will be publicized in the newspapers and on network news. If you anticipate this, you may be able to avoid being mired in pain and anger. It will still hurt, but it will hurt less.

Why I am arguing against “bullycide” lawsuits

I am not a spokesman for Ted Genoways or the University of Virginia. But I want to explain why I would not want them to be found guilty of Kevin’s suicide.

You are probably aware that insurance companies will not pay a life insurance claim for suicide. No one seriously faults them. Anyone wanting to enrich their family could take out a large policy, end their lives, and provide for their families for posterity. Furthermore, it is important to realize that the insurance company wouldn’t be losing its own money. It would be paying out our money, the money we pool together to help each other in times of loss. Few of us would want our money to compensate suicide.

As the Workplace Bullying Institute likes to inform us, there are 54 million victims of workplace bullying in our country. Many of them are so desperate that they contemplate suicide. They are in a terrible bind. Their jobs have become a living hell, but they don’t quit because they need their income for survival.

Maria, can you imagine what would happen if you won the lawsuit and Genoways and the U of Va were to pay out millions of dollars? How many desperate people would take the easy way out? They already feel life isn’t worth living. Why shouldn’t they end their suffering and provide for their family at the same time? Bullying experts attribute to the copycat effect an escalation in suicides by youthful victims of bullying. The kids do it not for money but because they see society treating bullying victims who commit suicide as heroes. Imagine what an avalanche of suicides would be unleashed if there were also a huge monetary reward for the families of adults who commit suicide! 

Perhaps the lawsuits will scare employers into reducing bullying?

Maria, I’m certain you believe that if you win the lawsuit, it will lead to a reduction in suicides because employers will be so scared of being sued that they will do their best to make sure no one feels bullied at work.

You might be correct if employers actually had the ability to create a workplace in which everyone gets along with each other. But do employers have control over their employees’ personalities, problems, instinctual drives and social dynamics? They probably don’t even know how to make their own family members get along. Experienced marriage therapists have difficulty saving their clients’ marriages, even those who started out feeling like soulmates. Even anti-bullying activists often make each other miserable! Unless the employers have a successful method of solving interpersonal problems, their interventions are likely to make matters worse.

You declared that my contention that Ted could have felt bullied by Kevin is ludicrous. You can be sure that Ted will present to the court how Kevin made him miserable and all his (Ted's) efforts to improve the situation were futile. Furthermore, Kevin did the supposedly correct thing, going to the university administration to complain about Ted. But one of the best ways to get people to despise you is to complain about them to the authorities. It escalates hostilities. You will see the truth of this in court.

Rather than bullying complaints declining, the opposite is likely to happen. When people discover that their employers are responsible for solving their interpersonal problems at work, they will feel relieved of the need to try to solve those problems on their own. They will be more eager to file bullying complaints and to sue when they are not satisfied with the results. This is already happening to schools thanks to school anti-bullying laws. Schools are going crazy trying to make everyone get along, and bullying lawsuits against schools are skyrocketing. There is no reason to believe it won’t happen in the workplace. These laws will definitely benefit lawyers. Whether they do the same for the rest of us is debatable.

Real life experience

I would like to tell you a bit about my own life experiences.

For me, the most painful part of growing up was my parents’ constant state of war. Each one would tell me separately how the other one made them miserable. And each one sounded so convincing. 

I have had numerous married friends who seemed perfect for each other, but they were miserable and each one did a phenomenal job of explaining how it’s the other’s fault.

When I got married, my wife and I made each other miserable for about six years, and each one of us thought we were the good guy and the other was the bad guy. (Fortunately, we figured out what we were doing wrong before it was too late.)

I have had a multitude of jobs in various fields throughout my lifetime. In some of these I felt my employers were making me miserable. In hindsight, I realize that I was also making them miserable. It is not only bosses who can make employees miserable.

In my work as a counselor and therapist, I have met with countless pairs of people who made wonderful cases about how they were right and the other was wrong. I have worked in many schools in which teachers and the principal each told me how the other one was making them miserable.

Maria, this is what life is usually like. So many relationships go bad over nothing more than a simple disagreement.

The truth in Beverly Peterson’s film

And that brings me to the reason I found Beverly Peterson’s documentary so important. It points to three truths that have become increasingly obvious to me over time:

1. Misery is always almost a two way street. Each side firmly believes they are the victim and the other is the bully.

2. Most misery is caused unintentionally. In our own minds we have the best of intentions, but good intentions don’t always lead to good results.

3. We are meanest not when we feel like bullies–and we rarely feel like bullies–but when we feel like victims. You can quickly check this out by reading the comments to my articles. Some of them are incredibly nasty, and their writers all feel justified because they feel victimized by my views.

Beverly Peterson is careful not to pass judgment in her film. However, the film reflects what was found in earlier investigative reports, that Kevin was not in a situation wherein a selfish, power-hungry boss goes on a campaign to destroy an employee for sheer pleasure. It was a relationship that had gone bad. Ted and Kevin had been close friends, which was part of the reason Kevin got the job. But the relationship spiraled downhill without either side knowing how to stop it. 

Maria, the success of your lawsuit hinges on “intention to cause harm,” as that is how bullying is being defined today. But even Dr. Namie, who passionately fights for workplace anti-bullying laws, declares that the problem with bullying lawsuits is that it is difficult to prove intention.

I don’t think any court will conclude that Ted intended to cause Kevin misery. Even if Ted did, it will not be provable, and the trial will cause you sleepless nights while hanging out Kevin’s dirty laundry for the world to see.

Maria, you may disagree with my views, but I am not trying to hurt you. Like you, I want people to stop suffering at work. But a healthy workplace, no matter how well organized, can only exist where people–both managers and employees– know how to have healthy relations, not where their relations are governed by fallible human authorities who are not necessarily any healthier, wiser or unbiased than we are.

Transparency Declaration: I declare that I do have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.

Author's Policies Regarding Comments: 1. I rarely respond to comments because I simply don't have the time. If I don't respond to your comment, please don't take it personally. 2. Psychology Today has a strict policy about nasty comments. I believe in free speech and rarely censor comments, no matter how nasty. Every nasty comment by adults––especially by ardent anti-bullying advocates––illustrates how irrational it is to expect kids to stop engaging in bullying.