The University of California San Diego promulgates a list of nine "Principles of Community" to its faculty, staff, and students. The second principle states, "We affirm each individual's right to dignity and strive to maintain a climate of justice marked by mutual respect for each other." The eighth principle asserts, "We are committed to promoting and supporting a community...free of abusive or demeaning treatment," and the ninth stresses, "We are committed to the enforcement of policies that promote the fulfillment of these principles."
In addition to these principles, the university also has a "Workplace Violence Employee Handbook" that clearly lays out its "Zero Tolerance Policy": "Any intentional act of intimidation, threat of violence, or act of violence committed against any person or to the property of another...is prohibited."
Paula Schacht read these principles and policies when she was hired in June of last year to be an administrative assistant to Dr. Thomas Kipps, deputy director of research operations at the Rebecca and John Moores UCSD Cancer Center. That's why she doesn't understand how the university hasn't fired or even suspended the co-worker who, she says, threatened, intimidated, berated, and physically assaulted her on a near-daily basis for the entire nine months she worked as Dr. Kipps's assistant.
When Schacht, a diminutive woman who speaks with a soft Texan accent, first took the job, she was told that Dr. Kipps, a renowned leukemia researcher trained at Harvard and Stanford, would be her immediate supervisor. But it soon became clear to her that not Dr. Kipps but his other administrative assistant, Mary Carpenter, was her de facto supervisor. Everything was fine for the first three weeks of the job, Schacht says. "Then it suddenly turned."
The first incident, Schacht recalls, "was on a Friday. I remember she [Carpenter] was screaming and being verbally abusive to me." After that, Schacht says, abuse from Carpenter was nearly perpetual. "She would constantly be in my face. She would come in and ask me for a file, and if I couldn't find it immediately, she would start going through the file cabinet and literally throw the files out onto my work area. She would stand by the door if I were making phone calls. And if I wasn't saying what she thought I should be saying to the person at the other end, she'd grab the phone off my ear, sometimes pulling my hair out in the process. She once threw a handful of sharpened pencils onto my desk that bounced up toward my face. She called me 'stupid liar' and 'idiot.' "
After a couple of months on the job, Schacht says she was at her "wit's end" with the treatment she was receiving from Carpenter. When she asked her co-workers what had happened to the administrative assistant who had the job before her, she was told that the prior assistant, Reneé Johnson, had transferred to a job on a different floor of the building. Schacht contacted Johnson and the two met. "We compared notes," Schacht says, "and we found that we were treated [by Carpenter] in an identical fashion."
"It was kind of frightening to discuss it," Johnson says. "We realized it was a pattern of behavior, and we determined that it wasn't we who were the problem. Because we had both been psyched into believing that maybe what was going on was because of our job performance."
Not only had Johnson worked at the cancer center, she was a cancer patient there. "Come December," she says, "I will be in my fifth year of remission."
While working under Dr. Kipps and Mary Carpenter, Johnson says she suffered the same abuse that Schacht described. Often, on her commute home, Johnson says, "I would sit on the bus and the tears would just come. It was like a river of tears. And I'd be sobbing, and the other people on the bus were becoming distraught, because they knew me and knew that I'm a happy person. A lot of them were telling me, 'We have a job in our department, Reneé. Go and apply for this job.' "
Johnson did just that, after her oncologist told her that the stressful work environment was jeopardizing her recovery from breast cancer. She and Schacht both still work at the Moores Cancer Center, but not under Dr. Kipps or with Carpenter. Before she left Kipps's office, Johnson says, she attempted to address the situation with Carpenter woman-to-woman. When that didn't work, "I asked to speak to Dr. Kipps alone. He finally came in to talk to me. And I told him, 'This is not working for me...so I want you to know that I'm going to HR.' A couple of weeks after that, Mary came into my office...and she said, 'Do you know what, I can go to HR too.' That shocked me because I hadn't said it to her, I had said it to Dr. Kipps, and he must have told Mary."
On September 12, 2006, Schacht wrote an e-mail to Dr. Dennis Carson, director of the Moores Cancer Center and the immediate supervisor of Dr. Kipps, in which she stated, "I cannot describe how extremely disturbed I am by the abhorrent and abusive maltreatment I've been subjected to by Mary Carpenter. The culmination was last Thursday evening after three months of unbelievably insulting and disrespectful verbal onslaught. I was so severely affected by Mary's unceasingly harassing behavior that I had to hurry to urgent care with chest pains at the end of the day."
Schacht went on to say that Carpenter "comes into my office approximately every five minutes to stand suffocatingly close and demands [to know] what I'm working on. She demeans me when I tidy up the office and keep my workspace well organized. She threatens me on a weekly basis with my job or with going to Dr. Kipps about me. She throws paperwork at me that flies all over my desk. She uses abusive language to describe my work, saying that it looks 'shitty'.... She calls me stupid, and she calls me a liar. She raps her fist in anger on my desk without any provocation. She taps on the desk while rudely humming when I'm on the phone. She pulled the heavy desk chair over my foot today while I was on the floor plugging something into the computer. No apology followed when I exclaimed in pain. When [I was] trying to escape her right-in-my-face bullying, she grabbed my arm and blocked my path to taunt me further."