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Bullying in the workplace

January 20, 2010

A former Siemens employee, who says she was harassed and discriminated against, is seeking 2 million euros compensation. Experts say workplace bullying is a growing problem in Germany.

Exterior view of a Siemens building in Munich, southern Germany
The verdict in the trial against Siemens could set a precedentImage: DW

Sedika Weingaertner, who is suing her former employer Siemens for 2 million euros ($2.82 million), headed to court in the German town of Nuernberg on Wednesday. Weingaertner claims she was bullied for years by her bosses and discriminated against for being a woman and an Arab.

"I was put under massive pressure and was subject to subtle forms of abuse. I became so ill that I collapsed in the workplace and had to go to the hospital. I almost died," Sedika Weingaertner told the German daily Tageszeitung. "It's like a trauma. I don't know if I can ever work again."

Labor experts and psychologists estimate that between 1 and 1.5 million people per day are victims of workplace bullying in Germany. However, many suffer in silence for fear of becoming unpopular at work, sabotaging their chances for advancement, or even losing their jobs.

Weingaertner's case could therefore set a major precedent.

Weingaertner's woes

Weingaertner began working for Siemens, a German-based global engineering conglomerate, in 2002, and was let go in the summer of 2009.

Aged 45, Weingaertner is petite and well-groomed. She came to Germany in 1991 as a single mother with three children after fleeing from Afghanistan, where she had worked in the capital city, Kabul, as a television journalist. When she landed in Nuernberg, she married a German man, quickly learned the language and started on a new career path.

Man at his desk in the office
Experts say many German workers are subjected to bullying at workImage: picture alliance/dpa

As a purchasing manager for Siemens in 2001, she oversaw international projects in China, India, and the US - a position for which she felt well-suited. However, it didn't take long for the bullying to start, according to Weingaertner.

At first the attacks were subtle. For example, the workload was so heavy, she said, that she would regularly sit at her desk for ten straight hours to get through it all - even on holidays and weekends. Tucked alone inside a tiny office, she says nobody spoke to her.

Then there was the time she needed a laptop, like the other employees had, as she was always on-the-go. Instead, she was given an old computer.

Eventually, the attacks became more blatant. Weingaertner claims she was abused by her bosses, who called her names such as "dirt", "sloppy" and "Arab".

However, the worst attack, said Weingaertner, came in 2004 when she gave birth to her fourth child. After twelve weeks of maternity leave she wanted to get back to the office. But Siemens didn't want her there. Her bosses asked her to sign an agreement to terminate her contract, but Weingaertner refused.

The trial begins

"Harassment and discrimination cases are piling up, and people don't know how they can defend themselves," Frank Jansen, one of Weingaertner's lawyers, told the Tageszeitung newspaper.

It can also be hard to prove. Before going ahead with her case, Sedika Weingaertner sought an expert opinion from Herald Ege, a psychologist in Bologna. He said he observed "serious psychosomatic reactions" from his patient and that "mental abuse is more powerful than physical abuse because the wound is always there."

Siemens' press spokesperson Joern Rogenbuck has declined to comment on the case.

Weingaertner's lawyers, Frank Jansen and Klaus Michael Alenfelder, believe the former Siemen's employee will ultimately win, but that it could be a long process, taking as long as five years.

Author: Vanessa Johnston

Editor: Susan Houlton

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