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You Have the Right To… NOT Remain Silent… Dealing With Bullies In The Workplace

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By: Chris Avcollie

Its Monday morning and you are on your way into work.   Although the traffic is not bad, your stress levels are already through the roof. As you near the exit, you notice you are gripping the steering wheel to the point where your hands are hurting and your teeth are clenched. As the employee parking area comes into view your stomach tightens and your heart begins to race… If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you might be the victim of workplace bullying.

What is workplace bullying? Workplace bullying may be defined as a range of workplace behaviors characterized by repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees including abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse. Workplace bullying may include directly aggressive actions or insults as well as unwelcome jokes, pranks, or ridicule. Workplace bullies often target particular individuals, seeking to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable in some way.

Workplace bullying can include but is not limited to some or all of the following actions:

º Aggressive communication including yelling, angry emails, and other verbal hostility;

º Aggressive body language or œcornering;

º Constant criticism “ humiliating disparagement that causes you to doubt your abilities;

º Criticizing you for things you did not know or about which had no instructions;

º Tasteless and humiliating jokes or pranks;

º Manipulating and withholding resources i.e. instructions, information, time, or help from others”setting you up to fail;

º Excessive, unwarranted, and aggressive supervision;

º Assigning unreasonable amounts of work which cannot be reasonably completed on-time; and

º Secretly undermining you and disparaging you behind your back.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (œWBI) ( nineteen percent (19%) of adult Americans experience workplace bullying. That means that some sixty point three (60.3) million workers are affected by this type of misconduct. Sixty-five percent (65%) of the people bullied at work are women and seventy percent (70%) of the perpetrators are men. Approximately sixty one percent (61%) of bullying is committed by a supervisor or boss.     In 2019 a survey revealed that nearly ninety-four percent (94%) of responding employees reported being bullied in the workplace. These statistics are shocking when one considers that there is no federal law and few state laws prohibiting or even acknowledging bullying in the American workplace.

While lawmakers are ignoring the problem, both workers and employers should take notice. Both the economic and emotional costs of workplace bullying are high. For the targets of bullying the impact often includes damage to their physical and emotional health as well as their career. Targets suffer major stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, and more. Targets often face job loss, transfer, and demotion as well as other adverse workplace impacts. For employers, workplace bullying results in low morale, increased HR complaints, higher turnover, increased absenteeism, and higher employee health care costs.

A study by the WBI found that thirty-seven percent (37%) of bullying targets were terminated, while thirty-three percent (33%) quit their jobs and seventeen percent (17%) were transferred from their positions or departments. The bullies were punished only four percent (4%) of the time, and only transferred in nine percent (9%) of cases.

Since most states and US territories (with the recent exception of Puerto Rico) have failed to enact anti-workplace-bullying statutes, most workers have few legal options if their workplace becomes unbearable due to the aggressive and intimidating conduct of a boss or co-worker.   Some employers have tried to address the problem by enacting codes of conduct and civility guidelines. These are often included in employee policy manuals. While these policies may be useful in addressing workplace bullying issues, they are only as effective as the people enforcing them. Addressing bullying by employers is especially challenging given that most American workers are œat will employees facing immediate termination without any just-cause requirement. If the boss is also the bully, how often will those policies be enforced?

How does œWorkplace Bullying differ from œIllegal Harassment? Harassment, according to American employment law is essentially legal, unless it is motivated by an illegal purpose such as retaliation for protected activity (such as labor organizing or whistleblowing) or discrimination based on a protected class (such as sex, gender identity, race, religion, national origin, etc.) If the harasser targets someone based solely on the bully’s desire for cruelty, almost anything goes short of an actual physical assault.

Many employers as well as business lobbying groups who fight anti-workplace bullying statutes justify abusive bosses as simply an aggressive œmanagement style. The idea is that psychological violence is justified if its in the service of productivity. Aside from the fact that workplace bullying is costly for employers, this type of œmanagement style reflects a serious lack of management training and is not an effective substitute for it.

What to do if you think you are being bullied at work? Here are 6 Steps to Address Workplace Bullying:

  1. Assess  “ First, evaluate your situation to determine whether you are the target of bullying or just an isolated incident or some other form of misconduct. What is the frequency of the behavior? Is it becoming more common over time? What is the nature of it? Does it have a gender or racial component or is it simply aggressive? If it is increasingly frequent you may be a target. Try to spot a pattern of behavior.
  2. Document“ Immediately document any incident that may be part of the pattern of behavior you identified. Write down details of incidents or meetings where the aggressive behavior took place. Who was present? When was the meeting? Was the behavior addressed by anyone? File away emails and other communications around the bullying behavior and about your own performance. Often bullies retaliate by making the issue about the target’s performance. Be sure you can show that you were acting appropriately and doing your job. When it comes time to report the behavior you will want to have all of those details at the ready.
  3. Research-While bullying is not currently illegal, your company may have codes of conduct, HR policies or anti-harassment provisions which cover this type of behavior. If you need to report the bully, it is useful to know if he or she has violated company policies.
  4. Report“ If the behavior is recurring then report the bully to HR or to your supervisor (providing your supervisor is not the bully!) Document the response and request a formal report and investigation.
  5. Seek Medical Help“ If the behavior is emotionally impactful seek psychological help. Psychologists or Counselors who are experienced in trauma are best equipped to help with workplace bullying issues.
  6. Get Legal Advice“ Immediately consult with an experienced employment attorney. You may be the target of bullying or even illegal and discriminatory harassment. Let a trained attorney advise you during this difficult ordeal.

For years our Courts have quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who famously warned against interpreting federal anti-discrimination law under Title VII as a œgeneral civility code for the American workplace.  Id. While Justice Scalia is no doubt correct that Title VII was not intended to serve as a œgeneral civility code, those who suffer daily under the yoke of an aggressive workplace bully want to know: œWhen are they going to enact one?

If you are the target of a workplace bully you need not suffer in silence. While the law has been slow to address the issue a skilled employment lawyer can help you navigate this difficult situation.

If you would like more information about this topic please contact our employment attorneys in Connecticut and New York at Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150.