Beyond the Playground

By: George K. Pitchford, Esq

The concept of bullying is normally associated with a school playground, and invokes images of a heavyset pre-teen demanding lunch money from a smaller, less mature victim. In spite of this more common image of bullies and bullying, it is now also recognized as a major problem in the workplace, and employers and employees must understand some of the issues surrounding bullying, and be prepared to address them in their own workplace.

The media has been rife with stories of workplace violence. What goes unreported is how often at the center of an incident is an employee who is either a bully or the victim of bullying. Even in my own practice of law, I have investigated numerous incidents of workplace violence that were the direct result of an employee being harassed, ostracized or degraded by another employee or group of employees. In most instances, either the aggressor(s)’ behavior continues to escalate and results in a violent or extremely offensive act, or the victim’s stress becomes too much and they retaliate against the bully. These conflicts, coupled with an employer’s failure to confront this issue, can result in anything from losing a good employee, who is the victim of bullying, to a physical confrontation between the bully and his/her victim, or even worse. Therefore, employers and employees must tackle this issue head on, and ensure that they have a safe and comfortable work environment free from bullies and bullying tactics.

There is no official technical or legal definition of workplace bullying. However, when advising clients, I rely on the definition proposed by the European Industrial Relations Observatory that states:

Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate [behavior], direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work.1

Although this may not be a universally accepted definition of workplace bullying, it makes it clear that when an employee’s personal dignity is continually being attacked at work they may be a victim of a bully or bullying tactics.

Experts agree that workplace bullying comes in a variety of forms. Although some bullies are very up front with their manipulative tactics with threats of physical violence or constant personal attacks, bullying can also take place in a much more subtle form.

Workplace bullying may include:

  • Purposely undermining a coworker or subordinate
  • Social exclusion or isolation
  • Spreading false and harmful rumors about a coworker
  • Repeated requests with impossible deadlines or tasks
  • Humiliating a coworker or subordinate in connection with their work
  • Physical abuse or threats of abuse

Unfortunately, workplace bullying is not against the law in the United States.2 In spite of this fact, in some cases employees who are being bullied at work can turn to the law for protection. For instance, an employee who is being targeted by a bully because of their race, sex, religion, disability status or any other protected trait can seek redress under federal law.3 Also a bully’s tactics may constitute criminal activity, such as assault or stalking. Moreover, employers should be aware that a bully’s actions may lead to liability for their own organization is they fail assist an employee that is being bullied.4

As stated above, in spite of the harmful and sometimes deadly results of workplace bullying, most of the tactics used by bullies are not against the law. Therefore it is incumbent upon employers to have and enforce policies against workplace bullies. Much like with a sexual harassment policy, an effective anti-bullying policy must encourage employees who feel that they are being bullied to report the activity. Every workplace should have a procedure that allows bullies to be reported in confidence without fear of reprisals. An effective policy must also contain clear sanctions for violators that are enforced regardless of a transgressor’s position or reputation within the organization.

Regardless of whether an organization has a policy, employees who are being bullied by a supervisor or coworker should be prepared to cope with a bully in the workplace. The following are a few simple tactics:

· Don’t feel a need to confront the bully right away. Some employees feel they must confront a bully in the heat of the moment, which may lead to escalation. In some instances you should confront the aggressor at a later time, without an audience, and inform them that their behavior is unacceptable.

  • Keep a detailed diary of every incident, so that a clear record of the bully’s behavior exists.
  • Speak to your colleagues. Chances are they also find the bully’s behavior unacceptable.
  • If you decide to report a bully to his or her supervisor, make sure you have hard evidence. Be prepared to present your diary of incidents of bullying and explain why you find the behavior unacceptable.
  • If you ever fear for your personal safety or property, you should not hesitate to contact the police and report the bully.

Despite how an employee decides to handle a workplace bully, it should always be remembered that it is not their fault that they are being bullied, and that they deserve to work in an environment free from intimidation, threats and fear.

Workplace bullying is unacceptable in any form. Not only does it have a negative effect on employee morale and productivity, it may also lead to violence, or worse.5 Employers have a responsibility to protect their employees from harassment, threats or any other bullying techniques. Employees should also protect themselves and one another from bullying, and report any unacceptable behavior that they experience or even witness. Unlike victims on the school playground, employees should feel empowered to resist bullying techniques, and bullies should be made fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

References and Notes

  1. See Task Force Workplace Bullying Report at www.eiro.eurofound.eu.int/2001/05/feature/ie0105167f.html.

  2. Citing the health and welfare issues associated with workplace bullying, some countries allow employees to sue employers who fail to take reasonable steps to prevent work place bullying.

  3. See generally Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964 et seq.

  4. See, for example, Faragher v City of Boca Raton, 534 US 775 (1998).

  5. Andrew Ellis, Bullying in the Workplace—An acceptable cost, www.workplacebullying.co.uk/aethesis.html

Mr. Pitchford is an attorney at Floyd Allen & Associates, a labor and employment law firm in Detroit, Michigan.