Taming the Bully: When Legal Is Not OK

From time to time, I get calls from people who believe they are being bullied in the workplace. Frankly, I am appalled at the way otherwise professional people sometimes behave toward one another at the office. Unfortunately, the law generally does not prohibit bullying unless it is directed toward a protected class, based on gender, race, religion, age, disability, or national origin. Many states are considering legislation that would provide remedies to victims of workplace bullying. But legal or not, bullying is an important matter for employers to consider.

David Yamada, the premier legal expert on workplace bullying in the U.S. and author of the Healthy Workplace Bill, writes extensively about the effects of bullying on the job. Yamada defines bullying as the repeated infliction of intentional abusive behavior that interferes with an employee doing his or her job, has the potential to cause physiological or psychological harm, and that a reasonable person would find hostile or offensive. The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that being bullied on the job is experienced by more than one third of the U.S. workforce. The majority of bullies (72%) are bosses.

Since victims often don’t complain, employers should be aware of the signs of bullying. Dr. Dennis A. Davis, director of client training for law firm Ogletree Deakins, suggests taking a close look at teasing or banter. Indications that the give-and-take may not be play are:

  • It is not reciprocal — the person being teased does not tease back.
  • It is targeted — particular people are always on the receiving end.
  • It is personal— the teasing is about the object’s deficiencies or weakness.

A case in point is the very public ousting of Ann Curry as co-host of NBC’s Today show. In an article for The New York Times, Brian Stelter described how the “general meanness on the set” fostered an atmosphere that encouraged behind-the-scenes ridicule of everything from Curry’s wardrobe to her on-air mistakes. Then-executive producer Jim Bell allegedly led the charge, labeling his efforts to force out Curry “Operation Bambi.” What Bell started escalated into a sort of gang mentality, where the accepted mode of behavior among those who worked on the show was to make fun of Curry.

Whether you are a fan of Ann Curry or not, Stelter’s account of the events surrounding her departure describe a case of workplace bullying. The fact that Curry is a well-paid public figure does not diminish the emotional damage she suffered. She told friends that the humiliation of her final months on the show amounted to “professional torture.” Even if NBC executives realized that she was not the ideal co-host for Matt Lauer, allowing the kind of atmosphere Curry had to endure in her final months is not acceptable in a professional setting.

Although the Times article is a bit sensationalist in tone, give it a read, then check out the blog post by therapist and workplace issues consultant Maureen Duffy. She provides excellent analysis into the indicators of bullying inherent in Curry’s story and how we can use the case to understand workplace bullying in less public settings.

In next month’s Velvet Hammer blog, we’ll look at what employers can do to prevent workplace bullying.

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