Workplace Bullying: Part 5

What you should never do

No matter how oppressed you feel, you should never stoop to the level of your oppressor. You will only get fired. You should never retaliate. It never works. This is key to protecting yourself. At some point in his career, the bully will eventually self-destruct.

Don’t buy into the standard response that “you’re both at fault.” A senior person or human resources representative may try to convince you that what you perceive as bullying is nothing more than a personality dispute, and that both you and the bully are equally to blame. This explanation gets both the company and the bully off the hook. It guarantees that nothing will improve.

Can you sue?

Bullying itself is not illegal. However, some forms of bullying do constitute illegal acts. Here are some key examples.

● Sexual harassment

Tina was repeatedly bullied by her supervisor Kevin. He introduced her to everyone as “Tiny Tina.” He repeatedly made her rewrite weekly reports for no legitimate business reason. Despite Tina’s efforts to stay late to meet all deadlines, Kevin called her “lazy” and a “goof off.” Although Kevin’s aggressive conduct is not overtly sexual, the mere fact that a male supervisor has bullied a female subordinate can itself constitute sexual harassment.

I’ll have a lot more to say about sexual harassment in another post.

● Defamation

Howard repeatedly called Marlene a “whore” in front of her coworkers. Marlene can bring suit against Howard for defamation.

● Assault and battery

Ben pushed and shoved Abraham. He pulled out a pocketknife and told Abraham, “I’ll slit your throat if you say anything to the boss about this.” Ben’s conduct constitutes assault and battery, which is a crime. Abraham can go to the police.

● Stalking

Paul has a delusional interest in his coworker Evelyn. Paul keeps offering to walk her to train, walk her home, accompany her to meetings, and Evelyn continues to refuse. Paul continues nonetheless to call Evelyn, leave her voice messages and send her emails, even after Evelyn flatly tells him not to. Paul’s conduct interferes with Evelyn’s ability to live her life. Paul’s conduct is a violation of anti-stalking laws. Evelyn can go to the police and get a restraining order, or she may file a suit seeking damages.

● Cyber-bullying

Bilal repeatedly uses social media sites to harass Sarah. He posts personal, private information about Sarah on websites. He uploads embarrassing photos of Sarah while she was drinking at an office party. In some states, Sarah may sue Bilal for violation of cyber-bulling laws.

● Interference with contractual relations

Robert is up for a promotion. John spreads false information about Robert, so that Robert ends up getting fired instead. Since Robert had an employment agreement with the company, he may be able to sue John for interference with his contractual relationship with the company. In the suit, Robert would assert that John made it impossible for Roberts to do his work, as required by the employment contract.

● Intentional infliction of emotional distress

Angie was berated, insulted and humiliated by her supervisor to the point that she became physically and emotionally ill. Her supervisor’s aggressive conduct violated standards of common decency. Angie might have a legal cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

● Whistle blowing

Horst complained to top management that quarterly financial reports were being improperly altered to make the company look better. Falsification of such financial statements would clearly be a violation of the law. Horst’s manager repeatedly bullied him in an attempt to get him to withdraw his complaint. There are whistle blowing laws that protect Horst. Under such laws, he would have a cause of action against both his manager and his employer.

● Violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

Amy works in a food processing plant. Employees must sort, clean and pack seafood in a refrigerated environment. Amy’s manager, intent on showing her “who’s the boss,” lowers the temperature below that required to maintain freshness and reduces the duration of her regular mid-shift break to five minutes. Since her boss’ bullying has created an unsafe working environment, Amy can file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Unfortunately, there are real downsides to bringing a lawsuit or filing a complaint with law enforcement authorities, no matter how aggressive the aggressor is and no matter how meritorious your cause of action. Suing is expensive and time consuming and it makes it hard to get another job. Other employers cannot legally hold against you the fact that you complained or sued, but in practice some do. They fear that if you were willing to come after your previous employer, then you will come after them, too.


When it comes to workplace bullying, there are no easy answers. In many ways, the best advice is to use your common sense.

To the extent possible, have a thick skin. No matter where you work, there will be obnoxious coworkers, overly aggressive managers and unfair procedures. You just have to be as strategic as possible.

Seek out trusted advisers and confidants. Even if you are being shunned at your job, don’t let this isolation carry over to the rest of your life. Quite often, the advice of a dispassionate person can help you put the workplace in the proper perspective.

Finally, keep reminding yourself that the bully is the bad one, not you. Addressing the bullying is one of many challenges in the workplace. Knowing that you are in the right will help you solve the problem and move on.

Copyright © 2013 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. The blog contains numerous illustrative brief vignettes. The circumstances described in these vignettes, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.



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