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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.

Conclusion

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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Workplace Bullying: Part 4

What to do if you are targeted by a bully

I’m going to break down your responses to bullying into a series of key steps and options. First comes Analysis. Then comes Action.

Analysis

It is critically important that you assess your situation in an objective way. If possible, you should do so with the help of a trusted advisor.

If you feel unhappy or stressed at work, teased, or singled out for blame or punishment, it may not be immediately clear what is going on. What you may initially regard as bullying may not in fact be bullying. Managers have the right to assign work, evaluate work and terminate you if you are performing unsatisfactory. A manager’s conduct becomes bullying when it serves no legitimate work purpose or when it is cruel or arbitrary.

Here are some signs that you are under stress but may not in fact be the target of bullying that requires serious action on your part.

● Times are tough for everyone in the company. Everyone has to do more with fewer resources.

● You have a history of past antagonism with the individual whom you suspect of bullying which, although annoying, has been manageable.

● The individual who appears to be mistreating you himself may be under great pressure or face a tight deadline, and the troubling behavior may be temporary.

● The apparent aggressor is not intentionally mean or menacing, but is simply someone with less than superior social skills.

Action

Once you have satisfied yourself that you are in fact being subjected to behavior that does not belong in the workplace, you have four main options: Ignore, Confront, Complain or Leave.

Ignore

If the problematic behavior is annoying but in reality does not affect your ability to do your job, the best course of action is to ignore it. Avoid the person if possible.

This advice works well when you have to interact with the aggressor for only a short time period, or when he has no credibility with anyone else in the workplace. Ignoring the aggressor also works well then his obnoxious behavior doesn’t push one of your emotional buttons.

There is nothing cowardly or inappropriate about this course of action. We all have to choose our battles. Sometimes it is just not worth exerting the energy to correct something that isn’t really a major problem for you.

Confront

On the other hand, if the aggressor’s behavior really does get to you, then you do have to act. Action is especially important when the intimidation is coming from your manager.

If you have had a decent relationship with the aggressor and he is a basically reasonable person, a confrontation might end the bullying. Confrontation often works when the aggressor understands that the alternative to a peaceful resolution is a formal complain that might adversely affect his career.

Complain

Filing a complaint about bullying is much more difficult than it may seem. Before you complain to a more senior person or your human resources representative, you need to make sure you can back up your allegations with facts.

● You can show that you have been the victim of a pattern of repeated, serious bullying that interferes with your ability to keep your job.

● You have corroboration of the bully’s conduct in the form of emails, voice mails or other concrete materials. Witnesses can be helpful, but keep in mind that witnesses sometimes disappear or are reluctant to support your allegations because they fear for their jobs.

● The bully is not the superstar of the company. The more valuable the bully is to the company, the less inclined the company will be to discipline him and the more inclined the company will be to attempt to silence you or get you to resign. In the worst-case scenario, the company could try to fire you

Leave

It is unfortunate and unfair, but sometimes removing yourself from a bad situation is the wisest course of action.

You should consider leaving the company if you believe the chances of stopping the bullying behavior are slim or if you are so affected by the obnoxious conduct that your physical or mental health is at serious risk.

Ideally you should line up another job first, but that is not always possible. If you do interview for other jobs, you need to keep two things in mind.

● In general, you should not share with a potential employer why you want to leave your current employment. Have a credible cover story about new opportunities, skills, interests, etc. No company wants to hire someone who has been involved in any kind of interpersonal conflict, even if it is clear you are not at fault.

● Make sure you don’t exchange one bad work environment for another one that is just as bad. To address the environment on the new job, you can ask questions in the interview that appear neutral. Ask why is the job vacant and how, if at all, has the work changed. Try to get information from people who already work there about your potential boss and the culture of the company.

Keep in mind that if you resign from your present employment, it is unlikely you will be able to collect unemployment benefits. The only exception is if you can convince your state’s Office of Unemployment Insurance that you were “constructively discharged.” This means the employer made it so difficult or impossible for you to work there that you had to quit. While this may be the case, many companies will vigorous contest such an allegation.

 More to come …

What you should never do

Can you sue?

Conclusion

 

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.

Workplace Bullying: Part 3

Bullying by coworkers or subordinates

Coworkers and subordinates can likewise engage in bullying in a variety of ways. Here are some of the most important types of conduct.

● Undermining a manager’s authority

Marsha tells all her coworkers not to do any work all day.

● Spreading gossip about a manager or a coworker

Linda tells everyone in the department about the arrest of Henry’s son in a barroom fight.

● Withholding information that a manager or coworker needs to perform his job

Matt refuses to give Francesca the accounting figures she needs to do the monthly reports.

● Shunning or isolating others

Angela asks everyone to have lunch but repeatedly and pointedly excludes Larry.

● Conferring cruel or humorous nicknames

Lydia refers to Arthur by his childhood nickname Noodle, which she learned about on a social media website.

● Commenting about a coworker’s personal life

Ben tells everyone in the department that Emily has no social life and does nothing but work.

● Sabotaging another’s work or equipment

Dan takes random items from Julian’s desk and throws them in the trash. He “accidentally” spills coffee on Julian’s computer.

● Interrupting or inaccurately correcting a coworker at meetings or in front or others

Every time Alberto says something in a meeting, Tammy corrects him.

● Teasing

Pam routinely makes fun of Dawei’s appearance, accent and food preferences, each time adding that she is “just kidding.”

● Making dismissive comments

Jane tells everyone that Elba “is afraid of her own shadow” and “really can’t do much on her own.”

● Physically threatening or scaring a coworker

Simon tells Isra that he physically attacked the last person who contradicted him.

Who can be a bully

Virtually anyone can engage in bad behaviors that interfere with your ability to do your job.

In general, men appear to do more bullying than women because they are more often in positions of power and authority. But men have no corner on the market. Many women are effective bullies. Sometimes women bully to prove they can be as tough as men. Sometimes women themselves lack support from their peers. They may feel threatened if they believe they were token hires. Sometimes women have been bullied themselves and it is the only management style they know.

Anyone connected with your work can be a bully. That includes vendors, customers, clients, interns, technicians and trainers. Bullying can take place at work, outside work, through email, phone conversations or social media.

Who can be the target of bullying

Virtually anyone can be bullied. Most surveys reveal that about one-third of employees have at some time experienced this kind of abuse.

There are many theories about who is more susceptible to bullying. One theory is that bullies target people who are too nice to fight back or who avoid confrontation. Another theory is that bullies don’t discriminate among potential targets. Perhaps the best explanation is that bullies are opportunistic. They bully those individuals who they perceive as threats.

Bullying to gain the advantage

Many people view the workforce as a zero-sum game. For everyone who does well, someone else has to do poorly. There is, of course, some logic to this model, as promotions are much less frequent as you advance upward in a company. What’s more, some companies force the distribution of performance evaluations to follow a curve, so that some employees will necessarily have low performance ratings even if they’ve done a good job. In an era of massive layoffs and reductions in force, employees are now routinely ranked as to how useful or valuable they are to a company.

In such a competitive environment, bullying becomes a tool for the aggressor to gain advantage over others in the workforce. Bullies are often inventive. They figure out how to undermine a coworker in order to eliminate him from the competition or even get him to resign because he’s so unhappy at work.

Is bullying an effective way to get ahead in an organization?

I wish I could tell you that it is not. But very often, it is. Bullying that is too obvious, extreme or violent is rarely successful and often results in the termination of the aggressor. However, most successful bullying is subtler. It is done quietly, without witnesses or documentary support. Successful bullying can go on for years.

More to come …

What to do if you are targeted by a bully

What you should never do

Can you sue?

Conclusion

 

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.

Workplace Bullying: Part 2

Bullying by managers

Managers can engage in bullying in a variety of ways. Here are some of the most important types of conduct.

● Giving conflicting, arbitrary or unclear instructions on how to do your job

Bob is Mary’s manager. Bob tells Mary that he wants her to deliver all her status reports orally. When Mary complies with Bob’s instructions, he disciplines her for failing to submit written status reports.

● Making undermining, insulting, abusive or false comments about your work to you and to others

Steve is Nathaniel’s manager. Steve himself reports to William. When the Department fails to meet its monthly sales quota, Steve tells William that Nathaniel didn’t make a single sales call, when in fact Nathaniel made more calls than all his coworkers combined.

● Sharing personal information about your work, salary or mistakes with others who have no business need to know

David is Melanie’s manager. David lets his entire group know what Melanie’s salary is. He tells the group that Melanie is overpaid.

● Making cruel, abusive or sarcastic remarks, and failing to engage in basic workplace courtesy

Mark announces at a staff meeting that Julia’s husband moved out because he couldn’t stand Julia any longer.

● Arbitrarily changing work hours, work location and work schedule with no business reason.

Barbara works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. so she can pick up her children from school. Barbara’s supervisor Marie abruptly changes her hours with no prior notice and for no work-related reason.

● Withholding pay, raises, promotions and performance reviews

Marco cannot get a raise unless he has a performance evaluation on file with the Human Resources Department. His manager Greg repeatedly tells Marco that he is too busy to do one for him and, as a consequence, Marco gets no raise for the coming year.

● Assigning work that cannot possibly be completed in the time allotted

Molly’s supervisor assigns her two projects, both of which are due in five days. In the best circumstances, each one would require at least four days to complete.

● Assigning little or no work

Dennis is Marina’s manager. Dennis repeatedly tells Marina that he hasn’t had time to figure out what Marina should be doing. So Marina sits around doing nothing.

● Giving unfair, inaccurate or thoughtless performance reviews

Chris supervises Alan. Chris produces a performance review that refers only to Alan’s weakness and makes no mention of Alan’s many accomplishments during the past year.

● Taking credit for a subordinate’s work

Theodore produces regular quarterly reports for his manager Denise. On the header of every report, Denise erases Theodore’s name and inserts her own name as the author.

● Criticizing a subordinate for mistakes beyond his control

David blames Ruby when a client doesn’t show up for an important meeting, even though Ruby sent the client a confirmation note and the client responded he was indeed attending.

● Downplaying or mocking a subordinate’s legitimates concerns

No matter what the issue Lillian raises, her manager Scott tells her that she is overreacting, she is a drama queen, or she is too sensitive.

● Retaliating against a subordinate for making legitimate complaints

Xavier points out certain legitimate concerns to the Compliance Department, after which his manager Andy starts a reign of terror against him.

 More to come …

Bullying by coworkers or subordinates

Who can be a bully

Who can be the target of bullying

Bullying to gain the advantage

Is bullying an effective way to get ahead in an organization?

What to do if you are targeted by a bully

What you should never do

Can you sue?

Conclusion

 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.


Workplace Bullying: Part 1

What is a workplace bully?

A workplace bully repeatedly and intentionally engages in behavior that is designed to undermine, threaten or harass you. The bully’s conduct distracts you from your job and prevents you from reaching your full potential.

More often than not, you will feel bullied before you are actually aware of specific behaviors directed against you. You may dread coming to work or interacting with a certain person. You may feel anxious or ill at ease.

Bullying not only affects the bully’s target, but often the bully’s coworkers and other subordinates. These other employees fear that they, too, will become a target. They feel guilty about being unable or unwilling to protect the target.

Without doubt, bullying undermines productivity, morale and creativity in a workplace. It is often the cause of excessive and unnecessary turnover, as well as reputational harm for the employer.

The ways that an employee can be bullied are endless. I will break down the behavior into two categories: bullying by managers, and bullying by coworkers and subordinates. The main reason for making this distinction is that managers generally have more power to derail your career than coworkers or subordinates.

More to come …

Bullying by managers

Bullying by coworkers or subordinates

Who can be a bully

Who can be the target of bullying

Bullying to gain the advantage

Is bullying an effective way to get ahead in an organization?

What to do if you are targeted by a bully

What you should never do

Can you sue?

Conclusion

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.