Workplace bullying laws only a matter of time, employers’ lawyers concede

Judy Greenwald, in a piece on workplace bullying for Business Insurance, quotes management-side employment lawyers as conceding that enactment of workplace bullying legislation is an eventual likelihood:

“I think it’s inevitable,” said Robert Nobile, a partner with law firm Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P. in New York, noting several European countries already have anti-bullying laws.

Anti-bullying legislation has been defeated four times in Oregon, but “it’s a matter of time before there is a statute,” said Tamsen L. Leachman, a partner with law firm Dunn Carney Allen Higgins & Tongue L.L.P. in Portland, Ore.

Lack of understanding

The rest of the article indicates that many management-side lawyers who oppose the Healthy Workplace Bill may not understand the relatively high thresholds imposed for winning a claim, as well as the provisions built into the statute that discourage frivolous claims and provide legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying at work.  (For a lengthier explanation, see my earlier post, Why the Healthy Workplace Bill is not a “job killer”.)

Where’s the empathy?

What’s absent from the piece is the most disturbing, namely, the lack of acknowledgement of the destructive effects of abusive treatment on workers’ mental and physical health.  My gosh, we’re talking about a form of abuse that triggers depression, anxiety attacks, and PTSD-type symptoms!  How can the law be largely silent toward this depth of suffering?  (And it it any surprise that the legal profession generates so many complaints about workplace bullying?)



Because I’m being especially critical of some of my colleagues on the management side of the employment bar, I thought it only fair to add links to some of the thoughtful commentary from lawyers who represent companies:

Jon Hyman, Empathy does not require liability

Michael Fox, Bullying As a Cause of Action: One Large Step Closer

9 responses

  1. David,
    You are quite right to decry the article’s disturbing “lack of acknowledgement of the destructive effects of abusive treatment on workers’ mental and physical health.” But another important element was also overlooked. It concerns who is bullied.
    Many studies make clear that the targets of bullying are, more often than not, people with more talent, education, sociability, or even looks, than the bosses or coworkers who bully them. They are bullied out of envy. By failing to deal with bullying, companies lose talent. All things being equal, people prefer to work where they are treated with dignity. The writers and the management bar should be thinking about this, too.

    • Ed, you’re right about the talent drain, and I should be emphasizing that point more often.

      The true bullying bosses and co-workers are often exceptionally mediocre or worse at their jobs, but almost savant-like in brilliantly maintaining power and influence.

      Bad employers pay for this over and again when talented workers either leave, are pushed out, or stay while becoming withdrawn and cautious. But then, perhaps they don’t care…

  2. The “legal profession” continues to thrive, hiding behind a web of denial, while concocting arguments to support the “facts” they allow themselves to see. Self awareness (reflection) is not part of the curriculum. Attention is almost always directed outwards. It is the very rare attorney who is self aware, while maintaining empathy for others.

    • Someone with a sufficiently high GPA and law board scores can get into law school, without any evidence of emotional intelligence. This is reinforced by a law school curriculum that is largely absent considerations of the human side of lawyering.

      Especially in the case of younger folks who go to law school without much prior work/life experience, pass a bar exam of multiple choice and essay questions, and then are unleashed on an unwitting public to practice law, this is scary

  3. Having been a target of bullying even while in a high ranking management position, I believe that laws are needed to protect employees, their health, and productivity.

    I submit that these laws are also needed to protect the US from losing talented resources, as the effects of bullying experiences follow the individual for many years and employers to come.

    Needless to say it is costly not only to the company or organization ignoring this problem, but also affects our unemployment and disability cost as a nation.

    Let’s face it without a law, not even Human Resources policies, procedures and best intentions (if any) can protect the employee in the workplace.

    Lastly, it should not come as a surprise that Employer’s Lawyers oppose these laws as that is their job; defend their client not only of current liability laws, but they might feel they are being proactive defending their clients before these laws are in place.

    • Thanks for your comments. One of the underappreciated arguments for workplace bullying legislation is the cost to employers and to society that you cite. Talented, dedicated workers are mangled by this abuse and as a result, their employers and future employers get less from them.

  4. I’m not a lawyer or an employer, but I am the victim of workplace bullying that ended in me losing my job. When it became clear to me that I was being bullied, I looked into resources and had seen people were seeking legal reprisal from the employer who allowed the bullying to happen and I started seeking out a lawyer to see if I had a case. I don’t because I don’t have any way of proving that the bullying I suffered through for over three years and continue to be a victim of now even though I no longer work there, (the same manager who bullied me and fired me is now trying to keep me from getting unemployment insurance by changing her story on why I was terminated) was due to discrimination because of something that is constitutionally protected such as religion, gender, sexual orientation or race. People can be bullied for a myriad of reasons and none of it should be allowed, ever, because it has such a devastating effect, not just on the individual being bullied, but the entire group of individuals who is privy to it. I suffered humiliation, a severe drop in my self esteem and confidence and the loss of my job. These things could have happened to someone of a different race and that person would have a way to obtain compensation. I have no recourse because I’m white, female, straight and so is my former boss. She bullied b\me just because she didn’t like me, and while that’s OK for her not to like me, she shouldn’t be legally allowed to bring her personal feelings about someone into her management role. She has no business being a manager if she isn’t able to separate her job from her personal feelings. If she prevents me now from getting unemployment, my entire household will end up being evicted. We were already struggling, the unemployment will allow us to continue to pay our bills while I look for another job, one where I hope I will have a manager who actually knows how to manage and isn’t so power hungry and blind he or she needs to undermine the employees every step of the way. I don’t know why she felt threatened by me, but she did and she took it out on me in a big way. There’s nothing I can do about it though, and that is the crux of the problem.

    • Venna, I’m very sorry to hear about your experience. I hope that, at the very least, we’ll put some laws in place to give people protections against this kind of mistreatment. Best, David

  5. Venna,
    You and I have similar stories. Despite a very good track record and reputation for quality performance for 13 years at the same company, my current manager has bullied me by villifying me on conference calls in front of my peers, taken away meaningful projects, lied or twisted comments others have made about me, and I was give the worst performance review of my 30-year professional career. I now face the loss of my position, my income and the ability to support my family. Escalation to HR and my manager’s manager went nowhere. I have finally notified them that I intend to seek legal counsel. But, like you, I am not a minority race and report to a female manager.


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