Opposing workplace bullying legislation: Are depression, PTSD, and suicide an “Emily Post problem”?

Sunday’s Parade Magazine is running a short feature on the legislative campaign for a workplace bullying law.  The online version includes a poll where you can vote to support or oppose legal protections against bullying at work.

An “Emily Post problem”

Of course, there are legitimate concerns that such a law could overreach and serve as a legal micro-manager of the workplace.  That’s why I have written the Healthy Workplace Bill — anti-bullying legislation that is the template for bills introduced across the country — in a way that balances the legitimate interests of workers and their employers.  Nevertheless, some insist on lobbing unfounded bombs against attempts to address abuse at work, as the Parade piece demonstrates:

“Making a federal or state case over the day-to-day management of any workforce is just plain nuts,” says Victoria Pynchon, an attorney-mediator in Los Angeles. “At best, it’s a jackhammer solution to an Emily Post problem. At worst, it’s a new scheme for extortion.”

She’s referring to the late American etiquette expert, Emily Post, in claiming that bullying is merely a problem of manners.

It’s about abuse, not etiquette

Perhaps Ms. Pynchon has never really sat down with someone who has suffered from depression or PTSD-type symptoms due to brutal, targeted, ongoing bullying at work.  Or maybe she is unfamiliar with the tragic phenomenon of bullied workers taking their own lives, as the stories of Jodie Zebell and Brodie Panlock illustrate.

It’s also possible that Ms. Pynchon is not familiar with the details of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which sets a very high threshold for recovery.  In order to prevail, an employee has to establish that the behavior was both malicious and harmful to mental or physical health.  The bill also includes numerous defenses and provisions to discourage frivolous and marginal claims.  In addition, it provides legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying, hopefully before behaviors become abusive and disabling.  In short, as I have written previously on this blog, it is both “HR-friendly” and anything but a “job killer.”

In any event, we need to stand up to those who dismiss the suffering inflicted by severe workplace bullying when they mischaracterize abuse as bad manners.

14 responses

  1. Hey, David –

    This is so disturbing for me on so many levels.

    As a employment law plaintiff’s paralegal “down in the trenches,” I see the devastation of abusive workplace behavior on a daily basis. While I comprehend the slippery slope arguments, it’s very difficult – knowing what I know – to give these concerns much, if any, weight. The critics seem to be unaware of seriousness of the issue or the relationship between the health of the workplace and the overall health of our society.

    No, this is not about simply minding your manners.

    Those of us who have experienced and/or witnessed workplace abuse must speak up. We’ve been muzzled for too long.

    Thank you for all your incredible work in this area.

    Debra Healy
    Healy Conflict Management Services

  2. I ask all readers to counter the effect of Ms. Pynchon’s quote, by going online & voting now in the Parade poll: http://www.parade.com/news/intelligence-report/archive/100718-workplace-bullying-do-we-need-a-law.html

    It’s so disappoiting that the Parade article contains that thoughtless & irresponsible quote from Ms. Pynchot. What she is forgetting is that some (if not many) workplace bullies are very effective at convincing management that they (the bullies) are the victims.

    I’ve seen that happen. I know of a specific example where an EEO officer (of all people) has convinced management (who of course wants to stay on the good side of the EEO Officer) that she was the victim of verbal abuse (which she fears may become physical abuse). The result was that the EEO Office put together a mob to ostracize the person she accused, all with impunity from management which clearly sees what is going on.

    Sounds like the makings of a nice lawsuit by that unfortunate victim of the EEO officer bully & and the co-workers & management enablers/co-conspirators/co-bully-ers. What a disgrace given the light level agency that this has occurred in.

  3. Let’s look forward to the day when it will be as unthinkable to characterize work abuse as a manners issue as spousal abuse or child abuse. As is readily observable, wherever there is a differential of power, as there clearly is in the workplace, there is an opportunity for abuse — including abuse at a significant level. As a long-time labor lawyer — 31 years — Ive seen how inadequate current laws are to cover many situations. I became interested in this issue because I want the next generation to be able to work in more humane environments — where the relinquishment of dignity is not often considered a prerequisite to earning a living.

    • I, too, look forward to a law that will protect the generations ahead of us. My experience with the young people entering the workplace is that they have great feelings and notions of entitlement. I fear that these kinds of feelings will emerge in antagonistic and harassing behaviors. I certainly do NOT want to see my daughter, nieces, nephews have to endure what I did.

  4. Thanks all for your great comments and links. Much appreciated! I felt like I may have overreacted to one comment in an article, but it really struck a bad chord for me. The dismissive ‘tudes and disinformation being spread by some of the opponents to workplace bullying legislation are very troubling.

  5. Outstanding idea to parallel the diminishing attorney’s advice as “Emily Postesque.” I can think of MUCH easier ways to commit extortion than to point a figure at a true workplace bully.

    I worked on the background for this article and the freelance author was very clear about her chances to write it. The new editor of Parade came from People and almost didn’t do the piece. Editor Maggie Murphy needs to be encouraged to take this further, especially after she sees the outcome of the poll numbers.

    • Carrie, yes, I know that folks were hoping for a more ambitious piece from Parade. However, it appears to be turning out for the good, at least in terms of overall response. I think it demonstrates how this movement is striking a chord. More to say about that soon….

  6. In my opinion the biggest problem with this issue is, that we continue to talk about bullying, when we should talk about violence. Hurting others intentionally is a crime in most of countries already.

    In Finland we have a law, that is about inappropriate behaviour in work place, and that law says that, when managers get information of inappropriate behaviour, they have to react to it. It’s hard to make cases, that would really have an effect, because proving psychological damage is still difficult.

    I worked for 5 years with people, whom where targets of violence in their work places. I strogly believe, that making new laws isn’t the (only) answer. If we only search justice for those, who already have PTSD or depression, there will always be new cases, new victims. So I do agree with Ms. Pynchon, that we should react sooner, we should react to behaviour, that is not acceptable even if it isn’t a crime. We can’t leave all the work for the police and courts, we have to use our own voices to make sure, that our work places are safe for all. One Finnish police said, that there is a scale bad behaviour-extremely bad bahaviour – crime. Police deals with crimes, every one of us should deal with first two. And before we do so, there will be work places, where people will be targets of bad or extremely bad behaviour, which in too many cases evolves to violence.

    • Katri, thanks for your comment. The Healthy Workplace Bill that I drafted which is serving as the template for legislation in the U.S. provides civil but not criminal sanctions. It includes express provisions that encourage employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying, before the behaviors become disabling to a target.

  7. What’s a sign that workplace bullying has taken a heavy toll on you? When you can read the story of the BTK killer but can’t stand to read accounts of workplace bullying because it strikes too close to home.

    Both of these problem behaviors are closely related. I recommend the book, “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us” by Robert Hare. He points out their inability to feel empathy for a victim as well as the fact that there are a significant number of sub-criminal psychopaths, who nevertheless make life hell for others around them. A softer and more descriptive term is sociopath; psychiatrists now call it antisocial personality disorder.

    Add to this poor company management. When, after hearing of an organized 12-year plot of abuse and what it has cost the company the owner says, “I’ll take it under advisement” (translation: “go away”), there is definitely a need for a law. The higher up you are, the more responsible you are to deal with it because you’re the one with that authority. If you won’t deal with it, you’re no better than the bully.

    The lack of such a law is discriminatory. If I were not a white male, I could have taken the company to court. Race and gender shouldn’t matter. Abuse is abuse.

    • Eric, thanks for mentioning the work of Hare. I’m planning a short post on his work soon.

      Although I’m glad that American law has responded to discrimination in our society, I agree 100% that abusive behavior — regardless of motivation or demographic status — should be addressed by legal protections. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with the Healthy Workplace Bill.

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