Workplace bullying vs. “political correctness”

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

The other day I had an exchange with a fellow law professor who expressed great skepticism about the need for legal protections against severe workplace bullying, adding that he equated the topic with what he perceives to be an excess of political correctness in our civic dialogue. It became clear as our exchange went on that nothing I could say would sway him.

Based on his remarks to me, I think he also was coming from a place of exasperation toward current, hotly contested debates on college campuses on the need for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” terms explained by Sophie Downes in the New York Times:

A trigger warning is pretty simple: It consists of a professor’s saying in class, “The reading for this week includes a graphic description of sexual assault,” or a note on a syllabus that reads, “This course deals with sensitive material that may be difficult for some students.”

A safe space is an area on campus where students — especially but not limited to those who have endured trauma or feel marginalized — can feel comfortable talking about their experiences. This might be the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs or it could be Hillel House, but in essence, it’s a place for support and community.

For what it’s worth, I’d rather have the values of respect, empathy, and intellectual rigor trying to co-exist among themselves than have either strict rules on freedom of expression or an embrace of free speech that serves as a pretext for hurtful verbal attacks on others. (The Golden Rule is a good start for me.)

But I’m not here to dive too deeply into that debate. Rather, I’m here to repeat a clarification:

Workplace bullying is not about political correctness, trigger warnings, oversensitive people, regulating speech, or mandating manners. Rather, it is about targeted, typically repeated, health-harming verbal and non-verbal abuse, often perpetrated to undermine someone’s job performance or even drive them out of the workplace.

And all too often, when targets of workplace bullying approach lawyers to see whether the legal system offers any relief from the torment, they are told sorry, as bad as this is, there are no obvious legal protections to help you.

The academic debates over political correctness and related topics are important, but we’re not even in that territory when it comes to genuine workplace bullying. Not even close.

12 responses

  1. If you’ve you have never been in this snare trap, then you have no understanding of how it feels. Workplace bullying and mobbing is an aggression “in excess” of political incorrectness!

  2. I agree with Thomas. The people who make these dismissive comments have no idea what they are talking about. Workplace violence (bullying) is something that you understand only if you’ve been through it yourself.

  3. There is nothing correct about a boss who engages in “Fantasy, Planning and Execution” of psychological violence. This crack addiction is never satisfied. Bottom up- we need to make the public aware of what workplace violence is so if it happens in their workplace they can identify it. Top down – we need those in managerial positions to be highly skilled with a great home life (as my current research links an unstable home life as a contributing factor) and psychological screening for abusive and narcissistic traits.

  4. Thank you, David, for “fighting the good fight” with your fellow lawyers, unseen by the rest of us. Your efforts are paying off in ways we can’t imagine as we all go forth, shields and sabers in hand!

  5. Maybe your fellow law professor could try the intellectual empathy exercise of opening their mind to considerations of the emotionally, psychologically and morally abusive behaviors and violence occurring in domestic violence. Perhaps he or she could understand that workplace abusive behaviors–the aggression, the intimidation, the terrorism, the humiliation, etc.,–can cause similar stress and anxiety reactions as in domestic violence situations. And you up the severity of workplace abusive behaviors by having no recourse to legal protection and public adjudication of the abusive, tortious behavior. It’s not just about political correctness and civility. It’s also about workplace safety and protection from harm.

    • Excellent thought. If one googles psychological violence in the workplace, what comes up is domestic abuse, domestic violence. This speaks volumes about where we are as a country in grappling with this topic.

  6. Perhaps the other professor has preconceived notions about what the word “bullying” describes. I wonder if he would have the same response if “psychological violence” , “abusive conduct” or some term that had weightier connotations had been used. Occupational Health and Safety experts have recognized it as a workplace hazard- and I haven’t heard that term applied to the issues this fellow finds exasperating.

    • Understood. Other countries and the United Nations refer to it as psychological violence and workplace violence; so when I comment or write about workplace bullying, I use all three terms interchangeably.

  7. I feel a bit of relief now that I’m able to put a label and better understand my new bosses “game”. I manage a boutique hotel and we recently brought on a new GM for whom this is his first GM position. I wondered recently if he may feel threatened by me because of my strong ability to get employees to perform and in general lead them to fill the hotel’s needs without incident. He’s only been with us for 6 weeks and yesterday he sent me an email, not to my private email address but to the general mailbox and cc’d other departments for all to read. I was upset on two levels, first the content of the email was him sharing some observations he’d passively made at breakfast service one morning and that he felt he needed to critique the service via this email. The critique however was of me, cleverly disguised as being general. The second objection was that any critique he feels he needs to make of me and my management skills should have been done face to face and if not then to my private email and not to an email location for all of my subordinates to read. Several people who have read the email have commented to me asking if I “was okay” after having received it? When I tried to explain these two simple points to my boss he replied that I was taking it personally. No, frankly, I wasn’t but rather he was making a critique based on poor research without having weighed all possible variables into the equation, that was why I was upset as his results were inaccurate and made me look bad in front of my subordinates and secondly, pretending for a moment that I was wrong, he should have shared this with me privately. He just didn’t get where I was coming from…is what I thought, then upon reflection, I realized he was cleverly trying to throw me under the bus. So, after much thought I penned a response, professional, well though out response, which explained the variables without sounding defensive and frankly in the end proving that his assertions were essentially reactive, not based on fact, unprofessional and put the company at risk. I was extremely diplomatic and stuck to the facts so as not to embarrass him but, rather show that I did know what I was doing. I essentially backed up my theory with evidence. Oh, I forgot to mention he also cc’d the two owners of the company. Sooo, now I’m concerned with how I am going to dodge and weave my way around this guy while simultaneously taking orders from him all while maintaining my own integrity. Any advise, anyone???

    • This is a very difficult situation.
      You need to nip it in the bud and threaten to put in a grievance if the behaviour does not change. ‘following your companies grievance policies.’
      I advise not to sit back and let the bullying mount up, (making notes as you go. As I did.)
      He will unfairly criticise your performance and nit-pick if things are left.
      HR and colleagues will not support even if they verbally agree to.

      I have just had to move jobs in similar circumstances. I should have nipped it in the bud but let it drag on thinking I would get more evidence. The fact was all my evidence was dismissed as my word against theirs.

      At every point please aim to minimise your own stress. Do not let it affect your wellbeing.

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