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.