Webinar Wisdom: Dealing with Workplace Bullying

“I think, frankly, there is no piece of legislation that could have as dramatic an impact on the workplace than the passage of the Healthy Workplace bill.”

Dealing with Workplace Bullying: How to Control the Perpetrators, Coach the Victims & Avoid Legal Pitfalls

When an Indiana surgeon physically intimidated an assisting technician—during a major procedure on a patient, no less—it may have represented a defining moment in the common perception of workplace bullying. Before attorney Mike Fox explained exactly why, office coach Marie McIntyre taught webinar attendees about the many gray areas of this issue, and offered managers help on sorting real bullying from borderline behavior.

Consider Marie’s example of Sybil, who seemed determined to erect an invisible barrier around one particular employee in her office. Bullying, Marie said, is something that intentionally and repeatedly causes injury or discomfort: “The key words are intentionally and repeatedly.” So did Sybil’s passive-aggressive behavior actually rise to that standard? As we found out, not every bully has to become a wall-punching ogre or even threaten someone directly to create damaging shock waves. The extreme cases are perhaps easier to deal with because their behavior is indeed so clear and egregious. 

Marie defined five types of workplace dominators: Screamers, Controllers, Excluders, Bigots and Creepers. It is perhaps the last type on the list that plunges us so deeply into this issue’s complexities, and leads to improper definitions of just what is going on between two people. Passive aggression, mysterious comments, veiled insults—in today’s workplace, they need to be interpreted correctly or they could all be fodder for a major problem and possibly a lawsuit.

Another challenge facing managers is clarifying to victims that they do indeed possess some control over their situation, yet making sure not to lay blame at their feet. Here are Marie’s characteristics of those who never let themselves fall prey to a bully:

  • They are confident and secure
  • They are not easily intimidated
  • They don’t worry about being liked
  • They are appropriately assertive
  • They enforce their boundaries.

Mike Fox of the Ogletree Deakins law firm had good news, bad news and potentially worse news for employers. All is relatively quiet on the bullying litigation front at the moment, as there is no anti-bullying law per se in the U.S. But “creative plaintiffs’ lawyers have avenues they can pursue,” he said. Most states recognize a tort called Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, and dedicated attorneys often find a way to turn a case of bullying into a case of harassment so it’s more easily identifiable.

The “first” bullying case which brought a monetary judgment for the plaintiff was that of the aforementioned angry surgeon. During the trial, the plaintiff’s attorney brought in a psychologist as an expert witness to define the surgeon’s behavior as bullying. The Indiana Supreme Court upheld the verdict after the Court of Appeal disagreed with the claim that the concept of workplace bullying applied.

“There is an active movement—and I mean very active—to put in place a national anti-bullying law,” Mike told the room. The Workplace Bullying Institute is currently advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill. If it were to pass, Mike explained, so much conduct would be eligible for a potential lawsuit that summary judgments would be much tougher to achieve. That means more lawsuits going the distance, and more expensive days ahead for companies struggling to deal with this issue.

In England, several countries in Europe and even several provinces in Canada, bullying already occupies a special category under the law. The advice of Mike Fox and Marie McIntyre was to expect more changes in how it’s perceived. As an issue, it isn’t going away anytime soon.