June 22, 2008

e-petition: legislate against workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is common. However anyone bullied in their workplace has no remit in law, therefore they are powerless to complain and have no legal rights. We have legislation to cover discrimination for religious, sexual or cultural reasons but not for bullying. The effects of bullying are far reaching and debilitating, bullying costs this country hundreds of working hours in sickness each year, not to mention the effect on individuals and families. The government needs to make workplace bullying an illegal activity which can be punished in law in much the same way as racism or sexism is.

Sign the petition
And something to think about: Dangers of Taking Legal Action Against Assholes

The New York Post ran a story earlier in the week called Despot Measures: Should Workplace Bullying Be Outlawed?. I found it to be an interesting and balanced story, as it described how a number of states -– including New York and New Jersey -- are currently considering anti-bullying legislation. Essentially, the idea of these bills is to punish employers that allow “equal opportunity assholes” to get away with doing their dirty work, thus going beyond current laws against race and gender-based workplace abuse. To quote the Post article by Brian Moore:

Professor David Yamada of Suffolk University Law School has studied workplace bullying for years. In response to the problem, he’s written legislation that’s serving as a model for most antibullying bills across the country, including New York and New Jersey.

Essentially the laws would lower the bar for those who want to bring suit against a tormentor. While one can sue now, such bids hardly ever win - these laws would improve plaintiffs’ odds by creating a set of criteria for what’s actionable. Under Yamada’s template, that would include “repeated infliction of verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets; verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.”

Yamada says the law has sufficient hurdles to prevent silly, vengeful lawsuits. The target must demonstrate “malice” on the part of the bully, for example, and “there has to be a tangible showing of physical or psychological damages.”

I confess that I've been ambivalent about such legislation. On the one hand, I do think that equal opportunity assholes and the employers that lack the courage to stop them do deserve to be punished. I also recognize that the threat of litigation may encourage companies to take a more aggressive stand against asshole behavior. On the other hand, I worry about the legalization of everything and that those with biggest incentive for such legislation to pass are employment lawyers. After all, anti-bullying legislation means more work for lawyers who defend both assholes and their victims. I am still trying to develop a firmer opinion on this matter, and invite advice and arguments, but for the moment, I think that the threat of the legislation is a good thing because it raises awareness about the problem and might help some of the worst assholes and their firms to reform –- but I am not sure I actually want any of this legislation to pass.

There is, however, another angle to legal action that I have more well-developed opinions about. In the article, I am quoted as saying, if you are in an abusive workplace, the best thing you can do is “Get out as quickly as possible.” I realize that this isn’t always possible, and indeed, that is why I assembled a list of tips for victims of assholes – which include the suggestion to people who can’t or won’t escape that they ought to carefully document abuse, as that will help make case to HR, or if that fails, for legal action. BUT I think it is important to explain why I am so vehement in my opinion that, if you are in an asshole filled workplace, getting out is the best solution. These opinions were clarified for me after having an enlightened dinner with two world-class attorneys after my speech last Monday at the Commonwealth Club. My three main arguments against staying around, taking sustained abuse, documenting the case, and fighting back – especially through legal action are as follows:

1. First and foremost, as the two attorneys emphasized, to win a case against an employer, an employee needs to demonstrate that he or she has suffered damages. This means that THE MORE DAMAGE THAT YOU SUFFER, THE MORE MONEY YOU ARE LIKELY TO BE AWARDED. This means that the worse the abuse you take, and the longer you take it and the more harm you suffer, the more money you have a shot at winning. Indeed, recall Professor Yamada’s point:

The target must demonstrate “malice” on the part of the bully, for example, and “there has to be a tangible showing of physical or psychological damages.”

So, the more you lose – - the deeper your depression, your anxiety, and your financial losses, and the more physical ailments you suffer –- the better your case. The implication for me is WHY NOT GET OUT BEFORE YOU SUFFER TANGIBLE DAMAGES IN THE FIRST PLACE? Or at least why not get out with as little damage as possible, and get one with your life?

2. Remember, psychological abuse isn’t just something that “good people” heap on “bad people.” As I show in The No Asshole Rule, research on emotional contagion, and on abusive supervision in particular, finds that if you work with or around a bunch of nasty and demeaning people, odds are you will become one of them. This not only has ethical implications, it means – ironically – that you might just find yourself in the odd position of suing others – and being sued yourself – to recover the costs of workplace abuse.

3. Finally, as those lawyers reminded me, the litigation process means re-living the damage that you have suffered over and over again. You will have to tell your story over and over again, and rather than getting past the incident, your “financial incentive” is not only to emphasize all the damage you have suffered in the past, but to continually uncover evidence of the damage that you continue to suffer. In addition, if you have never been through deposition or trial with opposing legal counsel, remember, it is their job to discredit your testimony – so you not only have to relive past distress, painful new ones will be heaped on you during the litigation process. Again, even if you win your case against the assholes, you are likely to suffer a lot of damage in the process. This drain on your time and energy as well as the stigmatizing impact of being a plaintiff against a former employer may also have an adverse impact on your prospects for future employment and promotion.

In closing, I want to emphasize that I encourage and applaud people who fight back against workplace assholes in any way that they can, including through legal means. I encourage people who have already suffered damages to fight back. And I am also painfully aware that many people are trapped with assholes with no immediate prospect of escape, and that taking legal action of some kind may be the only option left in some cases. At the same time, I believe that people who choose to take legal actions against their employers should understand the risks they face… and that is why I continue to believe that, if you work with a bunch of assholes, the best thing to do FOR YOURSELF is to get out as fast as you can.

P.S. One of the lawyers did point out an interesting benefit of bullying legislation for victims. She noted that legislation that makes it easier to state a claim against an employer for an abusive work place may encourage employers to settle such cases much earlier. This means that a benefit of the legislation may be that abused employees will have greater leverage to pursue a settlement before filing litigation, and that settlement, in turn, might give victims the financial cushion they need to recover and find another job. But I still have mixed feelings about whether I want such legislation to become law.

By Robert I. Sutton
Professor - Management Science and Engineering - Stanford


Anonymous said...

Today the sun is shining and the gardening is going well.

Aphra Behn

Anonymous said...

"The target must demonstrate 'malice' on the part of the bully" - no, I don't agree. The bully may have no malicious intent towards the victim, and may even be unaware that their behaviour is harmful (and incapable of comprehending the harm no matter how it is explained). Nobody needs malice to be racist or sexist, but can be extremely destructive in imposing their views on others.

Anonymous said...

How about if we legislate the systemic evaluation of bosses by employees? In other words, for a department chair to get a raise or even to stay in that post, annual evaluations done by each employee will have to demonstrate that the boss has:
--been fair to all employees
--made reasonable demands, clearly and consistently articulated
--acted respectfully towards faculty and staff
--accomplished workplace goals in ways that does not compromise employee health and safety
--acted with integrity and honesty

If every employee had to evaluate (anonymously of course) each chair and dean in order for them to stay in the post or get a raise, we might get a very different kind of behavior from the bosses!

Anonymous said...

The reason everyone should want it to become law is it will prevent workplace bullying. Bullies would beat and/or rape targets too if it were legal. I have started a petition also that hold the bully liable. They will stop the minute they find out they can be sued. If you're a US citizen please sign the Anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill petition . If you're a UK citizen please sign the 08Bullying petition. Pass the link/s onto your friends, post on your websites, in forums, whatever you can do so that no one ever has to be subjected to psychological violence (assholes) at work. Thank you!