Bullies, Harassment, and Office Jerks

Cyber bullies, internet shame brigades, DDOS attacks— It seems that with each new invention we have to take for granted, we immediately discover exotic new platforms to make each other miserable. It appears that the old adage rings true: the more things change the more they stay the same.

Bullying is something we all would like to have left behind at school, like illegible sparkly gel pens, but the topic of bullying has gotten a lot of press in the past few years, despite evidence that, statistically speaking, the world continues to be a safer place than ever before.

So does bullying deserve the press it's been getting in recent years? Should it really be the subject of endless nightly news reports and Facebook awareness campaigns? Not that there's anything wrong with awareness, per se, I'm just skeptical of band-wagoning. Bullying, shaming, mob justice; people are outed as bullies through twitter, facebook, and youtube everyday. Whether or not these cyber-pariahs deserve the extent of their punishments is a topic for another day, but suffice to say that people are more concerned about bullying today than ever before.

Wagon bands aside; while bullying is arguably no more prevalent today than it was, say, 40 years ago, it is very different now, and we know more about it than ever before. Combine this wealth of knowledge with the ease of access provided by the internet, it's no wonder that people have become very sensitive to the language we use in public, and how what we say/what we do can be interpreted as bullying.

And sensitive we should be because, as the definition of bullying expands to include things that happen in the office and online, we start to see the patterns that have always been there; once you start calling Steve from accounting's jerky remarks bullying, then it becomes pretty clear that he was a a bully all along.

Bullyingstatistics.org defines some common bullying behaviors to look for in your workplace:

  • Shouting or swearing at an employee, verbal abuse

  • Singling out one employee for unjustified blame and/or criticism

  • Excluding an employee from company activities or having his/her contributions ignored

  • Using language or performing actions with intent to embarrass or harass an employee.

Depending on your experience, you may not be surprised to come across a few bullies at different times in you career. Some industries, while not overtly encouraging bullying, are conducive to bully behavior.

Regardless of the industry, most businesses, whether or not that business is particularly competitive, value competition and ambition— two qualities that bullies use to disguise their behavior.

The line between assertiveness and aggressiveness is a fine one, and it can be hard to recognize when it's crossed, even if you're the one crossing it. Many office bullies don't entirely know that they're bullies, or that their behavior is harmful— they're just playing the game they know how to play.

These qualities for instance, while unpleasant, would not be considered bullying:

  • A manager who shouts at or criticizes his/her employees

  • A co-worker who takes credit he doesn't deserve, makes snide remarks at everyone, and is a general pill to work with, as long as these actions aren't directed specifically at one person. --src.

But your work environment is not a game, it's the place where you a great deal of your precious time, so it's not too much to ask that it be livable. In many cases of bullying, confronting the bully and discussing the problem in frank terms will be enough to keep it in check. If you bring a complaint to human resources at this point, they will most likely have you and the bully do just that.

harassment discrimination lawyer

Bullies often disguise their vindictiveness as tenacity and their need to stomp all over others' ideas as wanting to be heard. Workplace bullies are often very good at working the system, they see themselves as savvy corporate climbers, taking others down to prop themselves up. The stereotypical office bully is a bit of an egomaniac who gets his kicks hatching little plots like an un-redeeming Dwight Schrute.

Unfortunately there is a gray area between legal and illegal behavior. The topic of workplace bullying is a new one when compared to ideas of gender and racial discrimination or sexual harassment; therefore policies are lacking in this area.

The only clear-cut case to be made for bullying as harassment is when the harassed party falls under one of the protected classes defined in California's Fair Employment and Housing Act. This includes race, skin color, ethnic origin, gender expression, sexual orientation, ability, etc. Regardless of the nature of the bullying behavior, it must be pervasive and recurring. One or two tasteless remarks or insensitive jokes won't form the basis of a (winnable) court case. Generally, if your bully is a grouchy jerk who shows up late and takes credit for work he didn't do, then as odd as it sounds he's not doing anything illegal. Not that this behavior should be ignored, however, but it is more suitable to resolve it in-house.

As much as you want to, and as much as you deserve to be happy at work, don't quit your job just yet. The law requires a harassment complainant to have exhausted their options for redressing the issue.

This means you are required by law to make use of the resources provided to you by your company. This almost always involves sitting down with a human resources agent, and filing a number of written complaints, and giving your company a chance to resolve it.

If your company has no internal protocol for dealing with harassment and bullying, then you won't need to take this step, but if a process for handling harassment is so much as mentioned in an employee handbook, that can be interpreted as evidence enough.

There is still a lot to be said about the gray area between bullying and harassment. The important part to remember is that it's only harassment when someone bullies another person because of their skin color or race, or any other of the protected classes. And although this remains a bit of a tricky subject, we at Felahy Employment Lawyers hope that you find this article interesting and will leave here with a little more knowledge than when you came in.

As always, thank you for reading. No one should be bullied or harassed at work, so if you have a workplace dispute and would like to make a legal complaint, don't hesitate to contact one of our knowledgeable employment lawyers today.


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