Battling Bully Bosses

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Ever wonder what happened to those nasty schoolyard bullies who terrorized you as a child?

If recent studies and popular films like "The Devil Wears Prada," "Office Space," and "9 to 5" are any indication, many of them have entered the workplace and have become bosses.

Susan, a clerk at Walgreens, left her job because her manager would yell criticisms at her, in front of long lines of people at the check out. Meg, a marketing director, describes a former boss who called a special staff meeting because he was upset that employees took too long to come by his office and say, "Good morning."

Another employee counseled his manager not to interfere with an intricate computer program during the time he would be out for nasal surgery. The manager did not heed the advice, and subsequently called the employee in to fix what he had done. The employee, who was still in outpatient recovery, drug-laden and eyes swollen, arrived at work to fix the program and fell asleep at his desk during the process. The manager chastised him on the spot for sleeping on the job.

Prof. Harvey Hornstein, who served in the Department of Social and Organizational Psychology at Colombia University for over 30 years estimates that 90 percent of the workforce suffers abuse from their bosses at some point in their careers. Management researcher Chandra Louise says 80 percent of employees who quit their jobs do so because of problems with their bosses. And according to a recent Gallup poll, half the workforce would fire their boss if they could.

So can anything be done legally to combat a bully boss?

New York Law School Employment Law Professor Arthur Leonard says that if there is some kind of discriminatory aspect to the bullying, "then discrimination law may come into play.” The Supreme Court has interpreted Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act as covering workplace harassment, if the victims are singled out because of characteristics covered by the statute, such as race, religion, national origin, and sex.

But according to Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, founders of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, just 25 percent of workplace bullying is aimed at members of a legally protected class. So what is the other 75 percent of harassed employees to do?

A number of states have introduced "healthy workplace" bills to combat office bullying, but so far, none have been passed into law. In terms of common law tort remedies, some employees have successfully brought claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, but such cases are rare. Leonard says the problem is to prevail in such a claim and that "the conduct has to be totally outrageous. Some courts describe it as “beyond the bounds of civilized society.'" Moreover, Leonard says that in most jurisdictions, the distress has to manifest itself in physical symptoms of some sort. For example, employees have to establish that the abuse caused them to lose weight, break out in hives, or have trouble sleeping.

So, what sort of conduct might be extreme enough to support such a claim?

"One kind of case that I have heard about," says Leonard, "is where an employer believes a theft has gone on and they don't just interrogate employees, but they strip search them. Of course, physically assaulting employees would also be considered outrageous." The bottom line, according to Leonard, is that litigation is not the best solution in most workplace bullying cases. "Litigation is time-consuming, drawn out, expensive, and your chances of winning are, at best, difficult to predict,” he said.

So what should you do if you are the victim of workplace bullying?

The first thing employees should do is complaining to higher management. In most cases, utilizing existing grievance procedures is the most efficient way to get relief. According to Leonard, remaining silent can harm a potential litigant's chances should the harassment ripen into an actionable discrimination claim. He said that employees have to, “show not only that the conduct was objectively bad, but that subjectively the conduct was unwelcome — and if they allow it to go on too long, a court is going to say 'if it was so unwelcome, why didn't you complain to anybody?'"

In addition, employees should keep a detailed account of every instance of bullying they can recall, along with their response to it — especially any complaints or grievances they have made, and any investigations the company has undertaken in response to those grievances. Employees should also take into account of anything in their disciplinary file. Sometimes, companies respond to employee complaints by investigating the supervisor, deciding there was nothing to the claim, and putting something adverse in the employee's file-and that could be tantamount to illegal retaliation.

Thankfully, some have begun to address workplace bullying head on. In 2004, the Canadian province of Quebec outlawed "psychological harassment" in the workplace.

The Seattle law firm Perkins Coie has adopted a "no jerks allowed" rule, which helped earn them a spot on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For."

Still, much more needs to be done to protect employees from workplace bullying. For starters, federal and state civil rights laws should be expanded to include general anti-harassment provisions for all employees. At the management level, company procedures should be expanded to allow for anonymous grievances from employees who might otherwise feel too intimidated to come forward.

One way or another, employers must be made to understand that bullying is not only inefficient and ineffective, but it's bad for business. Bosses who engage in it will ultimately be held accountable.


1) Devil Wears Prada

2) Office Space

3) 9 to 5

4) Susan, a clerk at Walgreen's (See graph with head "Embarrass employees in public.")

5) Meg, a marketing director (See graph 5 w/head "Demand unrealistic rules of order.")

6) Another employee (See graph 7 w/head "Show you don't care.")

7) Chandra Louise says 80 percent (See opening paragraph)

8) Gallup Poll/half would fire (See last sentence)

9) Professor Arthur Leonard/ Employment Law Professor

10) Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, founders of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute

• E-mail Lis With Your Legal Questions!

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.