Warning: Jerks at Work

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Deliberate ongoing, aggressive behavior that psychologically or physically torments its victim is the cornerstone of workplace bullying. The vicious conduct drains morale and creates an offensive work environment by humiliating, intimidating or degrading employees, often in the presence of others.

A tyrannical boss who stands behind his secretary while she types, berating her in a loud voice that she hasn't finished his report … The gossip who spreads malicious lies about a colleague … The employee who improperly claims credit for another's idea …

Once dismissed as "jerks," these aggressors increasingly are recognized as a workplace threat because of the financial, physical and emotional toll their incivility takes on businesses. In fact, psychological aggression and bullying were the chief complaints reported by American workers, according to a 1998 study by the International Labor Organization.

In Europe, workplace aggression has been well documented. It has gained a foothold here as U.S. companies grapple with the byproducts of bullying: reduced productivity, high job turnover, excessive absenteeism and violence.

When push comes to shove

Deliberate ongoing, aggressive behavior that psychologically or physically torments its victim is the cornerstone of workplace bullying. The vicious conduct drains morale and creates an offensive work environment by humiliating, intimidating or degrading employees, often in the presence of others.

Sexual harassment, verbal abuse and violence all fall within the broadly defined category of workplace bullying. Harassing behavior that fits the definition includes:

  • Playing practical jokes on a co-worker.

  • Assigning demeaning duties to an underling.

  • Overmanaging subordinates and imposing unrealistic project deadlines.

  • Stalking or intimidating a co-worker.

  • Taunting or spreading gossip to undermine a co-worker's credibility.

Both men and women are equally likely to be bullies, though 75% of victims are female, reports the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (CAWB), a nonprofit organization. Most bullies are bosses who are empowered to fire their victims. Over time, casualties may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, exhaustion, insomnia and loss of self-esteem.

Among factors contributing to an increase in workplace bullying, law professor David Yamada cites: the blossoming of the service-sector economy, heightened diversity in the job arena, increased pressure posed by the global economy, the decline in unionism and the development of the contingent workplace.

Legal remedies

Harmful as cruel behavior may be, it's rarely illegal. Tort actions, such as intentional infliction of emotional distress, usually fail or are pre-empted by workers' compensation statutes. Employment-discrimination laws offer little solace because the bullying behavior may not be severe and pervasive enough to attain the "hostile work environment" standard of Title VII.

Professor Yamada advocates a new legal cause of action, "intentional infliction of a hostile work environment," as recourse for victims of workplace bullying. Under such a law, employers would be liable for hostile climates unless the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent bullying or took prompt action when notified of it.

Some believe the problem is best addressed by mandating that businesses carry employee-liability insurance that does not cover negligent supervision of workers. This would give employers the incentive to control bullying or contend with soaring insurance premiums. Others believe legislation and litigation are poor ways to handle abusive conduct and prefer to train employees to combat workplace animosity.

Besides potential legal liability, studies show companies suffer in other ways from workplace bullying. Rather than "gang up" on the bully or report his or her behavior to the bully's superior, which tends to escalate the conflict, most victims punish their employer by consciously reducing the quality of their work, high absenteeism or leaving their jobs.

Writer: Sheldon C. Toplitt is a lawyer and legal journalist concentrating on employment-law issues in Needham, Mass.

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