Inside Perspective: Bullying

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

“Bullies are always cowards at heart and may be credited with a pretty safe instinct in scenting their prey.”  Anna Julia Haywood Cooper

“She would bark orders at me, went ballistic and threaten to bring me before the boss when I took approved vacation, constantly act outside the scope of her job function and authority, meddle with the way people in the department handled their assignments and gossiped.  She sabotaged relationships with untruths and manipulated people to get her way.  Everybody in the company was afraid of her.” [A distillation of several remarks related to me by more than one professional acquaintance from the same company who worked with the person described, not actual quotations.]

I have been reading a lot lately about bullying.  It seems that most of what is written is about cyber-bullying (via Facebook etc.), or is focused on a specific age group (high school/college) or class (sexual orientation).  However, many of us have witnessed firsthand the bullying of someone in the workplace and maybe some of you have even been the target of the bully.  The target of a bully, unless a member of a protected class who can prove the bullying arises out of his or her membership in the class, rarely has a cause of action for the actual bullying behavior.  Nonetheless, whether or not your company is subject to statutory penalties for bullying activity, such behavior should never be allowed in the workplace.  Aside from the potential liability arising out of the creation of a hostile work environment, it just doesn’t make good business sense to tolerate any measure of bullying of a co-worker, for any reason.

I do not profess to be an expert on bullying, but I have seen enough of it firsthand to agree with most commentators who believe that bullies are cowards, inadequate in dealing with people in a mature manner and that they exhibit very low self esteem.  They accommodate their inadequacy by building themselves up and breaking others down.

It is hard to believe that the bullying behavior described above took place in a corporate environment at a Fortune 200 company, but it did.  Incomprehensibly, the bully was a member of the law department who took advantage of her power and knowledge to beat up on people in order to establish herself at the top of the law department hierarchy.  Inexplicably, her supervisor knew of this behavior and allowed it to continue for years.  The people empowered to stop this behavior were frightened to stand up to her and therefore enabled the behavior.  In this case, the bullying continued because the victims, as well as the HR professionals involved, were too afraid to stand up to this person.

Thankfully, I have never worked for a company that would allow such behavior.   I have seen it several times, but once uncovered it was always stopped in its tracks, usually through the termination of the bully.  The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to her and demand that the behavior stop.

As in-house lawyers we are particularly well-situated to confront this type of behavior.  We should always foster an environment where mutual respect and team building is the norm, not self-aggrandizement or breaking the spirit of others.  Lawyers occupy a position of influence within the company – act on it.  Encourage clients at all levels to be team players, acknowledge the contribution of all on the team.  Most importantly, be on the lookout for bullying and take action to stop it.  Make it clear, no matter your level within the company, that you do not tolerate bullying and demonstrate this by the respect you show to each person with whom you work no matter their level in the department or the company at large.

“Bullying consists of the least competent most aggressive employee projecting their incompetence on to the least aggressive most competent employee and winning….Most organizations have a serial bully. It never ceases to amaze me how one person’s divisive dysfunctional behavior can permeate the entire organization like a cancer…The serial bully, who in my estimation accounts for about one person in thirty in society, is the single most important threat to the effectiveness of organizations, the profitability of industry, the performance of the economy, and the prosperity of society.” Tim Field – bullyingquotes.com downloaded 4-20-11

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One response to “Inside Perspective: Bullying

  1. Bullying is never cool regardless whether it is at work, school or online. By the way, in Australia is now law that bullying is a crime. Thanks for the blog post and looks like I am not the only one who is concerned towards the issue of bullying.

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