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As an employment attorney, or perhaps as General Counsel for your organization, you have probably been fielding more and more questions about bullying in the workplace-we certainly have. While bullying isn't illegal - yet - you also probably know that it costs a lot in terms of its effect on production. Plus, you know it's not right-not really. So, what's the right approach? Our rule of thumb is not to overact to simple, appropriate work behavior, but you also can't put up with bullying either. We'll share some examples from our practice; see if any of these sound familiar.

We just hired a guy, let's call him Billy. He is not just new to the company it's an entirely new career direction for him. Dresses more like a professor than a business professional. Doesn't know the lingo. Doesn't have any industry connections. He is the lowest of the low on our very tall company totem pole. And wouldn't you know, he reports to Big Ike - who is often euphemistically referred to as, "a big personality" by many in the company.

With Billy, as with many of the new people, Big Ike can be sarcastic and cutting, making sly references to the company "revolving door" and just how short the new guys job tenure might be (ha ha ha, just joking you know...) Billy, who just moved his family here and bought a house, probably takes Big Ike too seriously about the whole "you'll be out of work soon" idea. But here's the thing, most of Ike's peers see him as a really a nice guy. He's never rude to you, so those rumors about him being mean are likely overstated. And besides that, he is a very valuable guy! Billy, on the other hand, needs to get a sense of humor and quit being so sensitive.

Maria is the new receptionist. She does a great job reading the scripted greeting with clients but she is naturally shy. Just went through a divorce someone said. Has a picture of a little toddler on her desk and a motivational poem about kindness being an underrated trait. And wouldn't you know it she ran afoul of Joannie. Now Joannie is not mean necessarily, but if you get on her bad side you will never be a part of the "lunch clique." She and five other people go to lunch each day about 12:30 - 1:30 and 12:30 to 1:30 just happens to be Maria's lunch break. Joannie makes a point of walking breezily by Maria's desk saying, "the team is off to lunch" insinuating that Maria is not one of them, and even sometimes laughs when she says it. That Joannie can be a "pistol"! She's lucky she's the best sales rep in the company. And you know, Maria is an odd-behaving quiet "little duck"...

Now Jack actually told Lamont that he was going to "punch him out" during a heated argument. You called Jack in and even though he said he would never really do it, you firmly put him on notice that even the threat of physical violence would not be tolerated. You like Jack okay but he is certainly replaceable. And you would never put up with bullies in your organization.

Or do you?

We have talked about bullying before (Bullying in the Workplace, Porterfield and Rose, 2017) but we often remind people that bullying takes many forms and is not unique to the US. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service in Great Britain, which provides training and guidance to help prevent or resolve workplace problems, gives examples in their guidelines of bullying that translate in a common-sense way to American companies. For example, in their "Bullying and harassment at work" guideline they include, in addition to physical threat, things like: malicious rumors, ridicule, exclusion and threat of termination with no foundation. By their guidelines Big Ike is a bully, and so is Joannie.

But, we bet you already knew this on some level its just convenient to rationalize away. Big Ike and Joannie are valuable people you have known for years and Maria and, oh what's his name, Billy? - are just oddballs that really don't fit in. So even though you know Maria looks forlorn and Billy chews his fingernails wishing he hadn't bought that house... well... you think, life isn't perfect.

As we say in Texas - to both men and women - "cowboy up". Stop choosing sides, step up and be equitable in your treatment of people. Let people know what is - and is not - bullying. Discussing the parameters around "firing for cause" is perfectly acceptable and appropriate, but you can't taunt someone with baseless firing for fun. If Paul would rather go to lunch with Melissa than Joe, that's his business-it's not bullying. If exclusionary punitive cliques form that may well be.

We find that most people have instinctively known since childhood when normal behavior turns to bullying because it looks similar no matter the age, situation or where in the world it occurs. Specifically, in the workplace, it costs in physical and mental health, it costs in dollars and cents productivity and it costs intensely in being less than a decent organization.

Of course, Maria is a made-up person; but, we have seen many cases very similar to hers. And Billy? No, his name is really Bob and that was a much younger Bob Rose many years ago. Want to threaten me today Big Ike?


Rose Porterfield Group (RPG) has over 30 years of experience providing Business Performance and Human Resource services. As experts in human behavior, we provide litigation support strategy and testimony for attorneys and corporations. Offering unbiased, detailed, and objective expert opinion on all aspects of human behavior in the workplace, we can help determine the facts, motivations, and human factors involved in the case.

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