Dealing With Workplace Harassment

Strategies for Combating Bullying and Workplace Harassment

Problems at work
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Many workers in the legal industry experience workplace harassment - demeaning, abusive, or authoritarian behavior. Studies show that less than one in 10 victims of workplace harassment let the offending person know they don't like it. When employees don't take action about harassment issues, they are far less productive in the workplace. Moreover, workplace harassment can have a negative impact on a law firm or organization. If you are the target of a bully, below are several strategies offered by workplace experts and employment attorneys to deal with workplace harassment and bullying behavior.

For additional information on workplace harassment, check out the following articles:

Let the Bully Know the Behavior is Unwelcome

"A bullied target can first try to address the behavior with the bully directly, particularly if it's a more subtle form of bullying (i.e., explaining that snide or sarcastic comments are not appropriate, not professional and not appreciated)," explains Christina Stovall, Director of Human Resource Service Center for the HR outsourcing company Odyssey OneSource. "If the bullying is of a more serious nature or if the target has attempted to resolve the issue but to no avail or if the bullying has gotten worse, then it's time to tell someone else about it," she advises.

At a minimum, victims of bullying or abusive behavior should tell the bully that the behavior is inappropriate and unwelcome, says Josh Van Kampen, Esq., an employment attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina. Assuming it is emotionally safe, invite the person to lunch to discuss the issue and how you can be more productive together, Dr. Robyn Odegaard, owner of a speaking/consulting company and the founder of the Stop The Drama! Campaign, suggests.

Report the Misconduct

Victims of workplace harassment should immediately report the misconduct to their supervisors and to human resources, advises attorney Angela J. Reddock, National Workplace Expert and managing partner of the Reddock Law Group, an employment and labor law firm in Los Angeles, California. "Employees should not be left to handle such issues on their own. They should obtain the support of trained professionals and ensure they have the support and backing of the company in dealing with such issues," Reddock says.

However, Van Kampen notes that, although victims have the option of reporting the behavior to human resources, such action may not always prove fruitful. "Due to gaps in the legal protections in the bullying setting, they may be unprotected from retaliation for reporting the bullying behavior," Van Kampen advises. "If the bully is your boss, your recourse is often limited."

"Like any abusive relationship, there is an opportunity cost for pulling the trigger: fear of being fired, retaliation, or "reputational" fallout," says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide. "Even when the HR department is consulted, the victim may, unfortunately, bear far too much of the burden when this process involves a highly placed manager or manager who is a big contributor to the bottom line. These are the clients I often see in my practice and they tend to be either paralyzed with fear or desperate to exit the situation."

Document the Behavior

"Always create a written record describing the appropriate behavior, the date, time and place it occurred, and who else was present," says Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist, business and personal coach, author and nationally recognized psychology expert. He advises bully victims to keep a copy for themselves and provide a copy to their superiors, HR department, and any other relevant colleagues. "Should things escalate, or official or legal consequences arise, written documentation will be the most important thing you can have to protect yourself and your job.

If it's not documented, it might as well not have happened," he says.

Van Kampen agrees. "The victim is wise to assemble proof that the bullying behavior has occurred. For example, some states like North Carolina permit a party to a conversation to tape record a conversation with another party without notifying the other party that it's being recorded," Van Kampen notes. "The existence of such evidence can force an employer to take effective remedial action in response to a bullying position than it might otherwise. In 'he said, she said' scenarios, employers invariably fail to take action against the harasser," he says.

Consult Employer Policies

If your company has an employee manual, determine if there is an official policy regarding harassment. "The topic is currently receiving a great deal of attention - and rightly so - and the awareness of a potentially hostile situation will hopefully be taken seriously," Cohen notes. Virtually all medium to large businesses have harassment policies that can potentially capture bullying behavior. "Unfortunately, as many sexual harassment victims can attest, these complaint processes are far from effective fixes in many harassment scenarios and employees exercising their rights under such policies can sometimes be targeted for retaliation," Van Kampen warns.

"Unfortunately, for the targets of bullying, they may not be protected for reporting the bullying behavior, unless the behavior constitutes unlawful harassment under civil right employment laws like Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. For example, if the bully has targeted the victim, but his motivation is not based on the victim's race, gender, disability, age, or other protected category, the employment laws probably don't protect the victim from being retaliated against by the employer," Van Kampen states.

Find an Ally

Large companies often have an ombudsman, an individual charged with investigating and resolving these sorts of matters, Cohen says. Since the HR department typically represents the company's interests - that is, until a matter is proven to be harmful which is often too late - the ombudsman may offer a more impartial forum for resolving these complaints.

Seek Medical Attention

Victims of bullying should also obtain medical attention through Employee Assistance Programs if they're offered by the employer, or through their primary care physician, Van Kampen advises. "In the absence of a medical record showing that emotional damage was suffered, a court or jury will be reluctant to award significant damages even if the bullying behavior is found to be unlawful."

Research the Bully

Cohen suggests performing your own background check on the bully. "The Internet offers vast potential for researching history and process. It also provides almost complete anonymity. You may be able to determine if the individual who is bullying you has done this before and how it has been treated," he states.