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Workplace Bullying in the Law Firm

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by Greg Hamblin

on 25 September, 2015

Bullying is all over the news these days. Some of these stories have happy endings, like when basketball players at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin stopped their game and confronted a bully who was mocking Desiree Andrews, a cheerleader who has Down’s Syndrome. Some have ended horrifically, with victims committing suicide.

Schools, teachers, parents, legislators and even President Obama, have been working around the clock to combat bullying. All fifty states have passed anti-bullying legislation. President Obama spoke directly to youth through video for the It Gets Better Campaign, assuring victims that they aren’t alone, that one day, the bullying will stop and life gets better.

But does it?

The torment doesn’t end just because you’ve grown up. Bullies grow up too. They graduate high school, go to college, and join the workforce, just like you. Chances are, you’ll be bullied as an adult, even if you weren’t as a child. More than 50% of the U.S. workforce has experienced some form of bullying, and 90% of employees have witnessed bullying. The most common workplace aggressors are men, who make up two-thirds of bullies, and bosses, who account for more than 50%. Sadly, 72% of employers deny, defend, rationalize or participate in bullying when confronted with complaints.

Law firm’s aren’t exempt. In fact, bullying at law firms is pandemic. In a study by Lawyers Weekly, lawyers across the country reported that bullying was a significant problem at their firm. 33% of participants said that partners are prone to bullying junior staff, and 22% believed that bullying was a problem throughout the firm.

You, reader, have likely witnessed or experienced bullying. Witnesses and victims alike have expressed feeling unsure about what bullying is, and how to handle it.

What Constitutes Bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined by “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more people, by one or more perpetrators.” Bullying is characterized by: power disparities, repeated inappropriate behavior, an increase of aggression, intent to humiliate, and emotional suffering. This may include:

  • Verbal abuse (racist or sexist remarks, shouting, swearing, harassment)
  • Behavior that is threatening, intimidating, or humiliating
  • One person singled out for unwarranted blame or critique
  • One person being deliberately excluded from firm activities or their having their work discounted
  • Repeated ‘practical jokes’ that are often cruel
  • Work interference which prevents an individual from completing their job (denying resources or access to information)

Bullying can take many forms, and has just as many consequences.

How Bullying Impacts Your Firm

  • High stress levels. Bullied employees experience stress at higher rates than their peers and stress is incredibly harmful to physical and emotional health. Effects of stress includes increased anxiety, ulcers, increased blood pressure, depression, and PTSD.
  • Employee suicide. Bullied employees have higher rates of suicide.
  • Reduced productivity.
  • Decreased morale.
  • Higher rates of employee turnover. Employees, especially junior associates, are more likely to quit than tolerate abusive partners or colleagues.  Recent studies show that Millennials in the workforce are less likely to put up with bullies than any generation previously.
  • Difficulty hiring new employees. Word will spread about the office environment and the firm’s culture; nobody wants to work for a firm that tolerates bullying.
  • Potential liability. While not all forms of bullying are illegal, many instances do legally qualify as harassment. “The legal analysis underlying a bullying claim is comparable to the legal framework that has become accepted in defining workplace harassment under Title VII or an analogous state law prohibiting such harassment on the basis of some protected classification such as race, sex, age, religion, etc.”

What You Can Do As An Employer or Manager

  1. Work with management and HR to develop and institute a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying.
  2. Set up an HR program that deals specifically with bullying. If you have a small HR department at your firm, ensure that HR is adequately trained and equipped to recognize bullying behaviors, and deal with bullying complaints.
  3. Host regular trainings on workplace bullying so that all employees understand what bullying is, and what options exist to combat it. This should include a clear process that employees can use to make complaints without retaliation.
  4. Follow through on your zero-tolerance policy. Inform your employees that bullies may face severe disciplinary consequences. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute believes this follow-through is vital to creating safe working environments, even if it means firing the bully. “Sadly, what stops bullying the most is requiring the target to lose her or his job.” According to the 2014 Workplace Bullying Survey, in 61% of bullying cases, bullying only stops when the victim quits, or either the bully or victim are fired.

If You Are Being Bullied

Document, document, document. “This is the first, practical step that many people overlook,” says Lisa Barrow, workplace bullying consultant of LMSC Consulting. “Bullied employees must document their bullying experience as soon as possible so that they do not forget key information. This will help them to regain control over the situation.” Note what happens with the bully and when – what they say and do, what you did, what witnesses were there.

Evaluate your options. Determine what the best course of action is for you. Will human resources or your supervisors be able to solve the problem? Is the workplace so toxic that you need to leave? Do your experiences constitute illegal harassment? If so, do you need to seek a lawyer?

Work with HR and/or your superiors. Take your documentation to a supervisor or into HR to report your experiences. Stay calm and try to view the situation objectively. While you shouldn’t shy away from the effects of your experience, depict it professionally. “Describe how the deliberate refusal to collaborate and cooperate prevents work from getting done, or projects from being finished on time, or undermines the quality of work,” Namie says. “That’s the reason you are asking for an intervention to make the petty ostracism stop for the employer’s sake, not just to help you.”

Be ready for retaliation. Make sure to speak to a supervisor or HR about what policies are in place to protect you from retaliation. Especially in situations of a power disparity between yourself and the bully, if the bully wants to retaliate, they will find a way. Be sure to document any retaliation and consider if legal action should be taken.

Heal and move on. Victims of workplace bullying suffer a multitude of health issues: stress, emotional and physical exhaustion, insomnia, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and more. Make your health a priority by talking to a doctor if you’re experiencing physical symptoms. Ask for emotional support from friends and family, or even a psychologist or local support group. Take time to enjoy activities that are relaxing for you. Consider what will help you heal as you move through this process.