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Labor Law

Labor Law: Taming the workplace bully is necessary to help avoid a toxic or hostile workplace

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RTD Metro Business law columnist, Karen Michael.

Workplace bullies are real and dangerous.

Studies show that while most bullies are managers, they can also be co-workers, subordinates who possess power and can “bully up,” or even customers and third parties.

Bullies have distinct behaviors. They delight in intimidating, degrading, demeaning and humiliating others. They typically have a target or multiple targets.

They also usually have one or more sidekicks who the bully favors and who help enable the bully to engage in the behaviors.

Bullies criticize openly and relentlessly over things that are petty or not within the control of the person targeted. They berate, undermine and create chaos, leaving people scrambling to satisfy the whim of the bully.

They are disrespectful, unprofessional and sometimes aggressive.

They may interrupt, put their hand or finger in the face of other people, deny people what they deserve (such as paid time off or assistance) or otherwise denigrate and marginalize the targeted individuals.

When this person sends an email, the recipient’s heart will sink.

There is always a feeling of doom and dread when the bully is around.

The bully is unpredictable — and sometimes employees will describe the relationship as akin to an abusive relationship whereby the good days are really good, but the bad days are really bad. Some employees will stick it out hoping more good days are ahead.

The bully is masterful in this respect because the person will leave employees believing that the bully is sticking up for the workers and but in reality their jobs would be in jeopardy. The bully also convinces employees that the bully has the full support of management, or human resources, or the board, and therefore there is no value in complaining about anything the bully is doing.

In a recent survey by MyPerfectResume of the 1,000 people, 79% said they had witnessed or experienced workplace bullying. It is likely one or more employees in your workplace are being bullied.

Because bullies are usually competent, many times star performers, in their jobs, they are rarely held accountable. They are quite skilled at behaving appropriately to their leadership and yet vile and vicious to the ones who are targeted. This is often referred to as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde behaviors.

Bullies have multiple excuses for why someone is complaining about them.

They will claim to have high expectations, or they are implementing unpopular but necessary changes or holding an employee accountable for poor performance.

Bullies will make efforts to set their target up to fail so that the person does fail.

If the bully is a supervisor, the bully has probably already met with human resources to complain about the target’s performance so when the target finally complains about being bullied, it has the appearance that the employee is trying to avoid accountability.

Organizations generally do a poor job of identifying and eradicating workplace bullies.

This is partly due to the difficulty in identifying specific behaviors. Sometimes the behaviors are subtle and it’s hard to nail down specific dates and times for offenses.

In addition, the targeted individuals are usually numb to what has happened to them, making it difficult for them to explain details of the bullying. They don’t want to even admit or believe what has happened to them.

The targeted worker can, however, identify the impact, which frequently includes psychological harm (such as depression and anxiety) and physiological harm (such as rashes or high blood pressure).

The friends and family of the targeted person are suddenly worried about the employee whose personality has changed since being bullied. Bullies can erode a person’s self-confidence. Targeted individuals will describe feeling “small.”


Employers should not tolerate bullying and must take action to end it.

Companies cannot ignore the complaints of employees who express concern that another employee has been aggressive or demeaning.

Businesses frequently fail to identify bullies.

Human resources can be manipulated by the bully.

Because there are no laws protecting employees against bullying, human resources too often will focus on whether the bully has created a hostile working environment based on a protected class.

While the bully is creating a toxic and hostile work environment, the employee can’t show it’s because of a protected class, thus leaving human resources to wrongly sum it up as a communication gap.

It’s not. Bullies are intentional, largely unfixable, and highly detrimental to the workplace culture.

Companies need to not wait for a complaint, but should truly listen to employees who express concern about the workplace being toxic or hostile. Get input not just from the person targeted, but from peers who can account for how others are treated by the bully. They are usually the best witnesses.

Businesses should investigate fully and rely upon their values, code of conduct or workplace violence policies in addressing the misconduct. No one can be above the expectation to create an ongoing positive workplace culture.

Karen Michael is an attorney with Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC and author of “Stay Hired.” She can be reached at or


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