Appeals Court Says OK for Supervisor to Throw Things

shoeA federal appeals court panel  has ruled that a supervisor did not violate the rights of a subordinate when he allegedly yelled at her in front of coworkers and violently threw a heavy notebook at her.

A panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the above conduct may be  “unprofessional, uncivil and somewhat boorish” but it does not rise to the level of malevolence necessary to constitute a “hostile work environment” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act o f 1964.

Instead, the appellate panel compared the behavior to the “ordinary tribulations of the workplace,” which include petty insults, vindictive behavior and angry recriminations.

The  decision, written by Justice Janet Rogers Brown, comes in a case that is also unusual because it involves the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency charged with addressing the grievances of federal workers who challenge discriminatory employment practices.

Patricia A. Brooks, who is an African-American, filed a race discrimination complaint alleging that she was a victim of a “hostile workplace environment” at the Office of Information Resources Management of the MSPB.

Brooks, who had worked at the MSPB since 1998, said her supervisor in 2005 insulted and demeaned her in front of coworkers when he yelled at her and threw a heavy notebook in her direction.  The supervisor admitted slamming the book with his hand. Brooks said she was subsequently given poor performance ratings and became subject to selective enforcement of workplace rules.

After filing several equal employment opportunity complaints, Brooks filed a lawsuit alleging  race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII.  A federal judge dismissed Brooks’ complaint on a pre-trial motion for summary judgment, which means the judge ruled that no reasonable jury could find that the supervisor’s “conduct was so severe and pervasive as to alter the conditions of Brooks employment.”  The three-judge panel for the D.C. Circuit court upheld the dismissal of  Brooks’ complaint.

Justice Brown writes in an April 15 decision that Brooks failed to show that she was subjected to “discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult” that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [her] employment.”  Justice Brown said the panel evaluated the “totality of the circumstances, including the frequently of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, its offensiveness and whether it interferes with an employee’s work performance.”

Even if the supervisor did violently throw a book at Brooks, the appellate panel said, the incident involved “unprofessional conduct” but was isolated and not sufficiently malevolent to constitute actionable abuse.

A retaliation complaint and other other claims were rejected on technical grounds.

See Patricia Brooks v. Susan Tsui Grundmann, chairman, Merit Systems Protection Board, No. 12-5171.

 

More than Half of Women in Workplace Bullied

peopleatworkMore than half of women are bullied at work– often by members of their own sex, according to the largest survey of its kind ever conducted in the United Kingdom.

The gender equality group, Opportunity Now, and PwC, an international  professional services group, commissioned a survey that included interviews with nearly 23,000 women and more than 2,000 men.

The group recently issued a report,  “Project 28-40,”  which urges employers to recognize that “harassment and bullying still occur, despite well-meaning policies. Call it out, deal with perpetuators, and make it simple and straightforward to report.”

Helena Morrissey, chairperson of Opportunity Now, said the key  to improve the workplace for women should be training  excellent managers; this will  achieve “much more than yet another initiative  or programme.”

Fifty-two percent of the women who responded to the survey said they experienced bullying at work within the past three years. The rates were highest for Black British / African /Caribbean women (69%), women with disabilities (71%), bisexual (61%) and lesbian and gay women (55%).

Without being specific, the report states that  the biggest enemy facing women in the office or other workplaces may be other women.  The researchers conducted ten focus groups to gain insight from the survey findings.  “Women often experience bullying by female colleagues and line managers, a point echoed by focus groups participants who thought female bullies felt threatened by potential and ability and so exploited their position or authority to undermine,” said the report.

More than one in four of the women surveyed said they had experienced overbearing supervision or misuse of authority, or were deliberately overloaded with work and subject to constant criticism. One in six of the women experienced exclusion and victimization or were intentionally blocked from promotion or training opportunities.

The researchers conclude that the data shows the extent to which workplaces are “dysfunctional, inefficient and fundamentally unjust” to women.

An additional 12% of women reported experiencing sexual  harassment within the past three years. One in eight said they had been sexually harassed – defined as “unwelcome comments of a sexual nature.”  This includes unwanted physical contact or leering, asking for sexual favors, displaying offensive material such as posters, or sending offensive emails or texts of a sexual nature.

Workplace Bully Targets Suffer Without Law

CostelloNew Jersey – Kevin M. Costello,  a New Jersey attorney, said he turns away more than 2,000 people a year who are seeking his help to combat workplace bullying.

“These are people who have panic attacks.  Their hair is falling out.  They are throwing up blood … They ask, ‘Why can’t you help me?’ ‘Why isn’t there a law?” said Costello, who spoke at the first conference of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition at Rutgers School of Law earlier this month. “I can’t stand saying ‘no’ to that many people,” said Costello.

Costello is assisting New Jersey State Sen. Linda Greenstein,  assistant majority leader of the NJ Senate,  in crafting a proposed state law to address workplace bullying.

Sen. Greenstein said the bill will help targets who are under “extreme stress. What we’re looking for here is not your everyday not-so-pleasant workplace … We’re looking for very serious situations.”

Costello, who specializes in employment rights, said there are no viable options at present for victims of workplace bullying, especially those who do not fall within a protected class under state or federal anti-discrimination laws (i.e., race, sex, religion, color, national origin).

Critics of workplace bullying legislation often argue that such legislation will add to the cost of doing business in New Jersey, make the state  less competitive and  ultimately would harm the state’s economy.  Costello said the same concerns were raised in the past and were unfounded.

“Why should we do something about child labor? The economy would suffer if we didn’t hire children … Why should we pay women the same amount as men? They have husbands … What do you mean Occupational Safety and Health Act?  I want to make sure the economy doesn’t suffer,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is a bill whose time has come.”

More than 100 attorneys, union officials, policy makers and targets of workplace bullying attended the April 4 conference of the NWBC,  the first national organization formed to address the problem of workplace bullying.

Meanwhile, 27 percent of U.S. workers are either experiencing abusive conduct at work or did so in the past, and 21 percent have witnessed it, according to a 2014 national survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute.  The survey also found that almost three-quarters of employers have done nothing to curb workplace bullying.  An estimated  93 percent of  respondents in a national survey said they support enactment of legislation to protect employees from abusive conduct at work.

* Disclaimer:  I am a co-founder and member of the NWBC.