Second-Hand Workplace Abuse

second hand smokeNote: For a related story, see Bullying Causes Coworker Stress. Pat

 

 

Bosses who bully their subordinates also  damage co-workers who see or hear about the abuse, much like second-hand smoke affects those in the vicinity of a smoker.

That is the conclusion of a study published recently  in The Journal of Social Psychology, “An Investigation of Abusive Supervision, Vicarious Abuse Supervision, and Their Joint Impacts.”   The study was conducted by Paul Harvey from the University of New Hampshire,  Kenneth Harris and Raina Harris from Indiana University Southeast and Melissa Cast from New Mexico State University.”

The study defines abusive supervision as a dysfunctional type of leadership that includes a sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors toward subordinates. The authors say abusive supervision generally  is positively related to  job frustration and co-worker abuse and  negatively related to perceived organizational support.

“Although the effects of abusive supervision may not be physically harmful as other types of dysfunctional behavior (workplace violence or aggression), the actions are likely to leave longer lasting wounds. One reason for these long-lasting “scars” is that workplace violence and aggression are often stopped quickly, whereas abusive supervisory behaviors (such as being rude or giving the silent treatment) can continue for considerable times,” the researchers state.

Vicarious supervisory abuse occurs when an employee hears rumors of abusive behavior from coworkers, reads about such behaviors in an email, or actually witnesses the abuse of a coworker.

The report posits that workers who do not experience the abuse first hand may experience similar negative effects as the worker who is being abused. They may realize they could become targets for abuse by the same  supervisor  or they could be transferred to work under an abusive supervisor.

According to the study, employees expect to be treated with respect and consideration by their supervisors. In exchange, they work hard, have positive attitudes about their work and the workplace, and treat others with consideration. When abusive supervision occurs, employees are likely to feel less positively about their work (higher frustration and lower perceived organizational support) and react negatively toward coworkers who are a “safe target” upon which to  vent aggression.

The researchers found similar negative impacts of first-hand supervisory abuse and second-hand vicarious supervisory abuse: greater job frustration, tendency to abuse other coworkers, and a lack of perceived organizational support.

 The researchers queried a sample of 233 people who work in a wide range of occupations in the Southeast United States. Demographically, the sample was 46 percent men, 86 percent white, had an average age of 42.6 years, had worked in their job for seven years, had worked at their company for 10 years, and worked an average of 46 hours a week. Survey respondents were asked about supervisory abuse, vicarious supervisory abuse, job frustration, perceived organizational support, and coworker abuse.

“Our research suggests that vicarious abusive supervision is as likely as abusive supervision to negatively affect desired outcomes, with the worst outcomes resulting when both vicarious abusive supervision and abusive supervision are present,” the researchers said. “Top management needs further education regarding the potential impacts of vicarious abuse supervision on employees to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of such abuse.”

When Workplace Bullying is Illegal

blackandwhiteWhat is the  difference  between workplace bullying and illegal harassment?

The major difference is that no law at present prohibits workplace bullying -  despite the fact that workplace bullying can severely impact an employee’s emotional and physical well-being.  And most other industrialized countries have enacted laws or regulations that address workplace bullying.

However, bullying  can become illegal when it creates a hostile or abusive work environment in violation of  federal or state civil rights laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 Generally, two factors must exist:

  •  The harassing conduct must create a “hostile work environment.”
  •  The harassing conduct must be directed toward a characteristic that is protected under  federal and state  civil rights laws.  Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Therefore, workplace bullying may be illegal if it creates a hostile or abusive work environment and it is directed toward an individual who has protection under federal and state civil rights laws on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, etc.

What is a hostile work environment?  The U.S. Supreme Court says a hostile work environment  is a workplace that is permeated by discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of a victim’s employment and to create an abusive working environment.  Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17 (U.S. 1993).  The Court has repeatedly said that Title VII  does not prohibit simple teasing or a merely offensive utterance.

NOTE:  A  target of illegal harassment does not have to suffer a nervous breakdown to gain the protection of Title VII. The U.S. Supreme Court says that as long as the environment would reasonably be perceived and was perceived as hostile or abusive, there is no need for it also to be psychologically injurious. The court says psychological harm could be taken into account but is not required by the statute.

To sum up,  there may be no substantive difference between  the conduct that constitutes serious workplace bullying and the conduct that is acknowledged under the law to create an illegal hostile or abusive work environment.  The harassing conduct can be identical, with the exact same devestating  result.

The significant difference between serious workplace bullying and illegal harassment  is a legal distinction pertaining to  the characteristics of the  target of the conduct.

Nevada State Sen. Richard Segerblom has proposed making Title VII “status blind” so that the law provides a remedy for  all targets of a hostile or abusive workplace, whether or not they fall within a category that is now  protected under the law.

 As Shakespeare once observed: “If you prick us, do we not bleed.”

Individuals who are targets of workplace bullying may have other legal recourse, in addition to federal and state civil rights laws.  All targets of workplace bullying  are  encouraged to consult an attorney who specializes in employment law for employees (not companies) to discuss the specific facts of their case and any potential legal remedies within their jurisdiction.

OK to Fire Object of Desire

flossIn a small office, an employee often has no where to go  when she is mistreated by an employer.

The perils of this predicament are amply demonstrated in a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Iowa.

The all-male Court  ruled that a dentist did not violate sex discrimination laws when he fired his long-time dental assistant because he (and his wife) was afraid he would have an affair with her.

The  Court upheld a lower court’s grant of summary judgment  in the case of Nelson v. Knight, No. 11–1857 (Dec. 21, 2012). This means the Court concluded  there was absolutely no way a jury could decide against Dentist James H. Knight and hold in favor of his assistant, Melissa Nelson.  Therefore, the case was dismissed before  trial.

Knight said he fired  Nelson, who had worked for him for ten years,  after his wife insisted that Nelson had to go. He gave Nelson one month’s severance.

 Knight admits that on several occasions he asked Nelson to put on a lab coat because her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.”  Nelson denied that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate and said she complained to Knight at one point that his criticism was unfair.

 Nelson also recalls that  Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. The Court found it significant that  Nelson did  not remember ever telling  Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.

 When Knight’s wife found out that her husband and Nelson had been  texting each other, she confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment.  The Court finds it significant that Knight and his wife  consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.

After the firing, Knight told Nelson’s husband that nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.

Nelson charged that Knight had discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. She contended that she would not have been fired if she were male. Nelson did not raise the issue of sexual harassment.

 The Court states in its decision that the question  to be decided was “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”   In this case, the Court held that  Knight’s decision was driven by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person. The Court concluded Knight’s decision was not gender-based or based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.

The Court states that an employer does not violate sex discrimination laws by ” treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.”

 The Court did concede that it might be possible to infer that gender was an issue if an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues.

 So if  Knight repeatedly fires future assistants because he thinks he might want to have an affair with them, or if Knights’ wife demands that he fire future assistants because she thinks he might want to have an affair with them,  presumably a Court could find discrimination  on the basis of sex.

Meanwhile, Melissa Nelson is unemployed, with one month’s severance.

This may not come as a surprise to some readers but, according to the Court’s web site, there are no women justices on the Iowa Supreme Court. The seven justices are Chief Justice Mark S. Cady, David S. Wiggins, Daryl L. Hecht, Brent R. Appel, Thomas D. Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager.  Justice Mansfield wrote the opinion.