Dear Rita: I have a really awful co-worker — Gossip Greta — who is making me miserable. She goes out of her way to be rude to me and badmouths me behind my back. Once I made a minor mistake and she started yelling at me, calling me “stupid” and “incompetent” right in the middle of the office! I’ve complained about her, but my boss says, “Oh, that’s just how she is.” She even spread a rumor that I’m cheating on my girlfriend. I never did anything to her and I don’t know why she’s being so awful to me. Can I sue my employer for creating a hostile work environment? Or should I just quit? Signed, Fed Up
Dear Fed Up: Greta is more than a gossip. She sounds like a bully.
Bullying involves repeated instances of unreasonable mistreatment. I think of bullying as an aggravated case of rudeness. Such behavior might include the bully making the target the repeated butt of “jokes.”At its worst, bullying behavior may be physical and interfere directly with the target’s work.
Although bullying behavior may be used as evidence of discrimination, it is not by itself, a separate legal claim. A “hostile work environment” is a type of discrimination based on the employee’s status as a member in a protected class (e.g. race, age, national origin, etc.) or the explicitly sexual nature of the harassment. The conduct must be so offensive that it effectively alters the conditions of employment. Courts have held that these civil rights protections for employees are not intended to create a “general civility code.” If bullying conduct is so severe that it causes psychological injury, workers in many states can file a workers’ compensation stress claim, seeking medical treatment and lost wage benefits. However, the burden of proof in stress claims is pretty high.
While a lawsuit regarding Greta’s behavior will probably not get you very far, I do think it is very important to escalate this issue to your management.
Start by making a list of specific instances of Greta’s conduct including the names of your colleagues who witnessed the behavior. Set up a time to meet with your supervisor and make it very clear that you want and expect Greta’s behavior to stop immediately. Ask your manager to take action and if possible suggest actions that would make the situation more tenable for you. Actions may include bringing in an outside mediator or additional workplace training, for instance. If you don’t have any success with your manager, escalate the issue to their manager, involving your Executive Director/CEO if necessary.
I recommend that nonprofit personnel policies clearly explain the expectations for personal conduct between colleagues, as well as listing examples of prohibited workplace behavior, such as:
- Insulting or derogatory language
- Communicating in “all caps,” and
- Other rude, offensive, or outrageous behavior.
Managers counseling employees for workplace bullying should always document the issue. I’m going to say that again: managers should always document instances of discipline for bullying behavior. Provide specific examples and expected standards of conduct, citing the applicable policies for your organization.
In fairness, I have consulted with nonprofits in situations where an employee claims regular performance management or counseling means they are being “bullied” by their manager. These are typically situations where the employee is oversensitive, or may be making a disingenuous complaint in an attempt to deflect legitimate criticism about their performance. Having workplace policies that describe the types of prohibited conduct will help manage the distinction between a spurious complaint and a bullying situation.
Fortunately, workplace bullying is getting more attention as a source of friction between employees and a drain on productivity. If you would like to learn more about how to handle bullying behavior in the workplace, I recommend reviewing the materials produced by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The Healthy Workplace Campaign is promoting anti-workplace bullying legislation at the state level. Finally, the Washington State Department of Health and Safety has produced materials with some practical suggestions for dealing with bullies.
Fed Up, the way you are being treated is completely unacceptable. If your organization does not put a stop to Greta’s behavior, then you may decide it is better for you to move on to a healthier work environment.
Siobhan Kelly is an employment attorney with the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group (NIA Group), where she counsels members with human resources issues. She sometimes finds she has to bully the toast before it is willing to get out of the toaster.