Workplace Bullying and How to Avoid a $4.7 Million Lawsuit

Bullying can turn into violence, dampens productivity, and raises a retailer’s risk of liability.

workplace abuse

Actual violence or threats of actual violence demand more attention from loss prevention, asset protection, and security teams than workplace bullying does, but non-physical forms of workplace violence can hardly be ignored. Bullying can turn into violence, dampens productivity, and raises a retailer’s risk of liability in discrimination lawsuits.

There are two such examples in recent actions taken by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC filed suits against a Georgia Piggly Wiggly for allegedly refusing to respond to complaints of sexual harassment by two female workers (and then retaliating against them) and against O’Reilly Automotive Stores, for allegedly allowing a manager at a retail store to repeatedly grope and proposition female workers.

Such cases can become very expensive for an employer. For example, Osama Saleh, a 28-year-old Yemeni-born American citizen and a practicing Muslim, worked in the stock room at Pretty Girl, a women’s clothing store. In a lawsuit filed by Saleh, he said he was bullied repeatedly by one of the store’s security officers, called “bin Laden,” a “dirty Arab,” and a “terrorist.” Saleh reported the harassment to store management, but it did not take disciplinary action against the security officer. A store manager testified at trial that the alleged harassment was “no big deal” and that the two were just “teasing each other.”

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But the abuse escalated. It culminated in the security officer punching Saleh and knocking him unconscious. In 2014, a jury handed down its verdict in the case—ordering the store to pay $4.7 million in compensatory and punitive damages. “We are glad to see Mr. Saleh receive this monetary award,” stated the law firm of Frederick K. Brewington, which represented him. “What was worse than [the security officer’s] appalling behavior towards our client was [the retailer’s] inaction on a situation that was allowed to grow out of control. As a result, Mr. Saleh was allowed to be emotionally and physically abused at the hands of his co-worker.”

What Is Bullying?
In healthy workplace bills proposed by state legislators, bullying is typically defined as repeated mistreatment and “abusive conduct” intended to intentionally harm an individual. Some examples include persistent criticism, withholding information that is vital for effective work performance, spreading malicious rumors, humiliation, or “freezing” workers out of the workplace (isolating them). An action like eye rolling might be part of bullying but isn’t considered bullying by itself.

How Common Is It?
Working off the above definition from healthy workplace bills, the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) contracts a research firm to ask workers about their experience with bullying every three years. In its most recent survey of 1,008 adults, 9 percent of those surveyed said they are currently being bullied at work or have been in the last year, while 10 percent said they have been victims of workplace bullying at an earlier time. Based on the number of US workers, the data indicate that 30 million American workers have been—or are now being—bullied at work. Another 21 percent said that although they have not been victimized, they are aware of it happening to others, either by witnessing it or being aware that it has happened to others. So that’s another 30 million workers. “These proportions are epidemic-level,” concludes the WBI report.

What Are Its Characteristics?
For an LP leader or workplace violence prevention team trying to minimize workplace bullying, it is helpful to understand how it is manifesting in American organizations today.

  • Gender. According to the recent WBI survey, most bullies are men (70 percent), and male perpetrators tend to target women more than other men (65 percent vs. 35 percent).
  • Race. The groups most bullied were Hispanics (25 percent), African Americans (21 percent), and Whites (19 percent). Data has also suggested that non-whites are more likely to blame employers for bullying than to blame the perpetrators. That finding is noteworthy, as bullying victims who are members of a legally protected group may sue employers under state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
  • Perpetrators. In 37 percent of cases, the principal perpetrator holds a higher rank than the individual being bullied. WBI analysts note that when victims are subordinates, their ability to “confront the boss about her or his unacceptable conduct approaches zero.” In 21 percent of cases, the main bully is a coworker at the same level. “Coworker, peer-to-peer, bullying may not involve power differences, but the health harm caused by social exclusion/ostracism that peers employ poses an equal, if not greater, threat to the target’s safety.” Finally, in 11 percent of cases, the bullying stems from the bottom up. One trend in this area, according to an analysis of the last three WBI surveys, is an increase in the percent of cases that involve more than a single perpetrator. In 20 percent of cases today, for example, the principle perpetrator(s) of bullying is identified as “multiple higher rank perpetrators.” In 2014, that figure was just 8 percent.
  • Incident management. Workers in America generally feel that employers do not give workplace bullying the attention it warrants. Fully 72 percent of workers believed the bullying they knew about was handled inadequately, including “doing nothing after a complaint was filed” (26 percent) and “conducting an inadequate investigation with nothing changing” (46 percent). According to the WBI report, “Employers have the power to either sustain or eliminate abusive conduct. Anecdotal evidence suggests that American employers rarely take steps to assist the aggrieved employee.” The report added, “In 54 percent of cases, bullying stops only when the target loses her or his job.”

How Can You Reduce It?
If retailers want to curb bullying behavior and avoid the losses it causes, they need to educate employees about bullying and make a clear declaration that they will not tolerate such behavior. And one thing is very clear—unless a company includes bullying behaviors among those that they ask employees to report, it is not likely to learn when it happens. Most victims of workplace bullying suffer silently until they quit. When they do complain, it is usually just informally, data show.

Including bullying within the violence prevention program has the added advantage of reducing liability. “[The Saleh] case should serve as a warning for business owners to not only take seriously complaints of workplace harassment, but also to consider implementing an anti-bullying policy,” states Attorney Daniel Taylor (“Bullied Worker Wins $4.7M for Assault, Racial Slurs,” FindLaw). “Though an anti-bullying policy will not shield you from liability in a lawsuit, it can help prevent employees from bullying one another in the first place. Furthermore, in the event that workplace bullying does still take place, having a strong anti-bullying policy can [show that a business] takes bullying and its harmful effects seriously.”

Who Gets Bullied More by Retail Customers?
Although the WBI survey finds that women suffer more bullying by coworkers and superiors than men do, the disparity may not exist with respect to bullying behaviors by retail customers. There is no significant difference between men and women in the prevalence of verbal abuse victimization in the workplace, according to a systematic literature review conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal (“Verbal violence in the workplace according to victims’ sex—a systematic review of the literature.” Aggression and Violent Behavior, August 2014).

In most studies examined (15 out of 29), there was no significant difference in the prevalence between men and women. Among the studies that showed significant differences, a majority concluded that men are more at risk (11 studies) than women (5 studies) are. One reason that men may more frequently face verbal abuse at work could be because it is seen as more socially acceptable to be aggressive towards men than women, the research posited.

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