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Wellness & Beyond

Identifying and Combating Workplace Bullying

August 11, 2023

By June P. Johnson

Once considered a problem among school-aged children, the epidemic of bullying is gaining attention as a workplace issue. The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines it as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above.”

This abusive behavior, whether verbal or written, can take any of the following forms:

  • Coercing people to do things they don't want to do
  • Berating them
  • Dismissing someone's efforts
  • Embarrassing people in front of their employer, co-workers, or clients
  • Excluding others
  • Intimidating people
  • Lying to others
  • Making snide remarks
  • Minimizing others' concerns
  • Taking credit for other people's work
  • Threatening others
  • Criticizing others unfairly

Results of the WBI’s 2021 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey show that 30 percent of Americans have directly suffered abusive conduct at work, while 19 percent have witnessed it.

Incidences in the Legal Profession

Unfortunately, the legal profession is not exempt. In 2019 the International Bar Association Legal Policy & Research Unit published Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession, a report that analyzed data from a global survey on bullying and sexual harassment among legal professionals. Nearly 7,000 individuals across the spectrum of legal workplaces in 135 countries responded, confirming that many attorneys had been impacted negatively by bullying. The survey found that approximately one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied in connection with their employment. And one in three female lawyers had been sexually harassed in a work context, as had 1 in 14 male respondents. Sadly, 57 percent of the bullying incidents were not reported.

Of the 359 survey respondents from the United States, 63 percent of the women lawyers and 38 percent of men lawyers reported that they had been bullied. The majority of them worked in law firms.

“Typically, bullying describes conduct that may or may not rise to the level of unlawful harassment and mayLisa Baker-Pham not be because of a protected class. Simply put, all unlawful harassment is bullying, but not all bullying would qualify as unlawful harassment,” says Elisabeth (Lisa) Baker-Pham, a labor and employment lawyer with Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, P.C. “That is why employer policies prohibiting bullying are so important to ensuring a healthy and safe work environment. In our practice, we hear about every type of workplace bullying you can think of — from supervisors or co-workers who purposefully exclude someone from work-related social activities to unwarranted discipline or removal.”

Regrettably, many attorneys have accepted bullying behaviors as tradition in the legal field. Lawyers make a career of seeking justice for others, but often neglect to seek it for themselves. Accordingly, workplace bullying and its effects may go unchecked.

Impact on Employees

J. F., a member of the D.C. Bar, recalls her personal experience of workplace bullying early in her career. “While clerking, I was in charge of hiring an intern. I didn’t hire the intern the judge suggested. I interviewed the person, and they weren’t qualified. After that I was basically terminated, but not before I was bullied. Everything I did was wrong all of a sudden; my work product wasn’t acceptable. I could no longer see the judge’s calendar to effectively do my job. I took time off to take the bar exam, [and] while I was studying, I was sent a text about my last day; they were already interviewing my replacement. After that experience I felt defeated. I didn’t apply for a lot of jobs because I couldn’t list that job as a reference because I thought they would retaliate against me. Overall, my mental health deteriorated, I didn’t feel good enough. I had a real fear of having to explain the experience over and over again and their word being taken over mine,” says J. F.

Unfortunately, J. F. is far from alone in her experience and the lasting effects of workplace bullying. For many, the mental toll can be overwhelming, from on-the-job anxiety to depression. In February 2023, New York legislators found that workplace bullying can inflict serious harm upon targeted employees, including feelings of shame and humiliation, severe anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, impaired immune systems, and symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers have found that bullying can cause additional physical problems such as high blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, muscle pain, and disturbances in sleep.

Workplace bullying can inflict serious harm upon targeted employees, including feelings of shame and humiliation, severe anxiety, depression [and more].

Practical Solutions

It is clear that workplace bullying is real and that it has serious effects on employees. The good news is that there are actionable solutions available that may provide needed relief.

More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have introduced legislative initiatives to curb workplace bullying. The New York State Assembly, for example, introduced the Healthy Workplace Bill (A0330) in February 2023. Many of these statutory solutions seek to provide employees with legal protection from abusive work environments. Lawmakers have determined that workplace protections should not be limited to behavior grounded in a protected class status as required by employment discrimination regulations. Overall, several workplace bills seek to provide redress for employees who have been harmed psychologically, physically, or economically by deliberate exposure to abusive work environments, as well as offer legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to abusive mistreatment of employees.

"Whether to report bullying is a very personal decision to make, especially if the bully holds a position of power,” says Baker-Pham. “If an individual does not believe that a confidential complaint is feasible and/or otherwise does not want to come forward for fear of retaliation, they may want to consider finding new employment or moving to a position outside of the bully’s environment, whether it be a different physical location or practice group.” Baker-Pham notes that while a decision not to come forward does not give the employer a clear chance to remedy the situation, a decision to leave rather than continue to work with a bully or risk retaliation is understandable. Regular attrition or exit interviews should be a sign to any attentive employer that there may be a problem, she adds.

Baker-Pham suggests strategies for law firms to combat the problem, including establishing anti-bullying policies, creating a reporting mechanism for complaints of bullying, and, most importantly, taking action when bullying occurs. “When it comes to workplace culture, actions speak louder than words,” she says. For lawyers who feel they are being bullied, Baker-Pham offers some advice. First, review the employer’s policies and report the bullying to the listed contact. If the employer does not have an anti-bullying policy or clear reporting process, the lawyer should inform a trusted manager. If the lawyer is concerned about retaliation, they can first ask the person to whom they plan to report the bullying about expectations of confidentiality. If an attorney believes that they are being bullied because of a protected class, they should consult with an employment lawyer before reporting the bullying.

A lawyer struggling with workplace bullying should consider consulting a mental health provider or the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program. “We are definitely a resource folks can reach out to if they are being bullied or experiencing a hostile work environment,” says Denise Perme, associate director of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP). “LAP staff have helped a number of lawyers over the years who were experiencing bullying at work. We have two support groups that meet weekly on Zoom, and we offer individual counseling both on Zoom and in person.”