APU Business Podcast Politics in the Workplace

Podcast: Addressing Workplace Bullying

Podcast featuring Dr. Linda C. Ashar, J.D.Faculty Member, School of Business and Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine

Bullying in the workplace happens frequently – 73% of working adults report being aware of bullying in their workplace. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Linda Ashar talks to Dr. Suzanne Minarcine about what constitutes bullying as well as the difference between teasing and bullying. Learn what employees who are being bullied can do to end the unwanted behavior including possible legal action. Also learn what steps managers and executive leaders should take to prevent bullying through policy development, leadership training, and improvements to corporate culture so such behavior isn’t tolerated.

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Read the Transcript:

Linda Ashar: Welcome everyone. This is Linda Ashar, your host for this podcast. Today, I’m pleased to be exploring the topic of dealing with bullying in the workplace. My guest is Dr. Suzanne Minarcine, professor at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. In addition to her doctorate degree, Suzanne brings a lot of great experience to the business world in today’s discussion.

[Podcast: Managing a Remote Workforce]

Suzanne is a licensed commercial pilot, and she has worked for commercial airlines in that capacity. She is an entrepreneur, has much experience in running her own businesses as well as consulting for other businesses, and she sits on many nonprofit and for profit boards of various sizes. So, welcome, Suzanne.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Thank you, Linda.

Linda Ashar: Before we get into our discussion, it’s important for this podcast, to explain that we are not providing legal advice in this discussion, in any shape or form. We do encourage people to seek advice with an attorney if they have a situation that they feel would benefit from legal advice. So, if you have legal questions, please do get legal advice for them. And you may have some questions that come from listening to this discussion today.

So, a little background to set up our discussion. What do we mean by workplace bullying? I think when we hear the word “bully,” we kind of all have an idea of what that means. And the definition really is kind of deceptively simple. Here’s what you would read, if you go out on the internet and put in “bullying.” you know, “What’s a definition?” You’ll get something like this: “repeated, unwelcome behavior over a period of time that is intended to harm or take advantage of someone who feels powerless to stop it.” Now, there’s some pretty powerful buzzwords in that definition: “repeated,” “intended to harm,” “take advantage.”

And the person who is the target of bullying feels powerless to stop it. So, that can immediately bring to mind ways bullying can occur day to day in a workplace. But, unfortunately, the act of bullying, in general, is not illegal. People do not have to be nice under the law. For there to be a legal claim for something that fits that bullying description I just mentioned, it has to fit into some other type of legal claim, such as discrimination. Sexual harassment would be an example. But the bullying conduct has to be based on discriminatory motive, gender discrimination, doing it on the basis of someone’s sexual identity, not just being mean to somebody in general.

Or there’s another way; if the conduct is severe and bad enough that it makes someone sick and damages them severely mentally, you might get a claim under the law called Intentional Infliction of severe emotional distress. But those claims are very hard to pursue in a court of law. Any attorney will tell you that.

So, how do we deal with bullying in the workplace? Is it really a problem, or is it just one of those “woke” things that people are worried about today? Well, ask the Workplace Bullying Institute about that. They did a survey in 2021, and here’s some facts and figures that set us up, Suzanne, for today’s discussion.

That 2021 survey says: they surveyed adult Americans nationwide, working Americans, working in some context, either full-time, part-time, have been working.

  • 39% of employed Americans reported suffering abusive conduct at work.
  • Another 22% reported witnessing it.
  • 61% reported being affected by it. Now, that’s a key, big number because those are people who are not necessarily experiencing bullying themselves, but it’s affecting them in their work.
  • And here’s the big whopper, 73% reported being aware that workplace bullying happens. Now, that’s not a 100% report, but 73% is a big factor in the workplace.

So, Suzanne, thank you for your patience in my setting up our topic. Clearly, this is a subject worthy of discussion, for both employers and employees, it seems to me. Considering bullying is a workplace phenomenon, for want of a better way of putting it, what kind of conduct are we talking about? You have vast experience and you consult with employers.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Thanks, Linda. First of all, we could classify bullying as unwelcome behavior occurring over a period of time. We can have verbal bullying, which can be threats, it can be teasing that goes too far, or it can be social bullying—this might be when you leave someone out of a meeting on purpose, or when you publicly reprimand someone.

I spoke with a young lady who felt that she had been bullied in her workplace. And she said that she was never included in the meeting, that her colleagues were talking about the meetings, and what was worse, when she was assigned to work on a holiday, she never had anyone working with her. When one of the other people who did attend the meetings, who were close, for lack of a better word, with the supervisor, they would have two or three people working. So, in essence, she was left to do the work of three people, and she was being set up to fail. She was not a protected class. She could not qualify under a discrimination or under a civil rights action.

Linda Ashar: So, she wasn’t the only woman?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: No.

Linda Ashar: This wasn’t like the men are all getting benefits…

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right.

Linda Ashar:… and help, and she’s not?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: This was a work team of 15 people, and they were all women. And, for whatever reason, she was left out of the in-group and the out-group. When you look at one of the leadership theories, the LMX theory, this sets up the in-group and the out-group, and it provides guidance for managers in trying to deal with these two different groups. We all work with people that we don’t like, right? We don’t necessarily get along with everyone we work with, but that doesn’t mean we can treat those people differently.

Linda Ashar: Well, so, you just mentioned a really key, important word to me, and that’s “leadership.” So, dealing with bullying in the workplace is very much a leadership issue, is something I conclude from what you just said. Is that a fair statement?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right. It absolutely is a leadership issue, but sometimes it’s the leader who is bullying.

Linda Ashar: Well, that was going to be my next question. How do we teach bullying, or maybe I should say dealing with bullying, in leadership courses? How should this be addressed?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: One of the first things I think we have to do is acknowledge the fact that leaders are necessarily—they are human. And leaders are going to have people in the workplace that they know they can call on, those are the people who will do the extra work. They’re the people who will always do a good job. You will develop your preferences, that way you can trust them. But being conscious of your feelings, being conscious of your relationships with other people, is a very important component in leadership.

Linda Ashar: So, we probably should be including—and I’m not saying that we don’t—but I’m just saying as an academic theoretical concept of our approach to teaching leadership, bullying should be a subject that we cover.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: It absolutely should be. It’s an important part of management. It’s an important part of leadership development. And that is you have to learn to manage the relationships between yourself, as the leader, and your subordinates or your team members, whatever you want to call them.

Leadership is relationship driven. And if we are leaders, we should be developing the leadership potential in everyone we work with, and not just the ones we like. We should be developing the leadership capabilities in that person we consider the weakest link, if you will.

Linda Ashar: Okay. So, a leader is challenged on the subject of bullying in two ways, I’m hearing. One is: “Don’t be a bully yourself.”

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right.

Linda Ashar: Which could be easily said, but people tend to act on patterns of conduct they’ve developed over a lifetime, and perhaps deal with people in a certain way—you mentioned teasing a little while ago—that is perceived by someone else as bullying. And they don’t realize that that’s the impact of how they’re acting as a leader or as a supervisor. So, that’s an awareness that a leader needs to develop within him or herself. That’s one component I’m hearing. And the other is being sure you’re not playing favorites, if I’m not being too simplistic.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: That’s absolutely correct. You cannot play favorites. I was speaking with a store manager of a national chain, and I said to him, “Where do you see bullying in your organization, within your store?” And he laughed. And he said, “Oh, we’re all about bullying. It has to be the right people.” And I was taken aback by that. What he was talking about was they diffuse their stress by teasing other people, but they know who they can tease and they know who they can’t tease.

Linda Ashar: Well, let’s pause on that for a minute. The definition that we started with about bullying is unwelcome behavior. You and I are friends. And if you tease me about something, I’m going to take it a certain way, laugh, and not be offended.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right.

Linda Ashar: But whatever you’ve just teased me about, if somebody else I don’t know, maybe somebody else I don’t like, says or does the exact same thing, I might feel bullied or at least offended. It won’t be welcome is my point.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right.

Linda Ashar: So, two examples of the same conduct perceived and received differently. That leads me to the question of: should there be types of behavior, including teasing, that just isn’t done in the workplace, to avoid this problem of perception entirely?

And let me tell you why I’m mentioning this. Let’s go back to our survey where 73% of American workers are aware of bullying, and a lesser, but still high number, are affected by it, which means they perceive it. So, is the workplace a good place to even have teasing?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: I think it can be, if it’s done in good nature, if it’s done with the right intention, if it’s done with the intent of releasing the stress, relieving the stress.

Linda Ashar: Okay. So, good teasing and bad teasing. There’s a difference.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: There’s a big difference.

Linda Ashar: What’s an example of good teasing?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Okay, I’ll use my experience at APUS, and this is funny. I had a colleague, I was faculty director at the time, and the other faculty director and I, we would tease each other when we said something that we weren’t clear about, and our joke term was “What are you talking about Willis?” And then we knew it was teasing, and we knew we needed to be clear, and we needed to take a deep breath, back up, and start all over again.

Linda Ashar: Okay. So, you were equals in the workplace? You were both directors.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: We were equals.

Linda Ashar: And you had an established relationship?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right.

Linda Ashar: And probably, there weren’t other people involved in that exchange?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right.

Linda Ashar: All right. So, those things I just said, are those key points?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: They are key points. Are you equals? Do you have a positive relationship? And is there anything underlying that could create negativity? And that’s where you draw the line between teasing and bullying.

Linda Ashar: Or just inappropriate conduct that might hit someone else differently, who’s in the room, so to speak.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Absolutely.

Linda Ashar: And I think that’s where we get pushback from some people. I mean, I have heard people, I have given seminars on sexual harassment where I’ve had members of the training groups say, “You know, I’m so tired of feeling like I’ve got to be careful about everything I say or do.” And my response to that is, “Well, shouldn’t you be careful to a certain extent, in a workplace, versus how you might be somewhere else, say at home or in a more relaxed social setting, where you know all the peers there differently? Don’t we all act differently in different forums? If you are a church goer, do you act differently in church than you do at a local restaurant or party?” For example, we all have different norms of behavior depending on where we are. Why is a workplace different?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Yeah. You know, good behavior is good behavior. And there are people who will act the same everywhere. You and I know people, they’re just good humans. We know other people who, when they come to work, they put on their work face, and they are serious, they are intent on getting done what needs to be done, and then they’re horrible people outside of work.

I tend to prefer people who are authentic, and we could talk about authentic leadership, but the person who is authentic is the same, no matter where they are. Now, at church, you might not sit with your legs folded up, and you certainly won’t lean over and take a nap. There are accepted behaviors in different places, but a good human is a good human, and an authentic person is going to behave similarly. A good human that does not bully outside of work is not going to be a bully at work.

Linda Ashar: Don’t you think there’s probably another factor? Which is we spend a lot of time at work. The only other place we spend that much time is home, most likely.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Yes.

Linda Ashar: And some people may spend more time at work than they do even at home or any other place in their life. Which raises another point. Isn’t it all the more reason why people should be allowed to feel comfortable at work?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: We absolutely should feel comfortable at work. And this is where human resources comes into play. There should be clear anti-bullying policies. There should be a culture that prioritizes inclusion and will not tolerate bullying, under any circumstances.

Linda Ashar: And that’s a very good point. Now, why should an employer care about that though? Let me take the devil’s advocate approach to that. Why should an employer not say, “Look, I’ve got all these laws I have to comply with. I do have basic workplace rules, where extreme conduct is certainly not permitted, but at some point, people just need to be responsible for themselves. Why should I care if people are not 100% comfortable all the time? Why should it be my problem if John and Jane or Sally and Ethel can’t get along on a given day?”

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: That’s a good question, Linda. And this comes back to one of my favorite topics, which is corporate culture. And if you have a toxic workplace that allows bullies to continue this behavior, to harass people. First of all, it can escalate. It can escalate, and then you can end up with a discrimination or some other kind of legal action.

But before it does that, you’re going to cause people to leave. And the people who are going to leave, under these circumstances, are going to be your good people because your good people, the ones you want to retain, are not going to tolerate being bullied. They are not the ones who are going to be party to the negative behavior, and they’re going to go elsewhere. And because they are good people, because they’re qualified, they’re competent, they’re going to get snapped up by a better company.

Linda Ashar: So, bullying is bad for the bottom line?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Absolutely.

[Podcast: Assessing and Building Corporate Culture is Sound Business Practice]

Linda Ashar: Suzanne, we’ve been talking about bullying, why it’s bad for the workplace, why it’s bad for people. How do we deal with it? You’ve mentioned employers having policies. Employees also need to deal with it. I’d like to go back to the young woman you mentioned who quit her job. You were telling about someone that you spoke with, who was cut out of meetings, had to work by herself on holidays when other people had help. Do you recall her?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Oh, absolutely.

Linda Ashar: You mentioned that she left. But she didn’t just leave that job, because we talked about that example outside the podcast a little bit when you were telling me about that situation. Overall, how did she deal with it? I thought she dealt with it very well.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Oh, she did. I spoke with this young woman as a coach, and I said to her, “What is it you really want to do?” And she told me, and I said, “What’s stopping you?” And she said, “Well, I would have to go back to school.” I said, “Okay, what do you need to do to make that happen?”

 What she did is she resigned her job. She got accepted into a prestigious graduate program. And, in the meantime, she took a temporary job working in a pharmacy so that she could earn money to support herself while she was in college. And she would come home on the weekends and she would work that job, and today she has a great job. She works for the University of Georgia system, and I couldn’t be more proud.

Linda Ashar: So, she didn’t try to change a workplace culture that she perceived wasn’t going to change?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: No, she felt helpless. She did not want to go to human resources because her perception was that that person was more respected, that she was afraid she would not be heard. It turns out, the supervisor, who was so horrible, ended up leaving three months later. The supervisor was actually terminated.

So, the woman wasn’t so respected, apparently. But you know, as employees, we don’t know the relationship our managers have with upper management, human resources and the C-suite. So, I can see her reluctance, simply because she wasn’t privy to that information. She was in her early thirties. She didn’t know how things worked. And she was afraid to take the risk. She was afraid if she went to human resources, she would be fired.

Linda Ashar: And I think that that’s a very common fear.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: That is a common fear, but that also speaks to the culture of the company.

Linda Ashar: So, one way of dealing with it is, the dramatic and perhaps simplest solution, is to leave the situation and seek employment elsewhere. But what struck me about this case is that she didn’t just leave. She took the bull by the horns and had a plan. And the first thing she did is, she got some help. Even if it wasn’t within the company, she sought some outside advice.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: She had expressed to me that she was coming home every day with headaches. She came home every day and went straight to bed. She had gained weight. She just had lost total interest in the job. But when she decided to leave, she left with a plan. And the first thing she did was apply to graduate school, and she had to interview, and because it was very competitive, she had beyond her best game when she went.

Linda Ashar: Short of walking out the door, what are some other ways that an employee, who feels being bullied, can deal with it?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: The first thing I recommend is to look at the employer’s code of conduct. Do they have a code of ethics? Do they have a code of civility? What is their mission statement? What does HR say they will do? Many companies have their employees do annual training on acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and that includes the microaggressions that can easily translate into bullying.

The other thing, if the employee is anticipating legal action, the employee needs to keep a journal. That journal should be as specific as possible with dates and a discussion of not only when it happened and what happened, but how did that affect you? Is it messing with your sleep? Is it causing you to seek counseling? You may want to go to the EAP, Employee Assistance Program, and get help if that is possible, but you’ve got to, on your own device, whether it’s a computer or it’s on paper, you’ve got to keep a journal.

Linda Ashar: And I would add to that, never assume there’s no legal claim, because you don’t know. Most people who are in this kind of a situation only know what they’re experiencing. They may not know all the facts;there may be more facts to flesh out that assistance of legal counsel can help with.

Do your research; that’s what I’m adding to this very good advice that you’re providing, Suzanne. As we said, at the very beginning, there is no legal claim for bullying per se, but that does not mean something else might not be going on.

Sometimes if something is bad enough, a court will try to find a way to provide a remedy. There was a case back in the 1990s, a very bad harassment, from anybody’s point of view, called Quick v. Donaldson. A man who worked in a factory was physically, as well as mentally, and verbally abused. A certain group of men in this plant had a practice of grabbing other men by their private part of their anatomy, and pulling them around or squeezing. You can imagine what that was like.

But the point of it is, aside from the obvious bullying aspect of such conduct, is the employer, through its supervisors, was well aware of it and did nothing about it. So, would there be a cause of action for assault and battery against the people actually doing it? Sure. But was there anything to be done against the employer? Well, these were men on men, and one of the men who was suffering this over and over again—really were picking on him—filed a suit in federal court and said it was sexual harassment violation because it was gender-based. And the theory was, you can only do this kind of thing to a man.

Well, was it because he was a man or just because they were doing this to men in the plant? And the district judge said, this isn’t what the sexual harassment laws cover. This isn’t because someone is a man or not, this is just men bullying other men.

They took the case to the Court of Appeals. And the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals said, hold the phone. This is gender-based as far as we can see, and we’re going to say he can bring this claim. And they sent the case back to be adjudicated. Now, what that case told me was, if something is bad enough, a court might very well try to fit it into a cause of action that exists; but you can’t count on that. It also tells us from the ’90s forward that the law is evolving. And I think we’re on the cusp of bullying becoming more of a recognized legal claim that employers need to be concerned about, and that employees can get some relief for.

That’s just a prediction based on how we see trends of laws. There are some things happening under workplace safety. Some states have workplace, it’s called the Healthy Workplace act. They’re working on workplace safety and healthy workplace legislation. So, bullying may come into play in those situations.

The state of California has a law now, that employers must provide training to prevent workplace violence and prevent harassment in the workplace, in general. So, that’s just a training law, but it’s progress in this area. So, I think that that is something that we can watch. And I mentioned this because one of the things that you have mentioned in keeping a journal, Suzanne, is keeping track of these things. This is very important if legal advice is going to be sought. It’s also important to bringing in-house attention to the employer about what’s going on.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: That’s absolutely correct. And I would say to the person who is bullied, I would give them two pieces of advice that we haven’t touched on:

  • One is, don’t retaliate. Take care of yourself, but don’t retaliate. Talk to human resources.
  • And finally, your health is more important than anything. If the bullying is affecting your health; if you’re not sleeping at night; if you’re not eating;… talk to your healthcare provider; talk to your EAP; do something. But take care of yourself, and then develop your plan.

Linda Ashar: Excellent advice. Suzanne, I can’t thank you enough of your time today. We’ve talked about a lot of things on this important topic, dealing with bullying in the workplace. Reflecting on our discussion, what are some final thoughts you might share with us in closing?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: I would say that if you are a human resources manager, review your policies, review your procedures, review the training that you provide to your employees. You want to make sure that your workplace is a safe environment for all employees, and that your employees know that there’s a difference between teasing and bullying. It can be a fine line, but it’s a line you don’t want to cross.

As you said, Linda, courts are evolving, and I think we’re going to see more action taken on this in the future. And to the employee, just what I said, take care of yourself, get help, document.

Linda Ashar: Thank you, Suzanne. Today’s topic, dealing with workplace bullying, it’s going to continue to be an important consideration for both employers and employees, in my opinion. The law is continuing to develop for addressing the harm caused by bullying. And there is no justification for it in the workplace or anywhere in our society. This is Linda Ashar, your host. Thank you for listening.

Dr. Linda C. Ashar is a full-time Associate Professor in the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in business, law, and ethics. She obtained her Juris Doctor from the University of Akron School of Law. Her law practice spans more than 30 years and includes business, employment law, and litigation on behalf of employers and employees.

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