Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Workplace Bullying vs. Workplace Harassment: Is There a Difference?

July 26th, 2013 | Teresa Zerilli-Edelglass

Teresa Zerilli-EdelglassBack when my workplace nightmare first began in 1992, during an 11-year tenure at New York City Transit that ended in termination on the heels of a hard-fought federal court victory, there was no such thing as “workplace bullying”.  Bullying – or at least the term – was reserved for what one mean-spirited kid did to another in the schoolyard.  However, “bullying” has now become the catch phrase for every mean-spirited act that one human being commits against another, whether in the workplace or the schoolyard — or just about anywhere!

Just at the time when I was finally beginning to realize my American Dream, the harassment began. Over time, with no help in sight, it escalated to epic proportions, causing debilitating mental illness that would eventually render me incapacitated.  What I experienced back then was characterized as “harassment”. Today, this same treatment has evolved into “workplace bullying”, though legally speaking, it is still called harassment.  (Unless I’ve missed something, I’ve never heard of anyone filing a “workplace bullying” claim.) Still, if one is harassed, he is being bullied.  But are these terms legally interchangeable?  Is it just semantics that separates them?  Or do they, in fact, have different meanings.

We have traditionally associated workplace harassment with the unlawful behavior described under the various acts created by Congress to protect workers from unfair employment practices.  Legislative measures (such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) exist to protect workers from discrimination against age, gender, race/color, religion, national origin, disability, genetic information, pregnancy, and compensation.  It also prohibits sexual harassment and retaliation.  While this might sound like a fairly inclusive body of protection, do these seemingly well-intentioned laws really cover everything?  Should protection be afforded only to these “protected classes” for the specific violations they are designed to address?

The short answer: no.

An obvious gaping hole in employment law still remains; the door is wide open for a cornucopia of offenses screaming to be addressed.  For instance, what about the fat person, the ugly (or pretty) one, the smelly one or the annoying one?  And how about the once untouchable white guy who gets wrongfully kicked around?  These folks have no real recourse except to complain to their supervisors, who, in all likelihood are ill-equipped to handle such matters.

When I worked for New York City Transit, I witnessed bullying like it was for sport.  In fact, it was the managerial style of choice. When one of “the men” as they referred to themselves, got out of line in any way believed to be even remotely threatening, he would likely pay for it lest he fell back in line posthaste.  God forbid, he resisted for he would be shipped off to the most undesirable location, usually the place no one wanted to be and that would make his life a living hell.  In fact, that same threat was deviously employed on job interviews.  One was pretty much forced to say he was okay with working at any one of the numerous locations in the system, albeit an outright lie.  Then, once he conceded to being the flexible, indispensable best man for the job, he might well find himself in one of our little “Siberias” anyway because, after all, he said he was willing to go there.  A real Catch 22, for sure.

Was this modus operandi unto itself harassment in the legal sense – or was it simply bullying? Well, unless one individual of a particular protected class, let’s say an employee over 40 amidst a group of twenty-somethings was singled out, it wouldn’t be classified as unlawful; however, it is not less wrong and must be treated as such.  Working forever shrouded in fear of retribution is unacceptable.

Since having written Thrown Under the Bus: The Rise and Fall of the American Worker, it is amazing how many folks have felt compelled to come forward to share their workplace horror stories with me.  They, too, attest that it is the bully’s way or the highway – with no help in sight.  I pray that my book serves to lend some insight to ways in which to successfully navigate “the system” without undue repercussion.

In a nutshell, the message is this: workplace harassment has evolved to a new form of the same called ‘workplace bullying’, the catch-all phrase for the ubiquitously inappropriate treatment of anyone and everyone where such behavior rises to the same egregious level of currently actionable legal claims under the law. If you can prove that which you claim to have occurred as having risen to the same degree of unlawfulness as prescribed by Congress, you shouldn’t need to be part of a protected class, just an aggrieved employee of any stripe with a legitimate claim.

Printed with permission

About the Author:  Teresa Zerilli-Edeleglass is the author of Thrown Under the Bus: The Rise and Fall of the American Worker, the provocative true story that begs the question: Is the American Dream ours for the taking, or can it just be taken away?  Ms. Zerill-Edelglass earned a Bachelor of Science degree from St. John’s University in 1989 and an Executive Masters in Public Administration from Bernard Baruch College in 1992. It was in 1988 that the opportunity presented itself for Ms. Zerilli-Edelglass to switch gears from the private to the public sector, one she enthusiastically embraced. No sooner had all of her hard work finally begun to pay off when everything suddenly went up in smoke, laying the groundwork for ‘Thrown’.  Thrown Under the Bus: The Rise and Fall of the American Worker is available online at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and through the author’s website.

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