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The Insanity of Workplace Anti-Bullying Laws

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by Izzy Kalman (March 2007) Turn your weakness into riches

Do you have difficulty getting along with people at work? Do you feel your colleagues and/or bosses are victimizing you, and you have no idea how to make them stop? Don’t fret. You can turn your weaknesses into dollars – millions of dollars! How? By taking advantage of workplace anti-bullying laws. These laws may not yet have come to your locale, but you can be certain they will, as the anti-bully bulldozer is building steam.

British citizen Helen Green recently won a judgment of £800,000 (approximately $1,600,000!) against her employer, Deutsche Bank Group Services (UK) Ltd, because she felt bullied by a few coworkers at work. As Justice Owen declared, she had been subjected to a “relentless campaign of mean and spiteful behavior designed to cause her distress”. You can read the details here.

The United States, being somewhat less socialistic than Great Britain and most other Western European countries, lags behind them in anti-bully legislation, but it is only a matter of time till we catch up. Most of our 50 states have already passed school anti-bullying laws, and there is no reason that our drive to create an emotional welfare state, in which the government is responsible for our happiness, will stop with schools. Several months ago, an issue of the APA Monitor, the magazine of the American Psychological Association, was dedicated to bullying in the workplace. The writers discussed anti-bullying laws as though psychology is a branch of law rather than science, and ridiculed anyone who suggests that victims of bullying might have anything to do with how they are being treated. Really – what a preposterous psychological idea – that your behavior might possibly affect the way people treat you! Anyway, with the country’s major psychological organization promoting workplace anti-bullying laws, their passage is inevitable.

In case you aren’t aware of it, a workplace anti-bullying law does not mean that individuals are not allowed to bully each other at work. It means that your employer is legally responsible if anyone bullies each other. Furthermore, while the term “bullying” may conjure up images of physical attacks and threats, extortion and the like, these are not the targets of anti-bullying laws. Such acts have long been illegal. The purpose of anti-bullying laws is solely for criminalizing things that were not previously outlawed – actions that solely hurt people’s feelings.

Doesn’t it sounds like a grand idea, being able to go to work without anyone allowed to upset you? Who among us hasn’t had the experience of being a victim? Since few people know how to handle being bullied, we figure we’ll pass laws making our employers responsible for providing us with a bully-free environment. This idea is so seductive that I have never seen anyone questioning its value. What none of our psychological organizations seems to realize, though, is that by advocating for anti-bullying laws, we are declaring the failure of our profession. It means that we have not figured how to solve the problem of bullying by psychological means, so we want the legal system to solve it for us.

The insanity of workplace anti-bullying laws

As good as the idea of a workplace anti-bullying law may sound to you, if you examine its implications carefully, you will realize it is pure insanity.

Let’s say you are my employer and our state legislature has passed a workplace anti-bullying law. This means you now have to guarantee that everyone at work, including me, is virtuous. No one in the company is allowed to do anything that makes anyone else feel bad, and if they do, it is your problem. If any of us is less than a saint, and has any type of personality imperfection that prevents us from having harmonious relationships with everyone else, by employing us, you have transferred responsibility for our flaws onto yourself.

As my employer, you are now required to make sure that no one says anything bad about me either to my face or behind my back. And you’d better pray they don’t make any remarks about my race, religion, gender or sexual orientation or you’re in really deep doo-doo. If my coworkers can’t stand me for whatever reason, they cannot refuse to take me to lunch with them. If I complain to you that they are treating me badly, you are to force them to be nice to me. Furthermore, when you reprimand or punish them on my behalf, they must feign gratitude to me for getting them in trouble with their boss and keep on smiling and being nice to me or the law is going to make you – my boss – pay big time.

Of course my coworkers will deny that they bully me and will probably insist that I have been bullying them. Though you probably didn’t go to law school and almost certainly didn’t study the intricacies of judging, you are now donning judicial robes. You need to determine who the real bully is, and you had better hope you have the wisdom of Solomon. Not only that, but you have to judge under special conditions that no real judge has to face. A judge in a court of law need merely arrive at a verdict. It is taken for granted that at least one side will be unhappy with the verdict. In this workplace court, if either side is unhappy with your verdict, you have failed because that side still feels bullied, not only by their coworker, but by you as well. The company may have to pay dearly for your failure to make both sides happy.

Don’t forget that workplace bullying is not uncommon. In fact, it is the rare person who has liked the way they were treated at every job they ever had. Many people currently have at least one person at work that makes them miserable. They go to work anyway because we are not in Heaven and workplace problems are a fact of life. There are millions of people overseas who are employed producing our – yes, yours and mine – clothing, food and appliances in slave-like conditions that make Helen Green’s situation look like Paradise. If Helen Green deserves millions in compensation, our Third World cousins slaving away for us deserve billions.

When I ask at my seminars, attended mostly by mental health professionals, “Who here has no one in their life that drives them crazy on a regular basis?” hardly a hand goes up. Many of them feel abused by people at work. Most mental health professionals have no idea how to stop being bullied at work, yet we lobby for laws making employers responsible for the bullying between us. If such laws are enforced, and employees continue to get huge awards for being victims, how long will it take before every company in the country goes bankrupt?

Creating a totalitarian Big Brother police state

In normal legal justice systems, crimes have traditionally been deemed acts that cause tangible harm to body or property. Hurting people’s feelings cannot be considered a crime because it is too subjective. If you do something I don’t like and I feel upset, I am really upsetting myself. Should you be punished because I upset myself? This is the meaning of Freedom of Speech, the cornerstone of democracy. Our Constitution guarantees our freedom to express ourselves as long as we aren’t causing objective harm to anyone. Making it illegal to hurt people’s feelings would be opening up a Pandora’s box, for there is no limit to the things that can hurt people’s feelings.

Few citizens of democracies want to see their country become a totalitarian police state in which the government oversees every minute aspect of their lives. Yet this is precisely what happens when anti-bully laws are passed. We lose our freedom to experience the natural consequences of our social interactions and, instead, becomes subjects of a Big Brother police state that mandates our relationships and intervenes to judge and punish us whenever anyone is unhappy with the way we treat them.

How much are hurt feelings worth? And who should pay?

In the insane world of workplace anti-bullying laws, the less able I am to handle emotional distress, the more your company owes me. If I considered suicide, as Helen Green did, the price for my hurt feelings skyrockets to the millions.

But let’s say that for some strange reason a relatively sane government actually decided to make bullying a crime. Who would be held responsible? Employers? Of course not! The individual would be held accountable. If I rob, rape, or kill, should you be punished for my crime? If I make other people feel bad at work, should my employers be punished?

The only reason Helen Green was awarded an astronomical sum was that Deutsche Bank was the defendant. Deutsche Bank, after all, is worth billions and can afford to pay. Were Ms. Green’s workplace bullies to be held responsible for their own actions, do you believe that Justice Owen would have imposed such a huge punishment? Maybe if the bullies cut off her arms and legs.

But if we are to hold the individual responsible for bullying, how much should the punishment be? Assessing award for property damage is relatively easy. It’s usually the cost of repairing or replacing the property, plus loss of income that was incurred. Damage to bodies is a bit harder to evaluate, but is usually the cost of medical care, lost income, and compensation for physical pain. There may also be an additional fine in both cases to serve as deterrence. Sexual crimes are usually punished severely because they are physical attacks, can seriously impact the victim’s future, and can undermine the fabric of society.

Evaluating emotional misery is much more difficult because it is subjective. Some people would have no difficulty brushing off the kind of abuse Helen Green was subjected to by her coworkers, and might even know how to turn their tormentors into friends. Others, like Helen, would spiral down the maelstrom of depression. In a sane society, if you worked in a place in which you couldn’t stand the way people treat you, you would quit as soon as you could find a better place to work. In an insane society that holds employers responsible for bullying between employees, you would have to be out of your mind to quit because your depression would be worth a fortune. Stubbornly stick to the job, stop sleeping at night, contemplate killing yourself, and become wealthy.

Let’s say I’m a judge in a sane society and I decide in your favor against your workplace bullies. How would I determine how much they must pay you for having made you miserable? Here is a simple way.

For the crime of insulting you: I will ask you, “How much would you pay to have your bullies stop insulting you?” Whatever amount you declare, that would be the monetary value to you of your hurt feelings. Then I would make your bullies pay you that amount, and perhaps double it for good measure.

How much do you think you would be willing to pay to get your coworkers to stop insulting you? A million dollars? A thousand dollars? A hundred? Ten? Probably nothing! Once you have to give up money to prevent insults, you will quickly realize that you’d rather keep your money and let them insult you all they want – it’s only words! You can ignore the insults, but you need the money.

I will do the same thing for all of the other offenses. If your coworkers have been refusing to take you to lunch with them, how much would you pay for the pleasure of joining them? Once you realize that you are hardly willing to pay anything for the nuisances to stop, you will understand that they are nothing to get upset about, and you will stop feeling like a victim. And when your coworkers discover they can no longer upset you, they will stop trying to.

The crime of misplacing your papers is a more serious matter. It results in objective damage. If it caused you to earn less commission or salary, I will have them pay you for your lost earnings, and perhaps double the amount. If it caused the employer to lose money, I would make them pay the employer that amount, plus the salary the employer paid you during the time you wasted trying to recover the missing files. Once workers discover that they have to pay money for the harm they cause the business, they will quickly stop interfering with each other’s work. Bullying in the workplace will go down dramatically without bankrupting the employer.

Are you become enraged, thinking, “How dare you, Izzy, demean the suffering of a bullying victim at work? You have no idea of how miserable it can be! Being bullied at work can be a fate worse than death!” I know perfectly well what it is like to be a victim of bullying at work. I have had numerous jobs in my lifetime and I didn’t feel I deserved the rotten way I was treated at many of them. My “bullies” made me miserable. I felt depressed, lost many nights of sleep, and declined in work efficiency. I quit because of some of these bullies; some of them got me fired. And I never received a penny in compensation. What I didn’t realize at the time was that from their point of view, it was I who was bullying them! And they were usually right!

Some Additional Issues

If employees are not responsible for their own emotions, but their employers are, then who is responsible for the employers’ emotions? Their employers? Where does the buck stop? Are the people at the top of the employment pyramid responsible for the emotions of everyone below them plus their own emotions? Should God be held responsible and brought to trial? And if so, what if the person at the top is an atheist? Who should s/he sue?

If employers can be sued when employees bully each other, shouldn’t employers be entitled to protect themselves? Just as employers can test employees for drugs, shouldn’t they be allowed to test job applicants to determine their propensity for becoming bullies or victims? And if such tests were administered, would anyone ever be hired, for almost everyone would fall into one or both of the categories? Would the public, which is in love with anti-bully policies, tolerate mandatory testing for bullying prone-ness? Would the ACLU stand for it? And would the American Psychological Association, a huge supporter of workplace anti-bullying laws, approve of it? I highly doubt it – unless, perhaps, it was awarded the lucrative exclusive rights to conduct the testing.

Once workplace anti-bullying laws become the norm, will companies need to purchase “bullying insurance policies” to help avoid bankruptcy? With millions of dollars awarded to each of an endless stream of bullying victims, will the cost of such insurance become so prohibitive that our companies will fold? And will we ship the rest of our jobs overseas, where there are no workplace anti-bullying laws to prevent workers from slaving under inhmane conditions for subsistence wages?

Should we stop with laws against bullying in the workplace? The most frequent and devastating bullying goes on right at home. Why doesn’t the American Psychological Association fight for home anti-bullying laws that allow people to sue their spouses for being mean, and for children to sue their parents for allowing their siblings to torment them? How can psychologists expect employers to accomplish in the workplace what they themselves can’t accomplish in their own homes?

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