Women Who Bully Women at Work

Bullying in the workplace has been a hot topic in the labor and employment world since 2007, when The Workplace Bullying Institute published a revealing survey on the topic. Since then, the subject of Jerks at Work has played a regular role in scholarly discussions about how employers can work to improve the working environment.  The attention, at least from legal scholars, has been focused on the overlap between unlawful harassment and the bullying epidemic.  So the theory goes, bullying conduct looks enough like harassing conduct that a jury could reasonably interpret the former as the latter. 

I speak frequently on the topic and, when making a case for the implementation and enforcement of anti-bullying policies, I explain it as a matter of simple business sense.  Happy people don’t sue.  (Most of the time.)  But pissed-off people make great plaintiffs.  Pick on someone long enough and be mean enough and it’s just a matter of time until the person reacts.  The reaction can come in a myriad of forms, all of which are adverse to the employer’s interest.   Workplace violence is one possible response to bullying experienced by workers.  Legal action is another.  women_symbol

This topic also comes up when I give general employment discrimination training or harassment-prevention training.  When discussing the legal elements of harassment, I tell attendees that the harassing conduct must be because of a protected class.  If a male supervisor terminates a female employee, this is not gender discrimination.  For gender discrimination to exist, the termination decision must have been made because of the employee’s gender.  There is a principle in discrimination law that stands for the idea that, where the alleged discriminator is in the same protected class as the plaintiff-employee, it is less likely that discrimination occurred. 

At this point in the lecture, I laugh to myself because I know what comes next.  I give some examples of this principle at work.  If a worker alleges that he was not hired because of his age, the fact that the hiring manager was older than the candidate weighs against the candidate.  Similarly, if an employee complains that he was unlawfully terminated because of his race (Indian), the fact that the manager who made the decision to terminate also is of Indian origin will weigh in the employer’s favor.  I go on to give another example involving an employee who is not promoted and files a charge of discrimination alleging gender discrimination.  Just as in the other examples, if the manager who made the promotion decision also is a woman, this fact will weigh against the employee’s case.  I then say, “As any woman in this room will attest, this idea is ridiculous.  Women are treated the worst by other women.”  All the women in the room laugh–the truth is funny. 

If she had been in the training session, Peggy Klaus of the N.Y. Times would have laughed, too.  In her recent article, A Sisterhood of Workplace Infighting, Klaus discusses the reality that exists among women at work. As she puts it, “we can be our own worst enemies at work.”  She cites the Workplace Bullying Institute’s study, which found that women bullies target other women 70% of the time, whereas male bullies are equal-opportunity abusers. 

Why is it that this dynamic is so true?  Why is it that women are most likely to pick on other women at work?  Although this certainly has been true for as long as women have had a seat at the table, I think that the tides have begun to turn and that women are comfortable enough in their seats so that they have no need to worry about someone kicking them out. 

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