Company's on the hook for $4.7 million in bullying case

Does your company management think bullying’s just an HR concern? Show them this case.

A Brooklyn employer was recently ordered to pay $4.7 million to an employee who was ultimately assaulted by a co-worker – a culminating act after repeated bullying behavior. That’s the largest award to date in a workplace bullying incident.

According to court papers filed by Osama Saleh, 22, his employer looked the other way when he complained of being harassed by James Robinson, a black security guard at the Pretty Girl women’s clothing store in Brooklyn. Saleh claimed Robinson verbally abused him, telling him to “go back to Yemen” and calling him a “dirty Arab” and “bin Laden.”

Matters came to a head, Saleh claimed, when Robinson attacked him in the store basement, according to a story in the New York Daily  News. The incident left Saleh with a fractured cheekbone.

Despite the employer’s claims that the bully’s actions were no more than “banter” between co-workers, a court didn’t see it that way. And because supervisors did nothing to stop to the harassment, the company will have to pay the (steep) price.

Having an anti-bullying policy is more than a smart move – your state may soon require it. Currently 15 states, including New York, Massachusetts and Florida are considering legislation to protect employees from workplace bullying.

The trouble is, not all bullying behavior is as overt as in Saleh’s case.

Spotting subtle bullying

Turns out, bullying is one of the more subtle and misunderstood problems facing employers — which is why it often festers for so long. And the real concern is that oftentimes, managers are the ones doing the bullying — so it often goes undetected until it reaches the point where the employee files a complaint.

Some subtle signs of bully behavior:

  1. Constantly criticizes – nothing is ever “right.” Some criticism can be constructive, but if there’s someone who is always nitpicking with a certain co-worker, it could be a red flag.
  2. Undervalues contributions. When a person constantly glosses over the value a co-worker provides, there could be something deeper afoot, and odds are good that other person is feeling devalued.
  3. Heaps on the work. If one employee is piling on another, he or she may be setting that other person up to fail. A sure sign of a bully.
  4. Withholds vital details. Similar to the work heaping, if a person fails to offer up mission-critical information to a colleague, it will be tough for that other individual to be successful.
  5. Blocking opportunities for advancement. Any attempts to hold someone else down can be considered bullying. So if a supervisor continually passes over someone for conference or other educational opportunities, it’s probably time to ask some questions.

Suspect you have a bully on your team?

Whether overt or a bit more subtle, if you suspect you have a bully in your midst, you’ll want to act fast.

The first step: Call the bullying behavior to the person’s attention. Resist the urge to editorialize or label it.

Instead, simply identify the offending behaviors — excessive criticism, insulting remarks, refusing to allot credit for good work, etc.

Then make it clear that continued behavior of this type will have consequences — up to and including termination.