Bullying - No longer just limited to the classroom, it may even land you in court!

Author: Yana A. St. Clair, Esq.

Bullying - No longer just limited to the classroom, it may even land you in court!

Bullying is generally defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior which involves a real, or perceived power imbalance. Traditionally, and most commonly, bullying is associated with such interaction among school aged children. Typically, such behavior manifests itself when the perpetrator abuses his or her power, which may be in the form of physical strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity, to torment, humiliate or otherwise harm the victim. In recent years with the aid of ongoing technological advances bullying has expanded far beyond the playground, and taken on the form of cyberbullying, where the aggressor utilizes social media, SMS, instant messaging or email, to similarly attack their target. 

Naturally it is not difficult to fathom that the bullying phenomenon is not merely limited to minors, and may just as easily affect any other age group and generation. Logic nonetheless suggests that a similar environment would be the most likely comparable breeding ground associated with a certain type of behavior. Children and teenagers typically spend the majority of their time with their peers in school. Adults, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time with their peers at work. Therefore, from a social standpoint the office is to adults, what the classroom and school yard are to children.

As previously stated, unfortunately many individuals do not outgrow negative tendencies and personality traits just by reaching the age of consent and an anticipated level of maturity, and often continue to feel compelled to act out in a harmful and inappropriate manner regardless of how many times they may have made a trip around the sun. Thus, it is not surprising that employers, employees and human resources departments are begging to pay closer attention to the idea of workplace bullying.

Much like their school age counterparts, adult bullies resort to similar tactics when attacking their victim of choice. They often use a real, or perceived position of power, and in some cases even mere “popularity,” to intimidate, harass or otherwise torment co-workers. Office bullying generally involves tactics such as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, physical abuse and humiliation. It can manifest itself in a number of ways, however some common examples include:

  • Being subjected to shouting or humiliation
  • Being the target of practical jokes or other type of mockery
  • Being blamed without justification
  • Being the victim of malicious rumors, gossip or innuendos
  • Having your work undermined or deliberately impeded
  • Being intentionally socially isolated or otherwise excluded
  • Any type of physical intimidation

And the list goes on, and on…

While it is undoubtedly hurtful and generally unpleasant to be subjected to any such abuse and mistreatment, this being a column on legal issues, it is imperative that we address the potential ramifications of such conduct which may land the aggressor in court, while providing the victim with a statutory course of action to protect him or herself.

The civil tort which deals with such matters is referred to as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. It is key to note that there is no universal definition followed by all jurisdiction which recognize this legal remedy, therefore an employee considering pursuing such action must check the requirements in their respective place of employment, or consult with a local attorney specializing in such issues. That being said, generally to be successful in pursuing such a claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate each of the following:

  • That extreme and outrageous conduct has occurred (generally courts have found that this standard is met when an average, reasonable person deems that the conduct exceeds what is tolerated in a civilized society, and has surpassed all reasonable bounds of decency)
  • The perpetrator must have in fact intended to cause the victim to suffer severe emotional distress, or should have anticipated that such a result was substantially likely to occur
  • The victim did in fact suffer severe, or extreme emotional distress (this prong requires that the distress is substantial, or no reasonable person is expected to endure) AND
  • The perpetrator’s conduct is what in fact caused the victim’s distress.

Disclosure: Please note that none of the information contained within the above column is to be considered legal advice.

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