Don't sue–run for your lives! (Part I)


Robert Sutton, author of The No A$$hole Rule (which has been mentioned previously at, offers some interesting commentary on proposed anti-bullying legislation being considered now in New Jersey and New York (h/t to Bullied Academics.)  He writes, “[e]ssentially, the idea of these bills is to punish employers that allow ‘equal opportunity a$$holes’ to get away with doing their dirty work, thus going beyond current laws against race and gender-based workplace abuse.”  What’s not to like?

Well, the problem is the way that lawsuits work in real life, where institutions and corporations have infinitely more time and money than individuals.  As Sutton points out, the more damage you can show, the better your case will be.  And the more damage you suffer, the more damaged you are!  This is hardly a recipe for health and happiness.  Sutton explains: 

So, the more you lose – – the deeper your depression, your anxiety, and your financial losses, and the more physical ailments you suffer –- the better your case. The implication for me is WHY NOT GET OUT BEFORE YOU SUFFER TANGIBLE DAMAGES IN THE FIRST PLACE?  Or at least why not  get out  with as little damage as possible, and get on with your life?

He also notes that a lawsuit means reliving the abuse and damage.  I hate to admit it, because it offends my sense of justice, but bullying work environments aren’t the playground, and there are no recess supervisors or hall monitors to appeal to who will ensure that the bullies get their comeuppance.  Grown-ups have to make the best lives for themselves and their loved ones they possibly can, and staying in an abusive job (like staying in other abusive relationships) to make a stronger legal case seems like a risky plan.  Prof. Zero made this point more eloquently than I in a post last spring, asking why we’re so judgmental when victims of domestic violence don’t leave immediately, whereas victims of a toxic work environment are counseled to work on the bullying relationships:  if only they’re nicer to their colleagues, if only they’d invite their colleagues out to lunch more often, if only they worked a little harder, they’d be able to fix the abusive environment.

Sutton also points out one overlooked risk of staying in an abusive work environment:  you will be assimilated.  “[R]esearch on emotional contagion, and on abusive supervision in particular, finds that if you work with or around a bunch of nasty and demeaning people, odds are you will become one of them.”  This rings true–how else do some academic departments get reputations for being abusive environments?  They’re very good at spitting out or driving away those who won’t conform, so that those who stay by definition become abusers (or enablers) who will do unto others as they were done unto.  Historiann has seen this happen–so that, in her former job, the people who behaved the worst to her had themselves been abused as junior faculty (or, in fact, were still being abused by others themselves!)

Historiann will enlarge on this point about adopting the corrupt values of an abusive work environment more tomorrow, in Part II.

0 thoughts on “Don't sue–run for your lives! (Part I)

  1. Excellent post, and not because it cites me – I’ll have to feature it, i.e. have a post leading to Parts I and II, either in my regular or my research blog.

    I went to a lecture last night that turned out to be about misogynist and abusive work environments although the topic was two 19th century women writers. Both were encouraged by male writers early on but when they started writing books that criticized clerical abuse, religious education, gold-digging, and other aspects of bourgeois patriarchy they were viciously attacked in print and their ‘friends’ remained silent. One was banned from her town and had her house attacked where she was living, and went into exile for the rest of her life. The other isolated herself, wouldn’t leave the house, although she did keep writing for some time.


  2. Wow, Prof. Zero–those women are heroic in their determination to write and testify! Interesting how they became controversial once they no longer behaved like well-trained pets.


  3. It is good to see discussion on this topic of legislation for Workplace Bullying. In my opinion, it would be a short-sited approach to say ‘just leave’ and in fact, after much turmoil, targets do end up by leaving 80% of the time. Yes, they often stay too long. But this is also like saying, I was raped at work, so I should leave in order to avoid being raped again. Most people would agree leaving is best for them, but what about the people that follow them? Similar to reporting a priest who abused a child, a teacher who perhaps did the same. Would you leave them in power to do the same to others?

    The only thing I can think of for this post to suggest ‘just leave’ and ‘we do not need any laws’, is perhaps the unawareness of some (many) workplace bullying situations that mirror severity as brutal as rape, and severe abuse. People are not aware of what is really happening out there. They are responding to the ‘working with difficult people side of the continuum’ as opposed to the ‘brutal side of workplace bullying’.

    After considerable research in this field and writing Bully Free at Work, a step by step guide to handling workplace bullying, I have come to realize that addressing workplace bullying is everyone’s responsibility. From discerning through people trying to bend rules in their favor to avoiding responsibility, to legitimate claims of harmful bullying situations where the employee is compromised, abused and not only suffers in the moment, but carries it often for many years.

    And just for the record, there are many ‘Grown-ups’ as you mention, that are capable, competent people who are blind-sided by workplace bullying and often do not have the immediate means to leave right away. By the way, why should they have to back down, often losing a well deserved pension, seniority, their community etc?

    Becoming fully aware is key. Stopping workplace bullying is everyone’s responsibility, even if it is not you that is being bullied.


  4. Hi Valerie–thanks for stopping by and commenting. I support the legislation against bullying–I was just passing along Bob Sutton’s thoughts about the real-life costs of lawsuits.

    I agree that the decision to either stay and fight or to leave is a personal and highly variable one. I also agree that stopping the bullying is everyone’s responsibility–but in too many cases, the victim is blamed and/or saddled with all of the responsibility, and in those cases resigning may be the best of a range of bad options. I was the victim of bullying in a previous job, and tried to stay and fight it a whole year, when I realized that I should get out if I could. I was able to resign for a better position. I wasn’t any smarter than other people–just luckier, the way it all worked out.


  5. As Historiann knows all too well, I was the victim of workplace bullying in my previous position as Associate Director of the honors program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio (I was also mobbed out my first academic position at the same institution as Historiann). Historiann even witnessed a melt-down in a sushi restaurant when an academic friend of a friend asked me what I did professionally. By then I was on full-time leave and diagnosed with PTSD (and seeing mental health professionals twice a week).

    My supervisor at the last post, the director of the honors program, was a sociopath with a history of bullying secretaries out of their jobs. I guess she raised the bar with me, a single woman with a difficult relation to academia, not much money, and no ties to the power structure. The bulllying escalated over time, starting with persistent haggling over letter-signing, spying on me when working with the university’s development office to full-on yelling, hissing, random prohibitions, embarrassing me in front of students, orders not to work in the library on upper level honors classes she assigned to me, towering over my desk and hissing that I “thought I was faculty” (I was unclassified staff–you know, the one who did not “make it” to tenure. Who the fuck was I to be treated like a professional adult and even have faculty friends?).

    The mediator tried to convince me that my supervisor just did not know she was harming me and that I needed to talk to her. I replied that if someone repeatedly does something harmful after being directly addressed about it, then she must have a psychological problem. I suggested they get her help. She replied with a story about how her ex-husband used to clink his spoon against his coffee cup without noticing how irritating it was. I became enraged by this lobotomy-talked and was probably judged crazy by her.

    I was also told that if I could not handle the stress of working with my supervisor, then I was not able to “perform the essential functions” of my job. Anyone who knows me–particularly my determination to make fine art while working full time–knows that I am a master at handling stress. This “essential functions” thing is becoming a popular argument against complaints of bullying, both at institutions and in the courts.

    Let me also say that I was not asking for disciplinary action against this person but for a transfer, which, after repeated appeals, was denied me. In the end, each side played a game of chicken until the determination of constructive discharge.

    One more thing: I was not able to attend Historiann’s keynote Women’s History Month lecture at my institution, which I arranged because Human Resources threatened to call campus security if I entered campus. I remember hanging out at a nearby Starbucks (she needed a ride) looking for jobs online while gave her address.

    Of course, this woman was bullied herself during her bid for tenure (although, knowing her as I do, this is but one cause of her bizarre behavior). I also have a strong hunch that she is bullied at home. On several occasions, for example, she told me and the other associate director (who, after years of bitter complaining, jumped ship and became soul sisters with psychogirl) that her husband doled out the cash to her.

    There is so much to say about this. But briefly, when I launched a formal complaint, the senior vice president, director of human resources, director of affirmative action, and the university mediator closed ranks and forced me out of my job, leaving me destitute and dangerously–very dangerously–close to the edge.

    Because there were disability issues involved, I filed a civil rights suit. I lost. My lawyer, a nice older mainstream man, broke out into a litany of profanity when civil rights mediation broke down, declaring that this place was worse than Walmart (he had just won a suit against them). I decided not to sue for the same reason other victims of abuse do not sue: I did not want to relive the situation any longer, and most important, I did not want to engage with the experience on their terms any longer. Much of my art is related to issues of trauma and institutional abandonment–self-helplessness, I call it, in an alienated/ing, atomistic society.

    People often ask me why I did not just leave. This question drives me nuts. Those who do not experience such entrapment more often than not think that they would have overcome the situation. Like many, I took pride in my job (my contributions to the university were, seriously, historical; my relations with students extremely productive and amiable; my contacts with other faculty and staff solid). I also taught for women’s studies on my own time. I obviously took pride in my job and felt “plugged-in” even as I was suffering and feeling completely threatened and isolated. I was also dependent on the job for money. Quitting was not an option by any means, although I made several attempts to get out and made the short list for several academic positions (each of which seemed rather dead-end and even asinine).

    I will never work at a university again. Although I am thriving after moving to California, I am still, inside, royally fucked up.


  6. The focus on the victim’s behavior is really amazing–you’re either nuts if you don’t just quit, or you’re letting down everyone by not fighting back if you quit. The problem with both responses is that it puts the onus on the victim, rather than the bully. (Kind of like “campus safety” programs that urge women to put themselves under house arrest unless they’re traveling with a friend or in packs at all hours of the day and night across campus. Why do we leave it up to the victims to protect themselves, rather than take action against the perps?)

    SF, your experience suggests on the one hand that legislation outlawing bullying might help, in that it would have given you another reason to sue other than your disability claim. But, your experience also shows the damage that staying in a job can do, and that even a great, sympathetic lawyer like yours can’t necessarily make it all better. (The guy won against Wal-Mart, for cripessakes–and no one beats Wal-Mart! Nobody!)


  7. By the way, “self-helplessness”–good expression. The wife of a colleague of mine has written a new book about Oprah Winfrey that may speak to some of the issues you raise. It’s by Janice Peck, The age of Oprah : cultural icon for the neoliberal era (2008). It argues that Oprah’s focus on self-help, with its implication that all failures and dissatisfactions in life must be one’s own fault, encourage a depoliticized world view that doesn’t challenge institutions or entrenched power. (As I understand it, anyway–I haven’t read it yet myself, but it’s on my summer reading list!)


  8. The term self-helplessness comes from Buckminster Fuller, although I am re-appropriating it a bit. And yes, the use of the term is supposed to function as a negative response to self-help culture (among other things it is functioning as). I’ve been furiously writing on this and other things related for a performance/video piece in which I will bury myself up to my shoulders in the earth and remain there, breathing and/or chanting, over sundown.


  9. Great post and really interesting comments. SF, to use a phrase I hate but don’t quite know how to replace, “thanks for sharing”.

    Is this bullying problem relieved at all in work environments that are unionized? And with STRONG unions where complainants have, by definition, workplace support and advocacy? The tort system can’t ever be a practical place for most people to receive redress. And by the time it gets to that point, as you’ve said, the damage is outrageous.

    I’m similarly peeved by the notion that the problem should be solved by the employee leaving the job. Not only does that put the onus on the victim, as you say Historiann, and not only is it grossly unfair to those who love their jobs, if not their bosses, as is the case for SF, but some people just can’t AFFORD to leave their jobs, for all sorts of reasons. And those reasons are getting more compelling as unemployment rates rise.


  10. Hi hysperia–good question about unions. I’ve waxed poetic about their superhero powers to solve all manner of problems, but people actually in faculty unions have written in to explain that they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. As in all things, if you’ve got good people, then they can be effective. If not, then maybe not so much.

    However, what a union rep could do is serve as a kind of intercessor who’s got standing to go to a department chair or dean and ask, “OK, so now that you know, what are we going to do about this bullying?” That would in theory alleviate the problem you note, which is that the burden of fixing the problem falls disproportionately (if not exclusively) on the victim.


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  12. Pingback: On Academic Bullying « Seminario Permanente de Teoría y Crítica

  13. Amazing, SF (and everyone). I also note that it is hard (at least for me, as a victim) to define and name bullying: this may be because mildly poor behavior I am already so used to (and shouldn’t be). When I meet bullies my first reaction is that they have cognitive problems and need help. It takes me a long time to figure out that it isn’t that but meanness. Then I find out that other people think bullying is just a stress reaction and that it is acceptable if it’s a person in power doing it.


  14. “When I meet bullies my first reaction is that they have cognitive problems and need help. It takes me a long time to figure out that it isn’t that but meanness.”

    I hear that! For the longest time, I thought that someone I worked with must have Asberger’s Syndrome or some other Autism Spectrum Disorder, because she was always mis-reading other people’s attitudes and body language. But it didn’t matter in the end what her problem was–she was treating people badly, and was completely unreflective about the effect she had on other people or our working environment.


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  16. With respect to unions, in my experience they make the situation worse, not better. I was bullied by my boss, who happened to be in the same union as me. (UUP, which is the SUNY faculty and professional staff union, allows union members to supervise other union members, which totally muddies the concept of what constitutes a labor-management issue and what does not). This guy had a long history of being a bully and the administration hated him, but because of the union it was impossible to get him out. The case went all the way to a final arbitration hearing (he was accused of multiple types of wrongdoing, not just bullying), but the union stalled so long that by the time the hearing was scheduled, most of the people on the administration’s witness list had left, and testifying would have meant taking time off from our news jobs and traveling out of town at our own expense. Meanwhile, the very same union did absolutely nothing to protect US from HIM, because while protecting a union member against termination is part of the union’s job, apparently protecting a union member against vicious bullying is not. It wasn’t addressed in the collective bargaining agreement, so as far as the union was concerned, it didn’t exist. So my union dues were essentially used to defend the guy whose abuse put me into therapy and on meds.


  17. Ugh, Been There. I’m sorry to hear about your experience, and I hope you were able to find another job and to heal.

    I appreciate your perspective on what unions might and might not accomplish. It’s an interesting question–I’m not in a union (no unions at my university), and so wonder how other schools deal with bosses (chairs, deans, other administrators) being in the faculty union, when of course they were faculty members first before becoming administrators. Do other schools kick people out of the union while they’re administrating? Or do they let everyone stay in, and run the risk of protecting only one of their members against another? (Or do they appoint two mediators when a grievance arises?) Interesting twist.


  18. Yes re odd focus on the behavior of the victim. It seems people really, really want to believe it couldn’t happen to them, that they would be able to fix it or that they are such virtuous people that they would never ‘deserve’ this treatment. Very disturbing.


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  20. I know I’m a little late here but…

    Laws holding the bully directly liable would stop most workplace bullying in its tracks and prevent it from happening in the future. I think bullies will act civilized as soon as they find out it’s them that’ll be sued, not the owners. That must be why they don’t walk around punching and raping people.

    Can you imagine what the world would be like if no laws were ever passed because it was too hard?

    Please sign the petition to pass the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill .

    Thank you!


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