A recent $25 million dollar verdict in the U.S. is a far cry from the type of justice given to targets of workplace bullying in Australia. The most recent case, we are aware of, was for $2 million dollars awarded back in 2004 (Employer found liable for extreme bullying). The damage caused by this type of horrific treatment won’t be taken seriously by employers until they’re hit hard with major financial penalties and potential jail terms. Most importantly, however, the current laws restricting bullied workers in various workers compensation schemes limiting their ability to take out a common law claim for damages against their employer needs to be lifted. As it stands, targets of workplace bullying are unable to make a claim until they’re reached an arbitrary and unrealistic (in our opinion) level of psychological impairment . As it stands bullied workers are subjected to numerous psychiatric assessments often over a period of years (one person underwent 16 assessments) which can be just as damaging as the original bullying events.
August 2, 2012
When a jury takes time to examine a workplace culture and then reaches a $25 million verdict against the employer, it’s clear that it was doing something wrong. That is exactly what happened after a three-week trial over race harassment and bullying at an upstate New York steel plant. Hopefully the lessons learned by this employer will be ones that can be taken to heart and applied in other workplaces.
Between 2005 and 2008, Elijah Turley worked as a processor operator at the Lackawanna steel plant run by ArcelorMittal Steel. It was tough, strenuous work in a blue-collar environment. But it was even more difficult for Turley because of the treatment he received at the hands of his co-workers.
He was made the brunt of abuse and bullying mostly centered on his African-American race. He once found a stuffed monkey with a noose around its neck hanging from his driver’s-side mirror. He heard racial slurs and jokes. He witnessed graffiti – such as “KKK” on the walls of the plant.
Turley repeatedly reported the behavior to his bosses, but he claims they waited far too long to react. And even after they hired an investigator to look into the allegations and then suspended several offending co-workers, the harassment persisted.
At trial, the company’s main defenses were that it felt “caught in the middle” between the complaints and the co-workers, and that much of what Turley complained about amounted to nothing more than “trash talk” that is common in blue-collar manufacturing facilities.
The jury obviously disagreed. After hearing all of the evidence and deliberating, the jurors unanimously ruled in Turley’s favor and awarded him $25 million in damages. It’s one of the largest jury awards in a single-plaintiff employment case in American history.
So where, besides the obvious, did this employer go wrong? A lot can be gleaned from its defenses: It is never a good idea to rely on the “but that sort of behavior is common in our industry” defense.
Granted, context does matter to some extent. Imagine seeing a co-worker playfully slap a subordinate on the rear end while at work – that’s never acceptable, right? It certainly wouldn’t be in an office setting, or even in a blue-collar environment. But if the incident happened on a football field between two professional athletes, it’s a different story.
So, although context does matter, and saltier language might be more common in a warehouse than in a boardroom, that doesn’t mean certain workplaces are exempt from employment law. The first lesson to be learned from this staggering jury verdict is that employers can’t simply rely on “industry standards” when determining whether workplace behavior is appropriate.
Although trash talk and locker room humor may be customary at a company, imagine for a second that this behavior is now being examined under the cold, hard light of day in a courtroom. Would there be pride or embarrassment in the activity taking place?
Another lesson to be learned involves longtime employees who might be somehow exempted from the normal rules because of their seniority or quirky personality.
I once conducted workplace training for a blue-collar crew at the request of management. During the presentation, a crusty older worker in the front row made a politically incorrect comment in front of the whole group that drew laughter from the crowd. After the training, I spoke with a manager about how inappropriate that was and provided a recommendation that the employee should be counseled or disciplined. The manager replied, “Oh, that’s just Vern (not his real name) being Vern!”
At that moment I realized that the company had just wasted my time and its money in hiring me to train its workforce. With that kind of attitude, the workers might as well have ignored everything I said.
Again, will it really matter to jurors which worker is making the sexual jokes or using racial slurs? If management tries to defend the actions in front of a jury by saying, “Oh, that’s just Vern being Vern,” it would be hard to believe the jury would give that employer a pass.
In the end, perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned from this case is the vital importance of training managers to identify and address workplace bullying and harassment immediately, on sight. Even if managers are told to pass issues to the human resources department, at least then they will be handled and the offending behavior should cease.
The steel mill would not have lost the case if its officials had investigated the treatment of Turley immediately upon learning about it, meted out discipline to the offending employees, reaffirmed its comprehensive employment policies with all employees, and put all managers and employees through annual training sessions to teach them about proper workplace behavior.
And although that might sound like a lot of work, I guarantee you that these simple steps could save a company $25 million (give or take).