Tuesday, September 7, 2021

“Ted Lasso" and the difference between illegal harassment and legal (but still wrong) bullying

If you're watching Ted Lasso, you're familiar with the story of Nathan Shelley, kit man turned coach turned Wonder Kid. Season 2 tells a fascinating story about Nate that is still unfolding. His arc has transformed him from a bullied kit man to an abusive coach, and from a loveable underdog to an insufferable a-hole. Episode 7 ended with Nate cruelly unleashing a tirade of anger on his replacement as the team's kitman, Will.

There is little doubt that Nate's mistreatment of Will and others is both uncomfortable to watch and a portrait of horrendous management. But is it illegal?

The answer is no.

Unless a bully is harassing someone because of a protected class (race, sex, age, disability, religion, national origin…) bullying is probably lawful. As the U.S. Supreme Court has famously said, our workplace discrimination laws are not meant to be a "general civility code" for the workplace. In layman's terms, our laws allow people to be jerks to each other at work as long as it's not because of a protected reason.

The question, however, is not whether the law protects the bullied, but instead what you should be doing about it in your workplace. If you want state legislatures to pass workplace bullying legislation, then continue to ignore the issue in your business. If you want to be sued by every employee who is looked at funny or at whose direction a harsh word is uttered (some of whom will be in a protected class), then continue to tolerate abusive employees. If you want to crush employees' morale and cause emotional distress, then let bullies go unchecked. If you want to lose well-performing, productive workers, then allow them to be pushed out the door by intolerable managers, supervisors, or co-workers.

The reality is that even if companies do not take this issue seriously, their employees will. What can you do to protect your workplace from this misconduct and all of the problems that it will cause?
  • Review current policies. Most handbooks already have policies and procedures in place that deal with workplace bullying. Do you have an open-door policy? A complaint policy? A standards-of-conduct policy? If so, your employees already know that they can go to management with any concerns—bullying included—and seek intervention.
  • Take complaints seriously. These policies are only as good as how they are enforced. Whether or not illegal, reports of bullying should be treated like any other harassment complaint. You should promptly conduct an investigation and implement appropriate corrective action to remedy the bullying.
  • If you see it, do something about it. Bullies that go unchecked and uncorrected become empowered to bully more. You cannot let this happened. You must let them know, as soon as you notice the misbehavior, that such misconduct is contra to company policy and culture, that it will not be tolerated, and that if continues the employee will be terminated. 
In other words, take seriously bullying in your workplace. Or, in the sage words of Coach Beard, "Do better."

* Image via AFC Richmond