Bullies in the Workplace

When does bullying behavior in the workplace rise to an actionable level? This question was considered by the Iowa Court of Appeals in Wilson v. Cintas Corp No. 2 released Wednesday, December 17, 2008.

The facts indicate that Wilson was daily subjected to a “constant barrage of personal attacks, insults, and vile profanity” by his co-worker Mills. (The conduct occurred for approximately 5-10 minutes each day). The specific insults are too vulgar to repeat, but can be found in the opinion. It was also brought out that both employees were involved in the insults and profanity. Wilson did report the conduct to his supervisors. Apparently the employer took some action because Mills was terminated in December because he had four occurrences of shouting inappropriate language and not maintaining a level of professionalism. Later Wilson terminated his employment for reasons unrelated to Mills’ conduct.


The opinion tells us that “outrageous conduct” is the standard for maintaining an action against a co-worker for this type of conduct. Outrageous conduct “is so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”  It should extract an exclamation of outrage from and instill resentment in the average member of the community. Mills’ behavior was considered “inconsiderate, unkind, and offensive” but was not outrageous conduct according to the court.


The court contrasted Mills’ behavior with the behavior of a supervisor in Blong v. Snyder, 361 N.W.2d 312 (Iowa Ct. App. 1984). In that case a discharged employee who was reinstated after filing a grievance was falsely “accused of stealing, wasting time, intentionally breaking his machine, intentionally producing inferior parts, violating fifteen company rules, playing with himself in the restroom, given extra work without receiving the proper tools to do the job and was then berated, threatened, and disciplined for his inability to properly complete the task.”

It’s apparent from the comparison between these two cases that the court will not get involved in personality conflicts but will step in when offensive conduct rises to a level that is unconscionable.

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Gavin Craig - December 20, 2008 7:05 AM

Unconscionable: That means, "I know it when I see it." Since this kind of behavior must negatively effect the work place, and since the employees are at-will employees, I think an employer should strongly consider firing the offending person when the conduct get extreme, as in this case. The employer should not need to guess what a court will later find to be "unconscionable." Don't wait to get sued.

Ben Leichtling - December 25, 2008 3:32 PM

Thanks for the post.

Bullying decreases productivity and wastes time dealing with suits. That’s in addition to any moral and ethical concerns you have for your company.

In any company, the problem starts on top. In my experience, if leadership decides to ignore the issue of bullying or even to support rampant bullying, the company opens itself to successful suits, even from at-will employees.

Some leaders and managers have difficulties evaluating and recording bullying behavior as part of performance reviews. Even though bullying can be difficult to quantify, it’s easy to recognize and easy to write up legally as long as you stick to physical descriptions of the actions involved.

Disclosure: I’m a practical, pragmatic coach and consultant who has helped organizations get rid of bullying behavior. Check out my website and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com). I’ve produced a CD set including workbook, “Eliminate the High Cost of Low Attitudes” and written books like “How to Stop Bullies in their Tracks.”

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