Climbing up the corporate ladder with bullying in the workplace

By 6th Aug 2019Apr 8th, 2021Employment Law

A law firm can be a stressful place to work: hierarchical structures, power imbalances and pressure to measure productivity by billable hours often push employees with expensive educations and phenomenal grades to perform at extraordinary levels.

This competitive behaviour becomes, “the very oxygen that these individuals breathe” which may lead to an adverse effect on an employee’s well-being and their quality of work. For young candidate attorneys, this type of behaviour will come as no surprise. Candidate attorneys quickly realise that they must start at the lowest rank in the pecking order. They are often powerless, usually overworked, typically under-appreciated and desperate to secure employment after their articles are completed.

This stressful nature of the attorneys’ profession is inherent to ultimately delivering the level of service clients expect the firm to provide. Lawyers need to be diligent and ethical, and always remain abreast of the latest legislation, common law and legal trends in order to render that professional service. Lawyers are so laser-focused on the end goal that it is easy to become impatient and short. Add to that mix the compounding factor of youth, looming deadlines and trying to build a profitable practice: we have the recipe for unreported workplace bullying.

Junior associates are responsible and accountable to more senior practitioners in the firm: Senior Associates, Junior Partners, Equity Partners, Managing Partners and work with Counsel, who feed work to junior attorneys. These juniors are expected to attend to all this work, regardless of how many clients’ legal needs they must meet. There is a continual struggle for junior lawyers to climb the corporate legal ladder, and show career progress. This can cause young lawyers to accept all instructions, which increases the pile of work to which they must already attend. This pressure to constantly perform, meet in- creasing client expectations, produce a profitable practice, work extensive hours and be- come subject to challenging emotional and intellectual situations can be very stressful, especially where seniors’ demands and expectations increase in a difficult economy.

A line must, however, be drawn in the sand when “pushiness” becomes disrespectful or hurtful, and when demands become forms of workplace bullying and have an impact on an employee’s psychological sense of well-being, human dignity and productivity.

Workplace bullying is defined as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one person by one or more perpetrators. Bullying is characterised by:

  • Shouting and swearing or otherwise verbally abusing someone more junior;
  • One person being singled out for unjustified criticism or blame;
  • An employee being excluded from company activities or having his / her work contributions ignored;Language or actions that embarrass or humiliate;
  • Practical jokes, especially if they happen repeatedly to the same person;
  • Work interference which prevents an individual from completing their job (denying resources or access to information).”

An isolated incident of these characterisations does not normally satisfy the definition of bullying – such action(s) must “be repeated, creating an ongoing pattern, unreason- able and abusive”.

In essence – superiors who set high standards are not necessarily bullies; as long as they are respectful and have reasonable expectations within the confines of the situation.

International research shows that lawyers “have higher rates than other professionals of illnesses, such as heart dis- ease, increased blood pressure depression and anxiety. Bullying further impacts the firm in the following ways:

  • Bullied employees have a higher rate of suicide;
  • Reduced productivity;
  • Decreased morale;
  • Higher rates of employee turnover.”

So how do we change this behaviour? The way forward is a multi-pronged approach. While policies and procedures should help minimise the perpetration of bullying in the workplace, law firms must strive to create an organisation with a culture of mutual respect, where human resource policies promote workplace practices which ensure everyone supports each other. In the case of workplace bullying, the partner responsible for human resources should ensure all staff are sensitised and made aware of what conduct transgresses the boundaries and will constitute prohibited bullying actions. Recognising the need to self-manage and handle occupational stress in the correct manner, and interact with others with respect, will always lead to a much happier workplace with optimal relationships between colleagues. Medical attention must be sought in circumstances where the bullying causes deterioration to the employees’ physical and mental health.


-By Varusha Naidoo, a Partner with HJW.