Here's a nice revenge fantasy: Instead of a nasty partner tormenting some poor associate, it's the subordinate who bullies the boss to the breaking point. Even better, the firm fails to come to the partner's defense, and the partner has a breakdown and eventually leaves.
That, in essence, is the story of Caroline Cowper, the former head of legal for Zurich UK Services Ltd's U.K. division, who claims that she was bullied and harassed by a junior lawyer, Pearl Lestrade-Brown. Cowper is now suing her employer for failing to take action to address the abuse, reports the Telegraph.
According to the British newspaper, Cowper says that the junior lawyer "had adopted a confrontational attitude" and "proceeded to come up with a series of allegations about me, all of which were completely untrue, and completely unsupported by any evidence." Lestrade-Brown "said that I had harassed her and bullied her, that I hated her and had been in a campaign against her ever since she arrived."
Cowper claims that the stress of the work environment made her seriously ill. The Telegraph reports that Cowper's barrister told the court that "she was dismissed on medical grounds in October 2009 after the constant stress of working with Ms. Lestrade-Brown drove her to take long-term sick leave in July 2007."
As with any harassment case, it's the details that count. We don't know the gory details in this case, so who knows who's right or wrong? Moreover, I'm not sure I really care.
To me, what's fascinating are the questions that the case raises. Are women managers or partners more threatened by subordinates? Or to put it another way, are employees more resistant to taking orders from a woman? Then there's this uncomfortable question: Do these conflicts occur more often between women?
According to Zogby International, a polling and marketing organization, women tend to bully other women: "When bullies are women, they choose other women as their prey in 71 percent of cases. Bullying, or status-blind harassment, is four times more prevalent than illegal, civil rights, status-based harassment. Same-gender harassment defines the two most frequent categories of bullying."
I don't have to tell you that women working for other women is complicated. It's controversial to even say that it's a controversial issue. But, putting that aside, the case also reflects management's failure to take the conflict seriously.
Career adviser Elizabeth Munnell, who's also a former law firm partner, says that it's possible "that gender was indeed the real problem, with the bias reflected in Zurich's failure to manage a PR crisis waiting to happen. The managers--men or women--may have simply ignored what they saw as two female lawyers engaged in a good old-fashioned catfight."
Employers just don't take bullying seriously, says career coach Selena Rezvani: "The insidious nature of bullying at work makes it hard to prove and all too easy to chock up to personality difference." Rezvani also says this is especially true for "female-on-female bullying."
Any way you look at it, subordinates bullying bosses is still rare. "This case is an exception," says employment lawyer Michael Maslanka, who is not involved in the U.K. case. "It is not so much [a case about] feeling harassed as it is a [case about] feeling of being under siege."
Besieged, harassed, bullied--it happens. Do you see it in your workplace? And is it really worse between women?
If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.
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