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(Female) Employee Bites (Female) Boss

Vivia Chen

June 25, 2010

Fotolia_12089360_XS[1] 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 [email protected].

Photo: Labrator / Fotolia.com


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It's ironic, Tricia, that in one line you would type, "only a woman manager would...", followed immediately by, "Women are not prone to this behavior and these kinds of stereotypes should not be fostered so blithely." You broadly state that ONLY women would do one thing, and then complain about broad statements about women's behavior? Are you opposed to stereotypes, or do you dislike particular ones that grate against your preferences?

Tricia, you couldn't be more wrong. Adult women are MUCH more prone to bullying and being bullied than men, especially in the workplace.

I was a victim of extreme bullying in the workplace by a group of women about six years ago and I had to leave the organization. It was not in anyway driven by my weakness, but rather by women who were threatened by the audience I had in our CEO and the quality of my work. I became the subject of a number of rumors, all of which untrue, brutal comments and I was blantantly ignored in meetings by these individuals when I spoke. It was truly unprofessional, and it had a lasting effect on me.

Ever since that eye-opening experience to what women are capable of, I've had the opportunity to watch it from the sidelines and have seen it happen in other workplaces. I've also been "invited" to join in, but I've made it very clear I won't participate in these ridiculous women-centric games that men don't even realize are going on in the office.

Women can't help it. They band together in cliques and choose who to target. Until you've fallen under that bus through no fault of your own, you'll never know how truly cruel women can be.

Clearly a weak manager who did not know her own power. This subordinate should have been reprimanded on the first instance of insubordination and fired on the second. This happens with men too - however, only a woman manager would make the situation known so publicly. A male manager would have found a new job himself or promoted the subordinate out of his area. I am not happy with the tone of this article. Supervisor/subordinate relations are the same whether you are talking about two women, two men or a mix. Women are not prone to this behavior and these kinds of stereotypes should not be fostered so blithely.

Not so uncommon. Read Phyllis Chesler's Women's Inhumanity to Women.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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