The PII Blog

An “Anita Hill” Moment for Workplace Bullying?

By Keith Rohman

The recent resignation of President Joe Biden’s top science adviser, Eric Lander, has brought the issue of workplace bullying into the national spotlight. Lander, a Cabinet member and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, resigned following an investigation that he had violated the White House’s Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy.

Fourteen staffers who worked for Lander described a toxic work environment in which Lander bullied and berated subordinates. One of his subordinates described Lander as “calling them names . . . embarrassing them in front of their peers, laughing at them, shunning them, taking away their duties, and replacing them or driving them out of the agency. Numerous women have been left in tears, [and] traumatized.”

Lander’s high-profile resignation could be a moment when the relatively new idea of preventing bullying and abusive behavior at work begins to be widely recognized. Sexual harassment in the workplace was going on for decades before it entered the public discussion. It took Anita Hill’s testimony during the Supreme Court hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas to bring the issue to the forefront, and now this concept is embedded in law and policy.

While there is little in U.S. employment law prohibiting bullying conduct, more and more employers are incorporating policies to address it. President Biden, himself, on the first day of his presidency, told his staff, “If you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise I will fire you on the spot.” It was an astonishing statement given the high-pressure jobs in the White House.

While most employers understand that they need to address harassment and discrimination based on race, gender, and other protected categories, generic bullying has only recently become part of the discussion. Even California, which is generally acknowledged to have some of the most progressive employee protections in the country, does not explicitly prohibit this behavior in the workplace. Beginning January 1, 2020, California Assembly Bill 2053 added anti-bullying training to existing discrimination and harassment training requirements, but this was limited to a training component.

Those of us engaged in workplace investigations have increasingly been investigating these bullying complaints, even when employers do not have explicit policies prohibiting abusive conduct. Lander’s resignation could be an “Anita Hill” moment for bullying issues in the workplace and may mean more of these investigations are coming.

Keith Rohman, president of Public Interest Investigations, has conducted investigations of workplace bullying for universities, governmental entities, and private employers.