Last night’s Moroccan Christmas episode is one of my favorites, and as usual, it offered plenty of what-not-to-dos. At the center of the episode was Michael’s forced intervention with Meredith about her alcohol (porn?) addiction. But there was also something else at play in the episode. There was some serious bullying going on.
Phyllis finally has the upper-hand with Angela, who she caught having sex with Dwight. Phyllis bosses Angela around, threatening to tell everyone about their affair, including Angela’s fiancé, Andy. (Phyllis doesn’t think her actions constitute blackmail unless she sends a formal letter – we’ll save this for another rerun!) Phyllis orders Angela to put away most of her off-theme nativity scene, get everyone a plate of hummus with fanned pita triangles and fanned napkins, and wear a hair net. When Angela fights back, Phyllis tells everyone in the office, except Andy (next episode is going to be awkward!), about Angela’s affair with Dwight.
I’m not going to say that Angela didn’t deserve every bit of it, but unfortunately, that’s not the test for whether Angela would have a viable claim. While, in most states, there is no direct cause of action for workplace bullying or general workplace harassment (without tying it to something like sex or race, etc.), most states do allow claims for emotional distress. This is generally a very hard claim to prove – the bully’s actions must shock the conscience – and the courts have enforced fairly high standards.
I don’t think that Angela has much of claim, and I would estimate her potential recovery for emotional distress at $0. Phyllis’s actions don’t really shock the conscience, and Angela is not going to be a very sympathetic plaintiff, particularly in light of how she has treated Phyllis in the past. However, in a more shocking scenario and with a more sympathetic plaintiff, the cost can run high because emotional distress can lead to damages for things such as illness, depression, and in some cases, job loss or even suicide. So, it is important for employers to put an end to bullying if it becomes a problem in the workplace.
Stay tuned for next week’s episode… will Andy discover what’s going on between Angela and Dwight? So much to talk about!