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Posted: March 06, 2009

Economic bullying: An interview with employment attorney Cynthia Wellbrock

What would you put up with in order to keep your job?

Liz Ryan

It’s not just laid-off people who are feeling the recession pinch. Employed people – and their managers – are reacting to the stress, as well. I checked in with Denver employment law attorney Cynthia Wellbrock for her take on how downturn-anxiety is affecting working people.

Q: What are you seeing in terms of economic anxiety showing up at work?

A: I’m seeing ugly things, from grossly unprofessional conduct to unlawful practices up to and including threats of violence. I’ve heard of situations where employees who are being harassed or denied overtime pay (despite working the overtime) are told they can quit if they don’t like it. One person with over 15 years experience told me his boss flew into a screaming rage and threatened to shove him down the stairs over a minor issue – yet he’s afraid to speak up. I asked him what would make his supervisor behave like that, and he said, “Everyone is scared of losing their jobs. The stress is incredible.” That’s no justification, but he is right and more and more workers are unwilling to say or do anything about abusive behaviors for fear of termination. I’ve started to call the phenomenon economic bullying. 

Q: What are the dangers to employers when managers begin to “act out” with their employees or teams?

A: The first, obvious danger is the risk of litigation. Not every employee will be afraid to speak up. Those who end up being terminated have nothing to lose and may take steps toward a lawsuit. It’s expensive to defend against claims of any kind, not to mention the lost time and energy devoted to keeping the business afloat. The longer people fail to speak up to their boss or to HR, the greater their stress will become, and symptoms of stress like depression, anxiety, and illnesses increase. Stressed and sick employees aren’t productive, and tend to miss more time. The result is decreased productivity at the worst possible time and costly emotional distress damages in the event of litigation. 

Q: What are some of the steps that CEOs and managers can take to reduce “economic bullying?”

A: They should consider the legal impact their actions will have down the road. They should consult with an experienced HR consultant if they don’t have one in-house or an attorney who specializes in employment law. They should stand by their companies’ values such as an equal opportunity and respectful workplace, and make it clear to managers that unlawful conduct, and threats of it, will lead to termination. They should keep a close eye on how departments are handing RIFs to ensure laws are complied with. They should offer stress management classes for their employees. If they provide EAP assistance, they should encourage employees to take advantage of it for stress-related issues like depression, oversleeping, abuse of alcohol, etc. They should advise their managers that if they see someone exhibiting signs of stress they shouldn’t ignore it – because it will most likely escalate. Finally, they should encourage employees to come forward if they experience unlawful treatment and stress that they will not be retaliated against for doing so - and mean it... No one can guarantee that an employee won’t experience retaliation for complaining, but it’s illegal to do so and the employer risks costly litigation if they do.
Q: What can employees do if they feel they’ve been a victim of wrongdoing?

A: Document incidents as they occur. Contemporaneous records are the most powerful. Speak up to the bully or harasser in a calm manner and ask them to stop. Report the incident to HR. Insist that HR take action immediately to investigate your complaint. In instances of unfair wage & hour practices track the hours you worked but for which you weren’t compensated properly. In the event of litigation those records are crucial. In certain situations, and employee is required to report harassment or discrimination to upper management or HR when it happens.   Failure to do so could bar the employee from suing in the future. 

Q: Any final note of caution to employers?

A: Yes. If an employee complains about unlawful conduct, be sure not to use a minor infraction or failing as an “excuse” to terminate that employee. While it’s technically true that the employee was ‘at will’ and they can be terminated for coming in late. ... However, if he or she can show that others in the company – who have NOT complained about unlawful conduct – show up late but aren’t terminated, it shows the given reason for the termination was a mere pretext and thus successfully sue the employer. And remember, a terminated employee has nothing to lose by suing.  

Cynthia Wellbrock can be reached at

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Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec and an advisor to organizations and job-seekers. Reach her at or

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Readers Respond

Wow - a lot of good information here. Some of it seems like common sense, but it's nice to see it laid out - and to be reminded of it. By Dana Miller on 2009 03 13

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