Whiplash: Great Film. But Does it Promote Bullying?

On a recent plane trip, I was fortunate to find that Air Canada had enhanced its collection of films and added several new releases.  Since this was a lengthy day time flight, I actually managed to watch four new releases, all of which were reasonably good.

But the film that has really resonated with me is one of the Oscar nominated films for 2015 – Whiplash.  This is an extremely powerful movie that addresses some topics that I have written and spoken about on this site and elsewhere.  The film is riveting but it is also quite disturbing.  Its music is outstanding and its direction and acting are both tremendous.

But here is the issue.  How is human excellence produced?  What causes people to become truly great at a particular activity, whether it is sports, music, art or some other discipline?  Of course, most of us can agree that hard work, drive, motivation and some natural talent are all part of the mix.  But the disturbing suggestion of this film is that being subjected to abuse is almost a prerequisite for being able to achieve greatness.  And that is portrayed as a good thing.

The movie is the story of Andrew Neyman, an aspiring young jazz drummer who has been admitted to one of the best music schools in the United States.  There, he is recruited to play under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher, a highly accomplished jazz musician.  Fletcher, whose role is played by J.K. Simmons, is a maniacal, abusive, foul mouthed bully.  Fletcher’s justification is that he knows how to produce great musicians.  He constantly repeats a story about how Charlie Parker only became great after a cymbal was thrown at his head when he made a mistake.  It is abuse and fear, runs the suggestion, that causes people to become inspired and to work hard enough to become great.

As a result, nothing is below Terence Fletcher.  The movie covers the gamut of abuse.  Fletcher publicly berates and humiliates his students.  His repertoire includes obscenities, repeated graphic sexual references, belittling, and even physical abuse.  All for the good of the students, runs the suggestion, even if the weaker musicians will be driven to failure, mental illness or even thoughts of suicide.

Sadly, the movie is a reasonably accurate representation of many bullies who can be found in workplaces, schools, sports teams and in other places, even churches and synagogues.  I can attest to having worked professionally with two of these character types and having seen, in real life, some scenes that could have been included in this movie.  As an employment lawyer, I have met with many people who have conveyed stories of similar incidents, even while working with public or charitable organizations.  I note that in a review that I wrote of Steve Jobs’ book, this type of bullying was one of the central themes – the way that Steve Jobs treated other employees and many other people.

Is this really the path to greatness?  I have a hard time believing that.  I can certainly accept that people need to be pushed to their limits to be able to accomplish the unexpected.  Keeping a music class for hours beyond the scheduled ending time or giving people enormously challenging goals and tasks is not abuse, in my view, even though it might be tough to handle for some.  In some disciplines, people might need to be challenged to their limits in a very physical way.  I can readily accept that in training for ice hockey, football or in military training the physical and emotional demands to which individuals are subjected could be excruciatingly high.  Even in other disciplines, the mental demands that are made, the time lines, the pressure all might be extreme.   And when that happens, particularly for those on the receiving end, it may seem hard to draw the line between demanding requirements and abuse.

In another movie that I happened to watch on this flight as well, Stephen Hawking was also pushed to his limits.  At an early age, the suggestion is that he and other students were given nearly impossible physics problems to solve in a short period of time and pushed to fight extremely difficult challenges.  But there is no suggestion that the professors felt the need to humiliate or abuse Mr. Hawking to bring out his greatness.

I can’t accept that in order to succeed, young musicians, athletes, artists or employees must be humiliated yelled at, sworn at and otherwise abused in order to become great.  Moreover, I can’t even accept the suggestion that these coaches, teachers, bosses and others behave this way because they are personally motivated to create greatness.  More often than not, one finds that the bully is employing this tactic because of his or her own inadequacies, real or perceived.  It may be an issue in the person’s personal life, a professional failing, or something else.  In workplaces, it may be the response to the perceived threat posed by a young up and coming individual.  I am not a psychologist so I can’t explain how bullies are created.  But I would think that these types of tactics are much more likely to be harmful and counterproductive in most scenarios.

I can certainly say that some of the best teachers and bosses that I have had, who pushed people to their limits, were demanding, strict and detailed.  But not abusive.  If anything, the opposite.  They generated respect because those with whom they worked really had the sense that the teachers or bosses were looking out for their well-being while trying to push them to their limits or beyond.  I have often read that type of summary about great sports coaches, military and political leaders or others.  That they inspired people to push themselves to the limit but that they also attracted tremendous respect and displayed empathy and compassion.

Fortunately, in workplaces, in some jurisdictions, like ours in the Province of Ontario, legislation has been passed to try to prevent and ban workplace bullying.  In today’s day and age, parent and student vigilance and changing attitudes help to diminish the likelihood of this type of behaviour in schools, churches and synagogues and other organizations.  But there is still a great deal of it out there.  And there are still many people who accept Terence Fletcher’s mantra – that abuse and fear creates greatness.  That is the very disturbing message of this film.

While the music in the film was excellent, the acting was very strong and the story was riveting, I was left wrestling with the film’s premise as the movie came to its conclusion.  I don’t feel that it was very much of a struggle.  I reject the premise even though I accept that this movie presents the argument as well as anyone might make it.

Dealing with abusive bosses

Dealing with abusive bosses

Working for an abusive boss has been compared to being an abused spouse. Although workplace abuse is less likely to involve physical harm and is usually far less severe, the situations are similar in other respects. In both cases, the victim feels vulnerable and dependent and often stays in the relationship. In both cases, the victim faces difficult financial choices.

This was the situation that Timothy Lloyd faced, according to court records. He worked as the City Manager for Imperial Parking in Calgary, reporting to the Vice President of the company. With a starting salary of $50,000 and generous benefits, Lloyd began his employment with high hopes. Unfortunately, according to a 1997 Alberta court decision, Lloyd had the misfortune of working for a rude and abrasive boss. Lloyd’s boss called him vulgar names and threatened to fire him. He refused to let him take his vacation. He repeatedly yelled and screamed at him. After enduring this treatment for fifteen months, Lloyd could no longer take the abuse. He quit his job and sued Imperial Parking.

A former Imperial Parking employee testified at the trial that Lloyd appeared somewhat like an abused spouse. He was made to feel insecure, berated and humiliated. The Alberta Court agreed with Lloyd that this treatment violated a fundamental term of any employment relationship- the right to be treated with civility, decency, respect and dignity. Lloyd was awarded damages of more than $27,000 for constructive dismissal.

Since 1997, Courts of Appeal in Manitoba and Ontario have issued similar decisions, ruling that Canadian employees are entitled to work in an abuse-free workplace. If a workplace becomes intolerable, employees can quit and sue for constructive dismissal. Intolerable conduct clearly includes verbal or physical abuse. According to recent decisions, it can also mean being given unfair job evaluations or being put on probation without any basis.

Despite the increasing willingness of courts to allow these claims, courts have also recognized that employers have the right to discipline their employees for poor performance and to make fair but tough demands. In difficult economic times, there is a great deal of pressure to produce results. Working for a challenging and difficult boss is not a basis for bringing a lawsuit. But when the demands are unfair and the boss becomes abusive – the legal picture changes.

In his 1996 book, Brutal Bosses and Their Prey, professor Harvey Hornstein sought to identify the differences between tough bosses and those who are abusive. Tough bosses set tough goals and consequences for not meeting the standards. Abusive bosses have a different goal. They aim to make life miserable for their subordinates. They humiliate their employees in front of co-workers or customers. They criticize others harshly without any basis. Some accuse their subordinates of dishonesty or disloyalty in an effort to provoke a reaction. Others demand that employees carry out unethical or improper activities, as tests, to see how far the employees are prepared to go.

This type of conduct is not only harmful to the employees who face it but also creates problems for their employers. Workplace abuse creates high turnover rates, productivity problems and higher rates of absenteeism, not to mention increasingly high liability for damage awards in lawsuits.

Years ago, many people would have shrugged their shoulders and advised employees to tolerate the abuse or find a new job. For some today, that is still the right attitude. But things are changing. With developing Canadian case law, courts have shown that they are prepared to sanction employers who tolerate abusive bosses. Many proactive and responsible employers have faced this challenge by developing comprehensive anti-harassment policies, designed to prevent this kind of conduct.

Abusive treatment lawsuits have not been limited to bosses. Abusive co-workers can also create legal liability problems for employers. In 2000, a B.C. Court held that the Marine Pub was liable because it failed to stop its kitchen manager from yelling and swearing at a 13 year Beverage Manager, Susan Morgan. Morgan resigned and sued after almost two years of putting up with abusive treatment. The Marine Pub knew it was going on but failed to stop it. Morgan was awarded 13 months’ pay.

Courts have also recently ruled that extra damages can be awarded for intentional infliction of mental or emotional distress. If en employer’s conduct is outrageous and callous – or even if it is “sarcastic, envious, petty and vindictive,” and is intended to cause harm to an employee, the employer might face an additional award of tort damages. To date these awards have usually been under $25,000 – relatively low, at least by U.S. standards. But Canadian law in this area is continuing to develop and may soon lead to very substantial awards against employers that tolerate abusive bosses.

For employees’ trapped working for an abusive boss, there is no easy legal answer. If the employer has an anti-harassment policy, the policy will usually set the boundaries of acceptable conduct. There may be a confidential investigation and enforcement procedure and the policy may even have some teeth. These policies can benefit the company by limiting liability although, in practice, it can be a very difficult decision for an employee to launch this kind of complaint. Sometimes, it might be easier to try to transfer to a different division or location if that is a possibility

For others, the stress of working in an abusive work situation can create medical problems. Panic attacks, insomnia and other forms of physical illness are common. In these cases, a medical leave may be the best response.

In other scenarios, the only available option is to quit, even without having found another job. Employees who quit a job because of workplace abuse are eligible for Employment Insurance benefits. They may also be able to sue their former employers for constructive dismissal if they can show that their workplace became intolerable. This kind of decision should be made very carefully and usually with professional advice, since the economic impact of leaving a job can be very significant.

Ken Krupat practices employment law in Toronto. He represents employees and employers in a wide range of workplace issues.


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