Their dysfunctional on-screen family antics brought a cult TV sitcom back from cancellation, but an expert says the “Arrested Development” cast’s public reckoning with accusations of on-set verbal harassment could strike a chord with many Canadian workers dealing with bullying on the job.
In a candid sit-down with the New York Times this week, several cast members from the Netflix series addressed the allegations of inappropriate behaviour against actor Jeffrey Tambor, including an outburst directed at his co-star Jessica Walter.
Walter tearfully recounted being verbally “harassed” by Tambor in the interview, saying that in her career spanning six decades, “I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set.”
Tambor has admitted to having lashed out at coworkers, including Walter, but has denied separate allegations of sexual harassment that resulted in him leaving the cast of the Amazon series “Transparent.”
McMaster University professor Aaron Schat, who studies aggression in professional settings, said the cast’s discussion offers an instructive test case for understanding the interpersonal dynamics and power structures that facilitate workplace bullying.
“I think what I found so interesting, and frankly, disappointing is how it really … plays out as a microcosm of what can take place at organizations in general.”
A well-established actor, Tambor serves as an example of how a worker can excel in their domain despite an acknowledged history of workplace aggression, said Schat.
In fact, he said, professional success is often used to excuse bad behaviour.
“The system ends up supporting or covering for their actions, and that of course then perpetuates and ends up implicitly rewarding this kind of behaviour rather than clamping down and reducing it.”
Schat said this pattern can be seen in the Times interview when Jason Bateman “minimizes” his co-star’s culpability by attributing his conduct to the stresses of working on set, and says he would drop out of “Arrested Development” if Tambor wasn’t involved.
In a series of tweets Thursday, Bateman apologized for his comments, saying they were “wrong” and that it seemed like he was “condoning yelling at work.”
Schat said Bateman’s initial “endorsement” of Tambor also sent an implicit message to Walter that “he’s more important to the show than you are,” putting pressure on her to forgive him for the sake of keeping the peace.
Forty per cent of Canadians experience workplace bullying on a weekly basis, according to a 2006 study cited on the Canadian Institutes of Health Research website.
Schat said there are a few options for workers who are being mistreated by their colleagues.
Most organizations have internal mechanisms for resolving workplace conflict, said Schat. He said some targets decide to confront their bullies head on, while others find strength in numbers by confiding in their coworkers.
Jacqueline Power, an associate professor at University of Windsor’s business school, said workers in Canada have another tool at their disposal: the law.
Labour laws protect Canadians from harassment in the workplace, Power said, and some provinces have tried address workplace bullying through their own legislation.
However, she said, taking a bully to court does not guarantee a favourable outcome. Even if the victim prevails, it’s likely they’ll be awarded only a small sum in damages after a costly and time-consuming legal process, Power said.
Having exhausted all other options, Power and Schat said many workers resort to quitting their jobs to put an end to the harassment.
“You realize, ‘Wow, I’m experiencing this terrible behaviour, and I really have no one I can go to,'” said Schat.
But things are changing, Schat said. Amid a global shift in society’s tolerance for harassment, he said, conversations about bad behaviour in the workplace are increasingly playing out in the public eye.
“A really positive outcome of all of this is the broader conveying of a message that has probably been quiet too long,” he said.
“This type of behaviour is not acceptable for anyone, and there needs to be a greater level of accountability in our organizations and in our industries than there probably has been in the past.”