Growing up most of us were aware of bullying. Some of us may have been victims, some the bullies, and others may have witnessed or heard about bullying. As we got older and wiser, most of us believed—hoped—bullying was in our past. Unfortunately, according to statistics, bullying is prevalent amongst adults, particularly in the workplace. Some say bullying happens more often than illegal discrimination. Others go further and say bullying in the workplace is the new form of discrimination. The Healthy Workplace Campaign (HWC) describes bullying as “repeated health-harming mistreatment that takes one or more of the following:
- Verbal abuse;
- Offensive behaviors that are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; and/or
- Work interference or sabotage that prevents work from getting done.”
The HWC indicates approximately 72% of adults know bullying is happening at their place of work. Not surprisingly, the major bullies are bosses or supervisors. And, a large percentage of employers deny bullying is happening all together or that it is happening in their company. Other employers acknowledge bullying happens, but minimize or justify it.
Bullying in the workplace itself is not illegal in the United States. To date, there is no federal or state law specifically restricting bullying in the workplace. In certain situations, bullying behaviors may become illegal if they violate Title VII’s anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation protections. The behaviors may also become actionable if they are sufficient to establish an intentional tort such as an assault, battery, or intentional infliction of emotional distress. But, according to the HWC, most workplace bullying is legal.
The HWC and other organizations have been advocating for implementation of anti-bullying legislation in the United States. 29 states and 2 territories have introduced some form of legislation that would restrict bullying in the workplace, but none of the bills have actually been enacted. Proponents argue that without a law, workplace bullies will continue to bully others at work with impunity. They argue bullying is prevalent, but awareness and training alone are not working to stop it. Critics argue bullying, while unacceptable, cannot be legislated. They say you cannot legislate bad manners. They further argue anti-bullying laws would open the flood gates to frivolous lawsuits. Some critics say every disgruntled employee becomes a potential plaintiff.
Regardless of what side of the workplace bullying debate you agree with, bullying in the workplace is prevalent, and the prospects for potential legislation on the subject continue to gain traction. Thus, employers would be wise to understand workplace bullying and the proposed anti-bullying legislation.
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