Most of us, when we think of bullying think of a schoolyard, or some other setting involving children or teens. What about the workplace? Does bullying happen there? What about your workplace? Is your first reaction “No way! That would never happen!”? While you are not alone, you may not be right. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s survey from this year, 60.3 million U.S. workers are affected by workplace bullying. Here are a few other facts and figures from the survey: 70% of the bullies are male. 61% of the bullies are bosses and 33% are co-workers. How have employers responded? According to this same survey, 25% did nothing, 46% conducted “sham” investigations, 23% took steps to help the target, and a mere 6% punished the perpetrator. Is it illegal? In most states, technically (and currently), no. In that case, if you are an employer, why should you feel the need to do anything at all? The short answer: Because: a) it’s the right thing to do; and b) it’s in your interest. Let’s take a better look at that. Read on…
First, let’s slow down and define “workplace bullying”. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines it as “repeated harmful abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, work sabotage or verbal abuse”. Here are five common examples:
- Aggression, both verbally (yelling) and non-verbally (banging a fist on a desk)
- Belittling, disparaging a colleague’s opinion, work product or personal circumstances
- Embarrassment, publicly degrading or humiliating a co-worker
- Punishment, including physical discipline, passive aggressive psychological head games or emotional isolation from other co-workers;
- Threats, including termination or unwarranted discipline and/or physical violence or emotional distress.
To be sure, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is enough to give us an idea of what constitutes workplace bullying.
Again though, if it’s not illegal why should an employer be concerned? Here are some reasons:
Lawsuits: On the one hand, since this is an employment law blog, this reason really shouldn’t surprise you. On the other hand, if workplace bullying isn’t illegal why should you worry about lawsuits. Well there is one statistic I left out, but I’ll share it with you now: The WBI survey also showed that over 65% of the targets are women. Minorities are also among the more common targets. Specifically, the survey found that the racial/ethnic breakdown for bullying targets was: 25% Hispanic, 21% African-American, 19% White, 7% Asian. Women and minority groups are protected under federal (and in many cases state) anti-discrimination laws. If the bullying can be linked to a person belonging to one or more classes protected under these laws, you might have yourself an employment discrimination claim.
What if the behavior is “just” garden-variety bullying though? Are you off the hook? Absolutely not! Let’s face it. Bullying hurts people. If it doesn’t cause physical damage it can cause emotional distress. What do injured and emotionally distressed people do? Yep, you guessed it– they sue. In this scenario, if you knew or through taking reasonable steps would or should have known about the problem and did nothing, you just might have yourself a good old-fashioned negligence case.
Whatever type of lawsuit you face, you will pay lots of money either in the form of a judgment or to settle, and, of course, you will also pay lots of money for your legal defense. In other words, not taking steps to ensure a bully free (not to mention violence-free workplace) will likely hit you where you are most likely to feel it: your pocketbook.
OSHA: The Occupational Health and Safety Act contains what is known as a “General Duties” clause, which requires employers to provide a safe workplace for their employees. Does anyone out there really want to argue that allowing bullying in the workplace provides their employees a safe work environment? I didn’t think so. If OSHA (the Administration, not the Act) gets wind of a bullying situation, you might have yourself a new best friend and not one of your choosing. OSHA might visit you a lot, and they might feel you should pay them nice amounts of money as fines or be penalized in some other way.
Plummeting Morale and Productivity: I doubt you need me to provide a lot of details here. Suffice it to say that targets of bullying generally don’t feel good. People who don’t feel good at work tend to be less productive than people who do. They may even have higher rates of absenteeism. If they quit, their replacements might not fare any better. You do the math. When you have a bullying situation, that causes employee morale and productivity to drop, that will negatively impact your bottom line.
Sooooo, even though currently workplace bullying in and of itself is not expressly outlawed, that doesn’t mean that you will not experience legal and financial setbacks.
Now you may be thinking that you aren’t allowing bullying to happen in your workplace. The truth is, however, that if you do not have anything of significance in place that is designed to deter bullying you may in fact be creating an environment that is conducive bullying. So what can you do to make sure you are not, even unintentionally allowing such an environment in your workplace? We’ll have that discussion next week, so come back then, OK?
Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.
Are you a N.J. employer/business owner? Join the new LinkedIn group, New Jersey Business Litigation Forum, run by my friend and colleague, Gene Killian. Click here for more info.
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