HR Hero Line

Bullies in the Workplace, Not Just the Playground

Sixteen states have proposed legislation introduced under the title “The Healthy Workplace Bill.”  In 2009, 12 states’ legislatures considered bullying bills but none passed them. The legislation is intended to stop workplace bullying but hasn’t yet been made law in any state.

Keep up with the latest changes in state employment laws with the monthly Employers State Law Alert newsletter

The workplace bully problem
Most of the materials promoting the healthy workplace legislation come from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), which is the creation of Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie.

In 2003, the WBI conducted a “nonscientific” survey that concluded that 80 percent of the women and 20 percent of the men surveyed had been bullied in the workplace at some point. To end the bullying, 37 percent of the targets were fired or involuntarily terminated and 33 percent quit, “typically taking some form of constructive discharge.”

The forms of bullying identified in the survey included falsely accusing someone of making errors, nonverbal intimidation, silent treatment, mood swings, destructive gossip, inappropriate displays of anger, tantrums, stealing credit for work done by others, humiliation, retaliation, putdowns, insults, assignment of undesirable work, unreasonable demands, and ensuring the failure of a person’s work.

State-by-state comparison of 50 Employment Laws in 50 States, including guns in the workplace laws, drug testing, and background checks

The solution to bullying in the workplace
To resolve the problem of bullying in the workplace, the WBI founders sponsor a website called Bullybusters.org, which encourages individuals to propose the healthy workplace legislation in their own state legislatures.

While no state has adopted such legislation, 16 states have introduced the healthy workplace bill, including California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Missouri, Kansas, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Washington, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Utah, Illinois, Nevada and Montana,

In 2009, legislatures in New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Vermont, Utah, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Oregon, Connecticut, Nevada, Montana, and Washington all considered the anti-bullying bills, but still no states have enacted them into law.

Under the bill, employers must exercise “reasonable care to prevent abusive conduct through education” and must take “action to promptly correct the abusive conduct.” The employee is required to “take advantage of appropriate preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”

Providing the employee isn’t terminated or otherwise subject to a “negative employment decision,” the employer may be relieved of liability if precautions are taken. The bill would require employers to investigate any claims of bullying made by employees, and failure to take action or investigate could subject the employer to punitive damages.

HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including workplace investigations and workplace violence

Practical application
The description of bullying is sufficiently vague that there are no doubt many employees in your workplace right now who feel they are victims.

To avoid having your legislature step in and tell you how to handle these situations, employers should see this bill as a wake-up call. You should take all employee complaints seriously and investigate them appropriately. Supervisors should be carefully trained to both recognize and avoid bullying conduct.

Basic Training for Supervisors – easy-to-read guides to avoid legal hazards, covering more than 17 areas of supervisor training