Benefits and Compensation

Yes, There Are No Laws Against Bullying, No, You Can’t Ignore It

While it’s true that there are no specific antibullying laws in the United States, that doesn’t mean that bullying can’t be the basis of a lawsuit, says attorney Allison West, SPHR.

West, who is principal at Employee Practices Specialists in Pacifica, CA, delivered her suggestions for dealing with bullying in the workplace at the SHRM Employment Law and Legislative Conference, held recently in Washington, D.C.

Brenda Boss

West offers Brenda Boss as the example of how lawsuits spring up around bullying.

Brenda Boss …

  • Pushed and shoved Emma Employee (assault and battery, potential OSHA violation),
  • Locked her in the conference room (false imprisonment),
  • Spread rumors about her performance (defamation),
  • Deliberately left Emma’s written performance warning on the common area copier (invasion of privacy), and
  • Continuously yells at Emma in departmentwide meetings, in the hallway, and on the phone (intentional affliction of emotional stress).

So … Emma went to see Henry HR and …

  • Claimed she was suffering from a psychiatric injury from her bullying boss (workers’ compensation and FMLA),
  • Requested an accommodation (ADA), and
  • Showed Henry evidence that Brenda changed her time sheets and that she is owed overtime for the past 18 months (FLSA/state wage and hour violations and penalties!).

And then Emma said …

  • She informed Brenda she was pregnant and was told she would not get a promotion because she is “a breeder” (gender and pregnancy discrimination).
  • And, after she complained in the company newsletter about her denial of promotion:
    • Brenda changed her work hours,
    • Overtime was denied,
    • She was excluded from training, and
    • She was the only one in the department who didn’t receive a bonus (retaliation).

Finally … Emma whimpered that …

  • She can no longer sleep.
  • She has stomach ailments.
  • She is now addicted to antidepressants (more intentional infliction of emotional distress), and
  • Therefore, she feels she has no choice but to resign (constructive discharge).

Bottom line, don’t think you can ignore bullying because there are no specific laws against it. Don’t wait for laws to be passed, says West. Be proactive.

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How Management Rationalizes Bullying Behavior

Here are some typical responses from managers who receive complaints about bullying:

  • Oh, that’s just Joe.
  • You know how Betty is.
  • If you ignore it, maybe it’ll go away.
  • We’ve lived with it this long; we can tolerate it a bit longer.
  • I have to think about the bottom line, don’t I?
  • I’ll deal with it when the behavior really gets out of line.
  • But, Joe/Betty are such good performers!
  • I tried to get them to stop … but they just wouldn’t.

You cannot accept these responses.

Bullying Is …

Repeated, health‐harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) that are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done

Source: The Workplace Bullying Institute

Here are some typical bullying behaviors, says West.

  • Chronic teasing, threats, and intimidation 
  • Aggressive voicemails/phone calls 
  • Ignoring/interrupting 
  • Abusive and offensive remarks 
  • Yelling, screaming, and/or cursing 
  • Persistent name calling 
  • Throwing things 

Physical Bullying:

  • Pushing
  • Shoving
  • Kicking
  • Poking
  • Tripping
  • Assault, or threat of physical assault
  • Deliberately interfering or tampering with a person’s work area or property

Gesture or Nonverbal Bullying

  • Nonverbal threatening gestures, glances that can convey threatening messages
  • Threatening postures and actions
  • Aggressive e-mails


  • Socially or physically excluding or disregarding a person in work-related activities

Other Bullying Actions

  • Assigning menial tasks not in keeping with the normal responsibilities of the job
  • Unreasonable work demands/sabotaging performance
  • Refusing reasonable requests for leave without legitimate work‐related justification
  • Spreading gossip or lies
  • False accusations of wrongdoing

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Bullying Isn’t …

It’s also important to recognize what isn’t bullying, says West. It isn’t:

  • Legitimate authority to control work and performance
  • Providing constructive feedback
  • Political correctness
  • Setting reasonable goals

In tomorrow’s Advisor, West’s tips for dealing with bullies, plus an introduction to the all-compensation-in-one website,

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