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Legal Status of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying, like childhood bullying, is the tendency of individuals to use aggressive or unreasonable behavior against a co-worker or subordinate at work. Workplace bullying varies widely across different industries, and can include a wide variety of activities that intimidate, isolate, or humiliate others in the workplace.

The problem is that workplace bullying lacks a recognized unifying term or phrase. Individuals have difficulty naming their experiences of abuse, and have trouble pursuing legal actions against the bully. After all, if someone is just mean to you, is that workplace bullying? If someone stares uncomfortably at you, is that workplace bullying? The line between a tough boss and a workplace bully is gray. While it may be unprofessional, it is not per se illegal for managers to yell, ignore, threaten, tease, or mock employees. Nor is it per se illegal for people to gossip, withhold information, or take credit for another’s work.

Without specific vernacular or recognition, Legislators have difficulty in passing comprehensive workplace bullying legislation. Currently, there are no specific federal or state laws just for workplace bullying. However, workplace bullying arguably overlaps and leans on other recognized terms such as discrimination, sexual harassment, and hostile work environment. See Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. If an especially egregious act occurs, employees can also sue in civil court for intentional infliction of emotional distress. See Christensen v. Superior Court, 54 Cal. 3d 868, 903 (1991).

The problem remains that many definitions of workplace bullying fall outside of these definitions of discrimination, harassment, and infliction of emotional distress. For example, hostile work environment claims generally only apply to claims against employers, but not to claims against fellow employees. Employers, however, are still responsible for the acts of their employees under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior.

Many states have proposed legislation for workplace bullying. The Healthy Workplace Bill is a model legislation that provides severely bullied employees with a legal claim for damages and creates legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond adequately to work place bullying. Since 2003, 21 states have introduced this bill. Currently, 11 states have proposals for variations of the bill, though none have yet to be passed.

My guess is that there are several hurdles to the legislation. Aside from coming up with a proper definition for workplace bullying, the legislation may give rise to numerous frivolous lawsuits. Such power to the employees may cause great pressure on employers, and critics of the bill have called it a “job killer.” Considering the recession, the potential implications on jobs may well keep the bill from being passed.

Legislation may help. Employers often react to laws with internal policies and can prevent or identify problems with workplace bullying. Proper legislation may provide employers with the incentive to do the right thing and help avoid expensive litigation, if the bill ever gets passed.

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