20 Aug Legal Self Help to Combat Workplace Bullying
I just conducted a workshop on workplace violence. And my take away, after listening to employees who have experienced bullying in the workplace, is that while employers need to know what it is and what steps they should take to combat and eliminate workplace bullying/intimidation that often is not the reality in the workplace. Many employers (managers and supervisors) may be the bully or choose to do nothing and hope the problem will go away. Unfortunately, it never does.
That doesn’t mean the person who is being bullied should, after they have asked the employer for assistance in dealing with either individual or group bullying, accept the employer’s inaction as the end of their options. There are other options that are difficult but still available to a person being bullied or intimidated in the workplace other than quitting.
First, let start with a definition: “Workplace bullying” is defined as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators (the bullies).
Second, one of the most common forms of workplace bullying is verbal abuse – shouting, swearing, and name-calling (sounds like some managers I have seen in a variety of workplaces). The U.S. Workforce Bullying Institute reports more than a third of all employees have experienced verbal abuse in the form of threats, intimidation, harassment, or social exclusion by either a manager/supervisor or co-worker. In another study, 41.4% of 47 million employees reported experiencing psychological aggression at work (Schat, Frone & Kelloway, 2006). The research also found 13%, or 15 million workers, reported experiencing psychological aggression on a weekly basis (i.e. unwarranted or invalid criticism; blame without factual justification; being treated differently than the rest of the work group; being sworn at; being excluded from a group or social isolation; being shouted at or humiliated; excessive monitoring or micro-managing; being given work unrealistic deadlines).
Third, currently, there are no federal or state laws that specifically prohibit non-physical/verbal workplace bullying. While California requires companies with at 50 employees or more to train managers on preventing abusive conduct at work – including verbal abuse, threats, and efforts to sabotage or undermine someone’s work performance – the law does not make abusive conduct/bullying illegal.
Fourth, until the Feds and the States get their heads out of their butts and respond to this ever-increasing epidemic of workplace abuse with laws that specifically target workplace bullies, here are the legal recourses, other than criminal charges for assault and battery, available to employees who have suffered verbal abuse in the workplace:
1. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and State Anti-Discrimination Laws: Bullying is illegal when it violates federal or state laws that prohibit workplace discrimination and harassment. These laws protect employees from harassment based on protected characteristics – race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, or disability. A workplace bully who targets an employee who is a member of a protected class is guilty of illegal harassment. The employee who is the target of this illegal harassment (i.e. all women are “incompetent,” “stupid,” and “lazy”) and the employer does nothing to stop it can file a hostile work environment claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
2. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA): OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees’ employment and a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees ….”
While there is no specific OSHA standard for workplace violence, OSHA requires employers provide a safe work environment that is free of known dangers, including providing an environment in which workers are safe from workplace violence, including bullying, intimidation and verbal abuse, harassment and disruptive behavior from co-workers and managers/supervisors since these acts may. Employees who are faced with bullying can file a complaint with OSHA, which will investigate and fine an employer for maintaining an unsafe work environment or take an offending employer to court. Courts, under OSHA regulations, have decided employers have a legal duty to respond to violent acts or threats. This means an employer with the knowledge that bullying or intimidation is taking place must take action to stop the bullying.
The Bottom Line:
While these two legal solutions are not the best way to address the epidemic of workplace violence they at least offer abused employees the opportunity to say “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Does this legal approach offer any real relief to employees who have been or are the victims of workplace bullying or intimidation by co-workers or bosses, or am I just blowing smoke?