Bullying In The Workplace: Does It Need To Be Outlawed?

workplace bullyingWASHINGTON -- Margaret Fiester is no shrinking violet, but she says that working for her former boss was a nightmare.

"One day I didn't do something right and she actually laid her hands on me and got up in my face and started yelling, 'Why did you do that?' " said Fiester, who worked as a legal assistant for an attorney.

Fiester doesn't have to worry about those tirades anymore, but she hears lots of similar stories in her current role as operations manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, where she often fields questions about the growing issue of workplace bullying.

On-the-job bullying can take many forms, from a supervisor's verbal abuse and threats to cruel comments or relentless teasing by a co-worker. And it could become the next major battleground in employment law as a growing number of states consider legislation that would let workers sue for harassment that causes physical or emotional harm.

More: How To Outsmart A Workplace Bully

"I believe this is the new claim that employers will deal with. This will replace sexual harassment," said Sharon Parella, a management-side employment lawyer in New York. "People who oppose it say these laws will force people to be polite at work. But you can no longer go to work and act like a beast and get away with it."

Many companies already recognize workplace bullying as a problem that can sap morale, lead to increased employee turnover and even affect the bottom line. Half the employers in a 2011 survey by the management association reported incidents of bullying in their workplace, and about a fourth of human resource professionals themselves said they had been bullied.

"It's usually the manager or senior executive who's just a complete out-of-control jerk," Fiester said. "Everyone's going to be walking around on eggshells around somebody like that. You're afraid to make mistakes, you're afraid to speak up, you're afraid to challenge."

One reason the issue has attracted more attention in recent years is that parents who deal with school bullying realize that it can happen in the workplace, too.

Some employers have put into place anti-bullying policies, but advocacy groups want to go even further. They have been urging states to give legal rights to workers who do not already fit into a protected class based on race, gender or national origin.

More than a dozen states -- including New York and Massachusetts -- have considered anti-bullying laws in the past year that would allow litigants to pursue lost wages, benefits and medical expenses and compel employers to prevent an "abusive work environment."

Gary Namie, a social psychologist who co-founded the Bellingham, Wash.-based Workplace Bullying Institute in 1997, is among those leading the charge, along with labor unions and civil rights groups. He says the economic downturn has made bullying even worse and argues that passage of the laws would give employers more incentive to crack down on bad behavior in the workplace.

"People are trapped, they don't have the same alternative jobs to jump to," Namie said. "They are staying longer in these pressured, stress-filled toxic work environments."

More: Survey: Bullies Are Overtaking The Workplace

Business groups have strongly opposed the measures, arguing that they would open the floodgates to frivolous lawsuits.

"We would look at a bill like this as overreaching," said Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said the bill would punish an employer for acts of its employees that it may not be able to anticipate.

But Parella, the employment lawyer, thinks it's only a matter of time before states begin passing these laws and bullying issues become a major factor in workplace litigation.

"Once it passes in a few states there will be a chain reaction," she said, noting that other countries such as England, Ireland and Sweden already have laws addressing workplace harassment.

In Massachusetts, the National Association of Government Employees Local 282 has been one of the first unions in the country to include an anti-bullying clause in collective bargaining agreements.

"From a labor perspective, we want there to be remedies in place for corrections to be made, not to yell, scream, threaten or treat the person basically like a slave," said Greg Sorozan, president of NAGE, which represents about 12,000 public employees.

In 2008, Sorozan succeeded in placing "mutual respect" provisions in labor contracts with the state that say harassment, abusive language and bullying behavior will not be tolerated in the workplace. It allows workers to raise concerns with managers and file a grievance if not satisfied.

Sorozan said the provision recently helped workers in a state office who complained about a manager who acted bizarrely, leering at employees over cubicles and randomly punishing those who questioned him by reassigning them or refusing to let them take vacations. After the union complained, the manager was eventually forced out.

The management association survey found that 56 percent of companies have some kind of anti-bullying policy, usually contained in an employee handbook or code of conduct. Most said their response to bullying allegations depends on the circumstances but could include suspension, termination, reassignment or mandatory anger management training.

Employers say the vast majority of bullying incidents are verbal abuse, such as shouting, swearing and name-calling, along with malicious gossip, rumors and lies. Bullying through technology, such as Facebook or other social media, accounted for about 1 in 5 incidents, the survey found.

At St. Anthony North Hospital outside of Denver, human resources director Robert Archibold says most of the bullying incidents he sees are peer to peer. In a recent case, one worker got offended by a co-worker's remark and suggested they "take it out to the parking lot." The offending worker was suspended under the hospital's anti-bullying policy, which has been in place more than a decade.

"Hostile work environments, threats, bullying can come from anywhere," he said. "You can't tell by looking at someone who it will be."

If the bully is a senior manager or CEO, resolving a complaint can be tricky for a low-level human resources employee.

"It might be a little bit difficult to discipline the CEO," said Fiester, the human resources adviser. "You are really walking a tightrope."

She suggests approaching someone else in senior management who might be in a better position to approach the boss.

I Was Bullied In My Workplace




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6 Comments

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Roberta

I find this type of behavior disgraceful, shameful, and unacceptable. Why bother with a code of ethics or company core values? Good PR? Turning a blind eye is the same as giving permission or allowing this behavior to continue. I have a hard time accepting this and agree that someone should be held accountable legally. The world is in a terrible state right now and the last thing we need is a good reason not to work!

June 21 2013 at 6:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
kamdrgon

Does that question really need to be asked? Laws ARE a very poor second for common-sense and respect of the next person, no matter what the setting. It's so sad to think we have to have laws - which are ineffective a lot of the time anyway. Bullying is unwise.

June 17 2013 at 12:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
vj9322

Does there really have to be a law about everything we do? The OCD & anal-retentive people of this world are taking over as it is. Human decency use to be enough to keep people in line. I have seen a lot of little peons let a small amount of power go to their heads & get way out of line. I've also seen a bunch of crybabies who would sue because one person always got more donuts than they did. Start teaching morals again & we may not need all these laws.

June 17 2013 at 11:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
justsprite

Yes, bullying needs to be outlawed. I'm a public school teacher in NYC. We are told to teach students that bullying is harmful and will not be tolerated. However, I endured years of bullying by two coworkers in that same environment. When I finally complained to the administration I was "blackballed" by the administration and labeled a trouble maker. How can bullies teach bullies not to be bullies?????

June 06 2013 at 4:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
jai.hye

Of course bullying in the workplace should be outlawed. It is far time to make it mandatory for supposedly "grown ups" to do just that....GROW UP. No one should have to leave home to make a living for themselves and family only to have to put up with such behavior from co-workers, supervisors/managers. Many folk already have enough chaos in their lives at home and to have additional stress/nonsense in the workplace only adds fuel to the fire and it is disgraceful that it is allowed.

June 05 2013 at 11:43 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
sstuczynsk

You mean to say there are no laws locally on bullying in the work place? The last thing we need is more federal laws. Every time the feds get involved in anything, it gets screwed up.

March 04 2013 at 2:01 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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