5 Ways Your Workplace Bully May Be Breaking The Law

'Used and abused' asks what a small staff can do

Anger
Getty
This reader faces a problem many employees encounter at work – the workplace bully. In this instance things are complicated by the small staff's distance from any HR assistance.

Hi Donna,
What action would you suggest staff take when the Executive Director of a tax funded nonprofit organization, which is overseen by a board, is abusive to staff? Staff does not have access to HR; they report to the ED who reports to the board. Some incidents have been "investigated" by one or two board members and the HR of the employer of a board member. Nothing has improved. Incidents have been the ED slapping the hand, kicking, and yelling at an employee to "go do your f****** job," commenting on how an employee is dressed, yelling at staff, "forgetting" they did or said something, not following policies and procedures consistently and speaking harshly as to show their superiority. We are at a loss as to what to do. We are not permitted to speak to any member of the board without the ED's consent. We are a small staff, under 15 employees. Suggestions would be most welcome.
Thank you.
Used and abused



Hi "Used and abused," It sounds like you're dealing with a bully, which is all too common these days. A career counselor or health care professional might view things differently, but I'll give my perspective as an employee-side employment lawyer.

I've written before about how workplace bullying is not illegal in any state. Although 23 states have tried to pass anti-bullying laws, none have succeeded. Eleven states currently have anti-bullying laws pending, but I'm not optimistic. Still, there's hope for the bullied. Bullies frequently cross the line into illegal behavior at work.

Here are five ways your workplace bully might be doing something illegal:
  1. Targeting the weak: Just like playground bullies, workplace bullies target the weakest employees, or those the bully perceives as weak. While that's not necessarily illegal, who does a bully consider weak? Disabled, pregnant and older employees are easy bullying targets because the bully knows you can't lose your job. If you're a caregiver for a disabled child, parent or spouse, you may be a target. Targeting these protected categories crosses the line into illegal discrimination.
  2. Targeting the different: Bullies hate people who are different from them. Who might be different to a bully at work? If you notice that you're being targeted along with others of the same race, sex, religion, national origin, or color, then the bully is engaging in illegal discrimination.
  3. Sudden change: If you weren't the bully's target and suddenly are, maybe something changed for you. Did you recently turn 50? Take Family and Medical Leave? Return from military service? Make a worker's compensation claim? Find out about a genetic condition? If so, the bully might be breaking discrimination, retaliation or other laws.
  4. Stalking: Your state may have anti-stalking laws that prohibit the bully's behavior. For instance, Florida's anti-stalking statute provides, "A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person commits the offense of stalking, a misdemeanor of the first degree." There are also specific cyberstalking laws in some states.
  5. Assault/battery: If your bully makes you fear you're about to be hit, that's assault. If they actually engage in offensive or harmful touching or hitting, they've engaged in battery. Both assault and battery are against the law in every state.
So, now that you've figured out that your workplace bully is breaking the law, what can you do? I'll be writing next Tuesday about some things you can do to protect yourself against your workplace bully.

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs. While I can't answer every question here, your question might be featured in one of my columns, or in our upcoming live video chat.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

20 Comments

Filter by:
gjdesertrat

allways keep a log big companys will have at least one boss that will be an ass never trust any of them they like to play good cop bad cop to see what you are up to.i had some persernal problems and if i would have keeped a log of the way my one boss acted i would have been able to sue the company.the best news i got about a year ago is they fried him a year ago and now he serves hot dogs at cosco in ca.

November 12 2013 at 2:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hyacinth Smith

Often the right path is the one that may be hardest for you to follow. But the hard path is also the one that will make you grow as a human being.We do take bullying seriously and we investigate any incident of bullying. Victims of bullying should keep a log of their mistreatment, so that any allegations can be substantiated. Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It's what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference. No one deserves to feel worthless check your safety at http://safekidzone.com/#!/page_home.

November 08 2013 at 12:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
homeimps

Surely the employee didn't need to read this article to determine that being kicked and slapped at work is illegal. Why didn't the author giver her some sound advice here rather than waiting for "next Tuesday". I know what I would do: Round up as many fellow employees as have the guts and go straight to the board. After that, if the board did nothing to rectify the situation, call in the media.

October 23 2013 at 10:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to homeimps's comment
jorsmith54

It is rare that one can "round up many fellow employees," because people fear losing their jobs, or being the next target of the bully. Bully's are often protected by senior employee's because, unfortunately at the expense of others, their performance looks good. The reality is, it's just not that easy. The bully, or those that protect him/her will just tell the board that the victim "can't handle the job," "is emotional," or some other term that deems them as weak.

October 24 2013 at 9:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jennifer T.

Any way the employees at this office can set up hidden cameras to catch the bully in the act? What if, while the bully is berating or harassing somebody else, the others whip out their phones and start recording? If the bully has actually put his/her hands on somebody and there were witnesses, they could file criminal charges. The thing about bullies is that they do it because they can and you only have to stand up to a bully once. I worked in a place with an office bully, except she never put her hands on anybody. In about a 6 month period, about 1/3 of the staff left voluntarily, all of us having found better jobs. The boss knew and did nothing about it, but was sure unhappy with those of us who left.

October 23 2013 at 8:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jennifer T.'s comment
homeimps

It's a shame you all didn't give your boss the opportunity to deal with this situation. Leaving, even for better jobs, just passes the problem along to the new employees.

October 23 2013 at 10:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to homeimps's comment
jorsmith54

Unfortunately, leaving is often the best thing to do. I think she did try to do something about it so the next step is self-preservation. It's nice to be able to fix a company for future employee's but extremely difficult to do in reality.

October 24 2013 at 9:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down
Ceil

Generally , those who complain about being bullied eventually, either lose their jobs or lose all chances for future promotions. probably the main reason most will not complain to anyone.

October 23 2013 at 5:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ceil's comment
jorsmith54

Exactly.

October 24 2013 at 9:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
glduff

At what point does a demanding boss become a bully? Does the bully have to be physically aggressive or is it enough to just chew out an employee? Must the bully be the boss or is it possible for a subordinate to be a bully? If the boss can't even chew out an employee how exactly should an employee who doesn't follow direction be handled? What about a customer, can they be bullies?

The point is that we have pushed this bullying scenario far beyond useful levels into areas where if a person feels bad they run to a lawyer. In roughly 40 years of work life from burger flipping in high school to responsible management positions in a few medium to huge companies I've run into one guy I would consider a bully, and his management career didn't last long. I've seen others who were demanding bosses who asked a lot but taught achievement of company goals and rewarded accomplishment. I'm afraid that when those employees who don't accomplish company goals yell "bully" and run to court seeking a financial windfall those demanding bosses will cease to exist to the detriment of all society.

Was Reagan a bully when he fired all those air traffic controllers? How about Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach? Heck, what about almost every high school or college coach who ever made the team run punnishment drills? What about Sister Mary Discipline at St. Peter & Paul elementary school back in the 60's?

Authority does not equal bullying but if we let it come to mean that it will mean our society takes another step backward.

October 23 2013 at 12:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to glduff's comment
btwalter62766

Its referred to as "Hostile Workplace Environment." Consult an attorney.

October 23 2013 at 10:15 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to btwalter62766's comment
EmployeeAtty

A hostile work environment is only illegal if it's hostile due to race, sex, age, religion, national origin, etc. General hostility and harassment are not illegal. Reporting general harassment is not protected against retaliation. And yes, consulting an employment attorney in your state is always a good idea if you think you have claims against your employer.

October 23 2013 at 11:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to EmployeeAtty's comment
isawondfl

I am so tired of hearing about bullying.
There is no need to put up with it. I was bullied in school. It was endless. Then on day, I said, "no more". I turned the tables on the bully. I am female, my bully was male. I confronted him in full view of all the kids during a class change. I called him on it. He didn't know what to do. Someone standing in the middle of the hall and yelling at the school bully.
From that point on he gave me and a few others that stood with me, a very wide berth.
Most bullies are very insecure. They have a need to single people out 1 at a time to see if they can be intimidated. When it works, they keep it up. They don't expect you to fight back. When you do, they have no idea how to deal with it.
With the whimpifying of our males and pc correctness of today has made the situation worse.
In the work place, there is absolutely no need to put up with a so called bully. Most likely the bully is mentally ill. That alone gets them fired. The very first sign of it, DO SOMETHING about it. If you don't allow it to escalate it will not get to the point of being dangerous.
On a high note, the kid that used to bully me as a kid, as an adult, has to pay me thousands per month due to a business deal. MY contract is now over his head.

October 23 2013 at 9:40 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to isawondfl's comment
madlyfem

When I was in second grade I, a girl, beat up a fourth grader, part of a pack of them who bullied me. I never had problems with them again. But don't try that with a superior on the job. You WILL get fired.

October 23 2013 at 10:48 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rkeeeballs

Office workers should pool their money and hire someone to beat the azzzzwipe to a freak'in pulp.....works for me... :>)

October 23 2013 at 8:10 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rjen164497

Bullying is learned. Kids bully if parents bully. We haave become a nation of bullying. It starts at the top. The President is the Bully in Chief. Michelle is the First Bully. Harry Reid is the Congressional bully chief. Every cop today thinks it is their job to bully. Look at the bullying in schools by administrators. Point a finger and you are suspended. It starts at the top and trickles down. You are being bullied now into healthcare.

October 23 2013 at 7:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Search Articles

Top Companies Hiring

Week of Sep 28 - Oct 5
View All

Picks From the Web