Why you need to watch out for workplace bullies

by Kathy Bray, Esq.

When you hear the word “bullying” do you think of a child being taunted on the playground, or a teen being harassed online?

Unfortunately, bullying doesn’t end with childhood. The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that 60.3 million U.S. workers are affected by bullying. Following are some basics for employers on workplace bullying and how to prevent it.

What is workplace bullying?

It’s repeated, harmful, targeted behavior toward one or more persons at work. It can take the form of verbal abuse, threats, humiliation, intimidation, targeted practical jokes, purposeful misleading, unjustified denial of time off, excessive performance monitoring, or overly harsh or unjust criticism, according to Healthline .

How prevalent is workplace bullying?

In a 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute survey , 38 percent of workers responded that they had been bullied themselves, or witnessed it.

Is it illegal?

That depends on the situation. If the bullying is based on race, color, religion, gender (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), a disability or genetic information it’s possible it could be a form of harassment , which is illegal. If you are operating in one of the 20 states with laws expressly preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation (e.g., Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin), bullying on that basis also could be actionable. Physical violence and threats are also illegal.

There’s a national campaign to pass a Healthy Workplace Bill , which would make workplace bullying illegal and allow workers to sue their bullies individually. The bill has been introduced in 30 states, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute website, but Puerto Rico is the first in the United States to enact a workplace bullying law, which was signed into law in August 2020 .

Are employers responsible for bullying that goes on in their workplace?

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 , employers are required to provide a safe workplace. This law could be used to hold employers responsible for their employees’ actions, according to Attorney Thomas Cox Jr., quoted in a 2010 article from the Society for Human Resource Management. The article also says:

"'Employers could be held liable for negligent hiring if they bring on a person who they knew or should have known was likely to cause harm, and for negligent referral, if they don’t warn other employers of a past employee’s violent history.

An employer who retains an employee who threatens or exhibits violent conduct could be guilty of negligent supervision and retention,'" Cox added.

What can employers do to prevent workplace bullying?

Employ thorough hiring practices that will weed out potential bullies.

  • Call references and past employers, and ask about whether the job candidate exhibited threatening or violent behavior.
  • Do a thorough criminal background check.
  • After hire, make anti-bullying and anti-harassment training part of your orientation process. Make sure you have policies listing guidelines for appropriate employee conduct.
  • A retaliation policy is also important. By prohibiting retaliation against anyone who reports a violation of the law or company policy, you’ll make it more likely that someone will come forward if they’re being bullied.

What does workplace bullying have to do with workers’ compensation?

In workers’ compensation, we sometimes see bullying interfere with an injured employee’s return to work. Injured employees might be reluctant to return to work in a light-duty capacity if they fear they’ll be mocked or harassed by their coworkers. Getting employees back to work as soon as they are medically able plays an important part in the successful outcome of a claim.

Other resources:

This post was originally published on October 28, 2013, and updated on August 2, 2017.

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