Bullying is most often associated with the school playground or the internet but has become a big problem in the workplace as well. Workplace bullying is an act of verbal abuse, aggression, or intimidation against a coworker (most often a subordinate) without regard to the victim's protected class.
Protected characteristics include your sexual orientation, national origin, gender identity, accessibility needs, mental and physical disabilities, religion, age, veteran status, genetic information, and citizenship.
Bullying that creates a hostile work environment is not illegal, per se, but it still poses risks to your organization in the form of:
- Diminished productivity
- Lowered workplace morale
- Employee's mental and physical health issues
Bullying and Physical and Mental Health
Severe bullying has been linked to stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.
Bullied employees often leave their jobs to escape abusive behaviors from co-workers or supervisors. Below is a discussion of the definition of workplace bullying and what you can do to help prevent it in your organization.
What is workplace bullying?
Approximately one-third of U.S. workers have been bullied, according to a 2021 workplace bullying survey conducted by Zogby International.
The survey found that 21% of women have experienced bullying from the same gender (i.e. women bullying women). For men bullying men, the statistic is 40%. A similar survey conducted in 2007 found that bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal forms of workplace harassment.
The survey defined workplace bullying as "repeated mistreatment and a form of abusive conduct" that is not physical.
Not surprisingly, the majority of workplace bullies are supervisors or those in positions of authority over other employees, i.e. "top-down bullying." Employees reported experiencing this type of bullying at 56%.
Workplace Bullying and the Law
There are currently no state or federal laws prohibiting workplace bullying.
However, workers who are members of a protected class (such as women, racial minorities, and LGBTQIA workers) may have recourse under state and local anti-discrimination laws or sexual harassment laws. That is not to say that acts of bullying are inherently acts of harassment or discrimination. But they can overlap, and both federal and state laws prohibit the harassment of employees on the basis of a protected class. In a harassment claim, a worker will generally want to file a complaint with their human resources department. If HR does not respond or correct the behavior, employees can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which will investigate their claim.
In rare cases, an employee being bullied could have a personal injury claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. While state laws on this vary, generally the conduct must be "extreme and outrageous" and not just mean or offensive. Insults likely won't meet this standard. One example of potential intentional infliction of emotional distress could involve an employee who has post-traumatic stress disorder. If a supervisor intentionally tries to make that employee relive their trauma as a form of punishment, the employee may have a legal claim.
State Laws Generally Don't Protect Victims of Workplace Bullying
There are currently no state laws aimed directly at preventing workplace bullying. However, some states have made abusive conduct training prevention a requirement for most employers. If you live in one of those states, your employer is required to provide training to all employees on how to define and avoid abusive conduct.
Find a Lawyer to Help With Workplace Bullying Issues
Bullying doesn't just happen on the playground. It can and does happen in the workplace.
If your business is experiencing issues with claims of workplace bullying, harassment, or otherwise, you should seek the help of a qualified employment law attorney today.
See FindLaw's Discrimination and Harassment section in the Small Business Center for information about related workplace issues.
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