Workplace Bullying: Is it Legal?

There has been lots of media attention lately given to bullying at work and the problem appears to be widespread and growing.  According to a 2010 WBI-Zogby poll, 35% of employees reported being the victims of workplace bullying.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as: repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

There is no federal law against workplace bullying and no state has enacted such a law, although legislatures in ten states are currently considering workplace bullying legislation.  The seminal bill, The Healthy Workplace Act, was first introduced in California in 2001.  Written by Professor David Yamada of Suffolk University in 2001, it provides for legal remedies against both employers and the individual bullies themselves.  Not surprisingly, employers have typically vehemently opposed such legislation.

Until laws are passed against workplace bullying, what recourse do employees have who believe they are being bullied?

Under current law, an employee suffering from a hostile work environment because of his or her gender, race, age, or membership in another protected class, may bring a claim under discrimination laws. In many cases, before filing a lawsuit, an employee will have to follow the instructions in her employer’s anti-harassment policy, if there is one– for example, s/he may be required to report the bullying to Human Resources and give the company an opportunity to end the harassment. If the harassment becomes physical, s/he may be able to press criminal charges or bring tort claims against the harasser, such as claims of assault and battery. Some employers have policies that go beyond what is required under the discrimination laws and ban their employees from bullying one another.  Some collective bargaining agreements provide additional protection for union members.  But in many cases, unfortunately, there is no obvious remedy.  Any employee who believes s/he is the victim of workplace bullying should promptly seek legal counsel to determine what rights s/he has and what actions s/he can take for self-protection.