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Workplace Bullying Laws: What Managers Need to Know

It may seem like innocent teasing or a joke at first, but many behaviors can constitute workplace bullying, a problem that’s on the rise. A recent survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found 30 percent of U.S. workers report being bullied at work (up from 17 percent just four years ago). That’s an estimated 48 million workers who are bullied on the job. 

What Workplace Bullying Laws Should HR Leaders Be Aware Of?

There is no specific federal law that addresses this problem, but if the person being bullied is part of a protected group (e.g., workers over 40 or women), bullying becomes harassment and can result in legal action. Equally important, a workplace that tolerates bullying becomes unattractive to employees, leads to higher absenteeism, decreased morale and lower individual performance.  A toxic work culture also makes it costly to find and retain quality employees.

Developing a better understanding of bullying and ways to stop it is essential for managers looking to maintain a healthy, safe workplace.  Bullying is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute as:

  • Repeated mistreatment
  • Abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, or humiliating
  • Work sabotage
  • Verbal abuse

There are many examples of bullying, from abusive yelling, use of foul language or other verbal abuse. The move to remote work during the pandemic did not curtail workplace bullying, with the WPI finding 43 percent of remote workers either being bullied or witnessing bullying of remote workers.

The Many Forms of Bullying

Bullying doesn’t have to verbal, and the rise of social media channels, including company chat platforms, offer a virtual way for bullies to create a hostile work environment for employees. Experts believe bullying generally comes from an overall poor workplace culture, and often stems from managers being afraid of failure.

The WPI survey also found the majority of bullies hold management roles, but bullying can easily happen between workers or even from non-employees. Bullying behavior is often not reported out of fear or retaliation or an employee believing nothing will be done to correct the problem.

State Laws Against Workplace Bullying

As noted earlier, there is no federal law that specifically targets workplace bullying, but states are beginning to take action.

  • California now requires workplaces with 50 or more employees to have abusive conduct training as part of existing state-mandated harassment prevention training.
  • Tennessee passed a “Healthy Workplace” bill in 2015 that encourages employers to adopt anti-bullying policies which immunize them from liability in lawsuits alleging intentional or negligent infliction of mental anguish due to the abusive conduct of employees.
  • Utah passed a law in 2015 requiring its state agencies to train supervisors and employees on ways to prevent abusive conduct. The training must define abusive conduct, its ramifications, and provide the resources available to employees who are subject to abusive conduct and the grievance process.

How to Tackle Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is clearly a problem for businesses, and leaders are wise to work to curb bullying behaviors. A good place to start is to conduct an anonymous survey to look at employee culture and learn if there are concerns. Next, consider creating a workplace civility policy that includes the following:

  • A clear definition of workplace bullying along with healthy, acceptable workplace behaviors.
  • Examples of bullying.
  • Ways employees can report bullying anonymously.
  • Procedures for handling bullying complaints.

Getting employee buy-in as you build these policies can make them more effective.

Finally, create training sessions as part of new employee or management onboarding to set expectations about appropriate workplace behavior.  

Taking the above steps will help you create a healthy corporate culture, setting an expectation for appropriate behavior in your workplace. Read more about creating a positive work culture.

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