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Workplace Bullying Laws: What Managers Need to Know
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Workplace Bullying Laws: What Managers Need to Know

One-Minute Takeaway

  • Many behaviors, such as withholding resources or information, can constitute workplace bullying, a problem that’s on the rise.
  • The Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) has been introduced into 32 state legislatures.
  • To prevent your company from becoming a hostile work environment, create an anti-bullying policy.

Although some actions may seem like innocent teasing or a joke at first, many behaviors can constitute workplace bullying, a problem that’s on the rise. A recent survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 30% of U.S. workers reported being bullied at work (up from 17% just four years ago). That’s an estimated 48 million workers who are bullied on the job. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to protect your workplace culture from becoming a place that fosters or turns a blind eye to bullying and harassment. But before you do, keep reading to discover the facts about workplace bullying.

What is the Definition of Workplace Bullying?

“Workplace bullying refers to the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of an employee by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above,” according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Some additional examples of bullying behaviors include:

  • Unwarranted criticism or blaming
  • Exclusion or social isolation
  • Withholding resources or information needed to do the job
  • Spreading lies or rumors
  • Taking credit for someone else’s work
  • Intimidating or threatening words or actions

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

What is the Difference Between Workplace Bullying and Harassment?

Bullying turns into harassment when it is aimed at someone because of their race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information (including family medical history) and is illegal when proven as such. Harassment is generally described as unwelcome conduct or behavior directed toward a person that appears to be disturbing, upsetting, or threatening. Harassment is intentional, repetitive, and can also involve a physical element (invasion of space).

Word gets around, and a workplace that tolerates bullying quickly 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 high-quality employees.

In fact, in a study of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries who had experienced bullying, 48% of respondents intentionally decreased work effort and 63% lost work time in an attempt to avoid their bully (Harvard Business Review)

Developing a better understanding of bullying and ways to stop it is essential for managers looking to maintain a healthy, safe workplace.

The Many Forms of Bullying

Bullying often starts with subtle acts of incivility—little violations of respect that add up over time to create a hostile environment. Managers need to watch for these early warning signs and nip any inappropriate behavior in the bud.

Bullying doesn’t have to be 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 fellow employees. The Workplace Bullying Institute 2020 Survey found that 30% of workplace bullying involved cyberbullying tactics. Experts believe bullying generally comes from an overall poor workplace culture, and often stems from managers being afraid of failure.

But managers can be part of the problem. The WBI survey also found most bullies hold management roles, but bullying can easily happen between workers or even from non-employees such as retail customers or restaurant patrons. There’s often a code of silence around bullying. People are afraid if they speak up, they’ll be fired, face retaliation, or nothing will be done about it. This allows bullies to continue their abusive behavior unchecked.

Behaviors that Create an Unhealthy Work Environment

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP and Founder and CEO of Civility Partners (and frequent Paycor webinar speaker), says there are four categories of unhealthy behaviors that toxic employees can exhibit at work, creating an unhealthy or hostile work environment:

  • The Downer– complaining, critiquing, impossible to please, defensive
  • The Better Than–one-upping, name dropping, constantly comparing to others, showing off, grandstanding, humiliating others
  • The Passive–not providing opinions or suggestions, time sucking, waffling on decisions, helpless, not being direct/talking around sensitive issues
  • The Aggressive–explosive, bossy, controlling, emotional, passive aggressive, stubborn, abrasive

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a term used in employment law to describe a situation that exists when employees are subjected to continued harassment, discrimination, or intimidation that make it difficult to perform their jobs. A hostile work environment includes but is not limited to harsh joking or language, physical touching, suggestive remarks, sexually suggestive photos on display, and other conduct that can make others uncomfortable or cause offense. Additionally, a hostile work environment is created when management or supervisors participate in the activities and the intended participation of others becomes a condition of employment. To avoid your workplace being considered a hostile work environment, you have a responsibility to investigate claims of bullying and harassment immediately and take corrective action.

Effects of Workplace Bullying

The effects of workplace bullying are far-reaching and can significantly affect both the individual and the organization. Victims of bullying often experience mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. These mental health issues can lead to increased absenteeism and decreased productivity. Additionally, a culture of bullying can create a negative work environment, leading to higher employee turnover and difficulty in recruiting new talent.

 Workplace Violence and Bad Behavior
While workplace violence is often associated with robbery or assault, it can also stem from harassment, bullying, threats, and other forms of intimidation.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), nearly 2 million American workers report being victims of workplace violence each year, with many more cases likely going unreported. Fatalities resulting from violence and other injuries by a co-worker increased to 849 in 2022, an 11.6% rise over the number in 2021 (761). Homicides accounted for nearly 62% of the fatalities, with 524 deaths, an 8.9% increase from 2021.  

The bad behavior exhibited by bullies can create a hostile and unsafe environment for all employees. Too many managers dismiss bullying as “just office politics” and fail to act. This apathy allows bad behavior to intensify, culminating in serious incidents like physical assaults in some cases. So, it’s crucial for management to recognize the signs of bullying and intervene before the situation worsens.

What Workplace Bullying and Harassment Laws Should HR Leaders Be Aware Of?

While there is no specific federal law that addresses bullying specifically, if a person being bullied is part of a protected group (e.g., workers over 40 or women), bullying then becomes harassment, which can result in legal action.

David Yamada, JD, is a law professor at Boston’s Suffolk University and an expert in employment law who has written anti-bullying legislation that has been adopted by several states. He says, “I think we’re where we were with sexual harassment law 30 years ago: The term was just beginning to be used, but people didn’t think in terms of legal protections until they understood how harmful it could be.”

Workplace Anti-Bullying Laws by State

As noted earlier, there is no federal law that specifically targets workplace bullying but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) does state that employees are protected from workplace harassment by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). However, when it comes to nipping bullying in the bud before it becomes harassment, some states are starting to take action.

The Workplace Bullying Institute has provided the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) and it has been introduced into 32 state legislatures. Bills are active in the legislatures of Massachusetts, New York, and West Virginia, but no states have yet written it into law. A few states and territories, however, have enacted laws that protect workers from bullying and harassment by requiring training and outlawing bullying actions.

State/TerritoryLaw/Requirement Description
CaliforniaRequires workplaces with 50 or more employees to have abusive conduct training as part of existing state-mandated harassment prevention training.
TennesseePassed 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.
Puerto RicoPassed the “Act to Prohibit and Prevent Workplace Harassment” (House Bill 306) in 2020, which aims to prohibit and prevent abusive conduct against employees in the workplace, affecting worker performance, altering workplace peace, and threatening employee dignity.
UtahPassed a law in 2015 requiring state agencies to train supervisors and employees on ways to prevent abusive conduct, defining abusive conduct, its ramifications, and providing resources and grievance processes for employees subject to abusive conduct.

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 Anti-Bullying Policy: Create a policy that defines bullying, provides examples, and outlines proper procedures.
    • Reporting: Establish clear procedures for employees to report bullying anonymously and safely. Ensure these procedures are well-communicated and accessible.
    • Investigation and Disciplinary Actions: Detail the process for investigating bullying complaints and the potential disciplinary actions for perpetrators.
    • Define a Positive Work Culture: Foster an environment of respect and inclusion. Encourage open communication and provide support for employees to speak up about their concerns.
    • Support Resources: Ensure employees have access to resources such as counseling and support groups. Make sure they know how to access these resources confidentially.

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.  

Regular Training

  • Targeted Content: Go beyond general awareness and provide specific examples of workplace bullying behaviors (verbal, physical, cyberbullying). Include scenarios and role-playing exercises to equip employees with practical skills for identifying and responding to bullying.
  • Ongoing Reinforcement: Don’t limit training to a one-time event. Offer refresher courses, workshops, or webinars on a regular basis to keep the topic top of mind and address any new challenges or trends.
  • Tailored for Different Roles: Develop training modules that are relevant to different employee groups (managers, supervisors, individual contributors). Managers, for example, need specific guidance on how to handle reports of bullying, investigate incidents, and provide support to victims.

Support Systems

  • Confidential Reporting Mechanisms: Ensure that employees have multiple avenues for reporting bullying incidents confidentially, such as an anonymous hotline, online reporting system, or designated HR representative.
  • Counseling and Support Services: Partner with Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or other mental health professionals to offer confidential counseling services to both victims and perpetrators of bullying. This can help individuals address the emotional and psychological impact of bullying and develop coping mechanisms.
  • Support Groups: Consider creating support groups for employees who have experienced bullying. These groups can provide a safe space for individuals to share their experiences, receive support from others, and learn coping strategies.

Managerial Accountability

  • Clear Expectations: Communicate clear expectations to managers regarding their role in preventing and addressing bullying. This includes actively promoting a positive work environment, promptly investigating reports of bullying, and taking appropriate disciplinary action when necessary.
  • Performance Evaluations: Incorporate bullying prevention and response efforts into manager performance evaluations. This reinforces the importance of creating a respectful workplace and holds managers accountable for their actions.
  • Leadership Training: Provide specialized training for managers on how to identify and address bullying behavior, handle conflict resolution, and create a culture of respect and inclusion.

Employee Engagement

  • Open Communication Channels: Encourage open communication about workplace bullying by creating a safe and supportive environment where employees feel comfortable raising concerns without fear of retaliation.
  • Regular Feedback: Conduct regular surveys or focus groups to gather employee feedback on the effectiveness of anti-bullying measures. Use this feedback to identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments.
  • Employee-Led Initiatives: Empower employees to take an active role in preventing bullying by encouraging them to participate in anti-bullying committees, organize awareness campaigns, or develop peer support programs.

Taking the above steps will help you create a healthy corporate culture, setting an expectation for appropriate behavior in your workplace. Addressing workplace bullying is not only about adhering to legal requirements but also about ensuring the well-being and productivity of all employees. By fostering a respectful and inclusive work environment, companies can mitigate the negative impacts of bullying and promote a positive and productive workplace. Read more about creating a positive work culture.

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