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Employee Experience

Workplace Bullying Laws: What Managers Need to Know

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 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. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to protect your workplace culture from becoming a place that fosters bullying and harassment. But, before you do, we’re here to ensure you have all the facts first.

What is the Definition of Workplace Bullying?

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.

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

There is no specific federal law that addresses bullying specifically, 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.

What is the Difference Between Workplace Bullying and Harassment?

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). 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.

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.

In fact, in a recent study of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries who had experienced bullying, 48% of respondents intentionally decreased work effort and 80% lost work time.

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 can begin with small acts of rudeness, disrespect or rudeness. Additionally, low-level conflict or joking can quickly escalate into bullying. If any of these are left unaddressed, a negative atmosphere can develop.

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 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.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment exists when employees are subjected to continued harassment, discrimination or intimidation that make it difficult to complete 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 offended. Additionally, a hostile work environment is created with 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, employers have a responsibility to investigate claims of bullying and harassment immediately and take corrective action.

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 mention 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 eliminating bullying at the start before it becomes harassment, some states are beginning to take action. Currently, the Workplace Bullying Institute has provided the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) and it has been introduced into 30 state legislatures, 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.

  • 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.
  • In 2020, Puerto Rico passed House Bill 306 which is the Act to Prohibit and Prevent Workplace Harassment. This bill aims to prohibit and prevent abusive conduct against employees in the workplace that will affect a worker’s performance, alter their workplace peace, and threaten the dignity of an employee.
  • 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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