Should Workplace Bullying be Unlawful?

Tomorrow I will be speaking on a panel with other attorneys at the American Bar Association's Labor and Employment Law Mid-Winter meeting in Miami about Workplace Bullying. 


Eight states are currently considering anti-bullying legislation.  The text of the draft legislation in these states is either identical to or based in large part on the Healthy Workplace Bill--created by the Workplace Bullying Institute.  Not surprisingly, New York seems to be best positioned to actually pass such a law.


Do we need anti-bullying legislation?  Consider the following:


The Society of Human Resources Management conducted a 2011 study in which half of all employers reported knowing about bullying in their workplaces.  Most of the reported bullying consisted of shouting, cursing, name-calling, malicious gossip, rumors and lies.  Twenty percent of the bullying occurred on social media.   


In one of my first jobs here in Chicago I worked for a managing partner who epitomized a bully.  I was a brand new lawyer and he regularly screamed and cursed at me, called me names like stupid and idiot, got drunk in the office (which increased his screaming and insults) and further berated me and threatened my job just for fun.  He did this to other young lawyers (both male and female) too so it was not personal to me but, at the time, it sure felt like it.  I left after a year of working there solely because of his behavior and the awful working environment it created.  His fellow partners knew he acted like this but did nothing to stop him.   Years later, I have no doubt that he is still doing this.  Silver lining--that ridiculous working environment is what lead me to want to represent employees.  


Opponents of anti-bullying legislation think that tolerating such behavior should all be in a days' work and that anything that would ban such conduct would mean mandating civility in the workplace.  Opponents also worry that, if passed, these statutes would lead employees to bring legal claims every time a manager or co-worker raises his voice or looks at them wrong. 


An examination of the HWB reveals, however, that it is not so scary.  In fact, in an effort to actually get the bill passed, it seems the drafters have gone out of their way to create hurdles for plaintiffs seeking to bring these claims.  For one, the definition of bullying is a steep one and, for another, aggrieved employees would have to show medical evidence of harm resulting from the bullying (something that is not required by any of the anti-discrimination laws).  


So should we have anti-bullying legislation?  As an employee rights attorney I certainly think so and having previously worked with a bully I, personally, understand the toll that such a workplace can take on you.  I was fortunate in that I had a law degree and could easily find another job.  A lot of employees--especially these days--are not so fortunate.


The proposed legislation of the HWB does not mandate civility in the workplace.  It seeks to eliminate abusive treatment.  And, regardless, workplaces should be civil, shouldn't they?  We are not a bunch of Neanderthals are we?  Being an employee should not mean leaving your dignity at the door nor should it mean risking your health to keep your job.  In our practice we have first-hand knowledge of the stress-induced illnesses that can result from working in a hostile working environment.  We see it with our clients every day.


More information on anti-bullying legislation can be found at   If you are interested in supporting such legislation, this website will give you information about how to contact your representatives.  


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  • 3/21/2013 7:57 PM Debbie Squires wrote:
    This really hit home with me. Starting at age 25, I worked for the worst bully I have ever known. In my situation, however, there were overt sexual comments, in addition to the screaming. I was routinely subjected to loud demeaning tirades and then sexual comments many times in front of other employees. All of this happened when I was a Catering Manager at a private dining club. Unfortunately the abuse I sustained predated laws against sexual harassment in the workplace. This person reported to an all male Board of Directors who had no interest in employee problems and let this person run the club in this fashion. So, I know quite a bit about bullying in the workplace and as a Manager I am very sensitive to the issue.
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