We often read stories about childhood bullying and the efforts to prevent this conduct in schools, on the playground and in athletic activities. As education about the traumatic effects of childhood bullying continues to spread, there is an increased awareness of adults carrying out the same behaviors in the workplace.
Social media has reminded us recently that workplace bullying comes in many forms and shows no sign of abating. This conduct often can go unnoticed because employees may be hesitant to complain about the behavior, and those who do complain often are surprised to learn that bullying might not be illegal.
What is workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying can take on many forms, including verbal abuse, humiliation, physical and verbal intimidation, or other threatening conduct that impairs work performance. The behavior may be carried out by a manager, co-worker, vendor or even a customer. Bullying is a pattern of behavior, often occurring repeatedly and consistently.
Is bullying illegal?
Bullying is illegal when it violates state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the workplace. These laws protect employees from harassment based on protected characteristics, such as race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, sexual orientation or disability. If a workplace bully targets an employee based on one of these protected characteristics, the behavior may constitute discrimination or a hostile work environment.
In the case of bullying behavior that does not involve one of these protected categories, there is often an absence of specific laws or court decisions that provide relief to a victim of workplace bullying. However, there have been recent efforts in some states to enact legislation to address this problem, and various legal theories have been advanced by employees in an effort to hold bullies and their employers accountable.
Employers have a responsibility to prevent conduct that could be deemed as bullying, particularly when it involves a protected class. While some bullying behavior might not be illegal, it nevertheless affects morale, productivity and the general reputation of a company or organization. Employers should be aware of the options available for addressing workplace bullying and how to identify what behavior constitutes illegal conduct.
For additional information on workplace bullying, attend the free Woods Fuller Employment Law Seminar on Friday, Nov. 3, at the Washington Pavilion. Register today!