Mar 12, 2008

Workplace Bullying: Harmful but not Illegal?

A new study by two Canadian researchers reveals that employees have a more difficult time coping with "workplace aggression" -- bullying -- than sexual harassment because they are unprotected by laws or policies, and have nowhere to turn. The study defined workplace aggression to include "incivility, including rudeness and discourteous verbal and non-verbal behavior."

At least one state is doing something about workplace bullying. A bill being considered by the Connecticut legislature would specifically prohibit employers from subjecting an employee to an abusive workplace or retaliating against an employee for making a charge that he or she has been subject to an abusive workplace.

But even without a law specifically prohibiting workplace bullying, many employers can and do offer their employees protection through broad harassment policies. Workplace bullying can fall within the definition of a hostile work environment ("sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment"). And the requirement that such conduct be "based on" sex or another protected characteristic doesn't mean it must be sexually motivated. Instead, acts of bullying that are rooted in racial animosities, sexual stereotypes, prejudices against persons with disabilities -- all can create a hostile work environment. Employers shouldn't wait for a law telling them that bullying is illegal before acting in an instance when bullying is harassment.

Alayna Schroeder