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Bullying in Places of Employment Prompts New Legislation

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 1000622_worried_man_against_white_background.jpgAdolescent bullying is a hot topic right now, and includes face-to-face interactions as well as online activity. Unfortunately for some, the bullying doesn’t end in their teenage years. Recent polls have shown that over 30 percent of working adults feel they have been bullied at work. No one knows for sure why people become bullies. Perhaps they were bullied themselves or they feel insecure. Some research with brain scans has shown that bullies derive pleasure from seeing someone else being hurt. Workplace bullying can include verbal, physical or emotional abuse by an employer or a co-worker.

While workplace bullying has been occurring for years, it is only recently that action has been taken to begin protecting employees both from their superiors and their co-workers. Several movements, including The Healthy Workplace Campaign, have been created to encourage legislators to take action against workplace bullying. Some forms of bullying are covered by current anti-discrimination laws. If an individual is being bullied based on his race, gender, or religious beliefs, he can take legal action under existing laws. However, if the person being bullied is not in a protected class, or if the bully is in the same protected class as the victim, filing a lawsuit becomes much more difficult.

Since 2003, 21 states have introduced workplace bullying legislation. As of today, none of the bills have become law. This legislation differs from anti-discrimination laws. It would cover all individuals, not just those in a protected class; it would make companies liable for bullying being done by co-workers, not just superiors; and it would pertain to companies of any size.

Companies are concerned that this type of legislation could lead to an enormous number of lawsuits, some legitimate, but others frivolous. Some employees may file claims simply because they were disciplined, or because they were unhappy with a review. The proposed bill in New York hopes to curb some of the unnecessary lawsuits by making employers not liable if the proper bullying prevention and correction techniques are in place. Another way a company can protect itself is to try to identify and turn away potential bullies when interviewing job applicants.

In 2008 the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a $325,000 decision against an Indiana doctor by a technician who claimed emotional distress and assault. Although the case did not legally involve workplace bullying — since these laws do not yet exist — testimony from an expert introduced the phrase “workplace bullying” into the case and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled “The phrase ‘workplace bullying,’ like other general terms used to characterize a person’s behavior, is an entirely appropriate consideration in determining the issues before the jury. As evidenced by the trial court’s questions to counsel during pre-trial proceedings, workplace bullying could be considered a form of intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

If you have questions regarding workplace bullying, discrimination, or other employment matters, contact Kentucky employment attorneys Miller & Falkner.

Sources:

New Laws Target Workplace Bullying; Time U.S.; Adam Cohen; July 2010
For Businesses, Bully Lawsuits May Pose New Threat
; The Wall Street Journal; Sarah Needleman; May 2010
Workplace Bullying; The Human Resources Organization