The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:
- Verbal abuse;
- Offensive conduct/behaviors, which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; and/or
- Work interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done.
Because of this potentially dangerous and destructive behavior, a growing number of states are seeking to adopt “Healthy Workplace” bills, which would establish a civil cause of action for employees who claim that they are subject to an abusive work environment.
According to attorney Thomas J. Posey, partner in the firm of Franczek Radelet, it is vital that employers be aware of the signs of bullying in the workplace and educated on how best to legally address the issue with their employees.
Posey participated in an interview with CCH, a Wolters Kluwer company, providing readers with the following quick tips for dealing with workplace bullying.
CCH: To whom should incidences of bullying be reported?
Posey: The complaint reporting and incident response procedures should be similar to the employer’s harassment reporting and response procedures. Accordingly, employees should be able to report such incidents to their direct supervisor, the HR department, or any other member of management they are comfortable reporting it to.
CCH: What should that person or department do with a bullying complaint?
Posey: It is advisable to have a response protocol in place (again, similar to the harassment response protocol). The manager or HR professional should conduct an investigation into the incident, document their investigation and findings, and where appropriate, impose discipline if it is determined that an employee engaged in bullying.
A bullying complaint should be taken seriously and should not be ignored. Workplace disagreements can escalate to violence if left unchecked, and employers may face additional liability if they knew or should have known that a bullying situation existed and failed to take appropriate action.
CCH: Do you recommend that employers maintain an anti-bullying policy?
Posey: The employer’s policies should prohibit bullying behavior, but that does not require that an explicit anti-bullying policy be implemented. For example, many employers have employee conduct policies or harassment policies in place that prohibit, among other improper conduct, bullying or threatening behavior. Employers whose existing policies do not prohibit bullying should consider either modifying those policies to explicitly address bullying, or implementing a stand-alone antibullying policy.
CCH: If an employer decides to implement an antibullying policy, what specific elements should that policy contain?
Posey: There should be a clear indication that the employer has a “zero tolerance” approach to bullying, and that such conduct will result in discipline up to and including termination. The policy should direct that bullying incidents are to be reported immediately, and that they should be reported by anyone who witnesses such conduct, not just victims of the conduct. The policy should clearly lay out who incidents should be reported to and the response protocols to be followed by those receiving the complaint.
CCH: What employment laws do employers/HR need to have in mind when reacting to a bullying situation?
Posey: There are no federal laws specific to bullying and I am not aware of any such laws at the state level, although there have been attempts by several states in recent years to enact anti-bullying statutes. However, the laws applicable to incidents of workplace violence or threats of violence (as well as various criminal laws) would all be implicated by workplace bullying.
CCH: Is immediate termination of a bullyer ever warranted?
Posey: Where bullying consists of physical violence or threats of violence, immediate termination may be warranted. In addition, failure to terminate an employee who engages in or threatens violence against a co-worker may expose the employer to increased liability, if the violence (or threats of violence) continues.
Like other forms of inappropriate employee conduct in the workplace, bullying can lead not only to decreased productivity, but also to potentially extensive liability for employers who fail to prevent and properly respond to such conduct.
Source: CCH Employment Law Daily