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Bullying in the workplace

When most people think of bullying, they think of a tough kid demanding a smaller boy’s lunch money or “mean girls” ostracizing a classmate in a school cafeteria.

But as a highly publicized situation recently involving the NFL’s Miami Dolphins suggests, bullying doesn’t always stop after high school graduation. It often continues into adulthood, including the workplace.

In the Dolphins’ case, one teammate allegedly tried to “toughen up” another player through a series of abusive text messages and threats of violence.

While that case generated a lot of publicity, the vast majority of workplace bullying incidents don’t show up in the news media. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real – survey after survey shows that a high percentage of Americans say they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying over the course of their careers.

According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, the vast majority of workplace bullying involves verbal abuse, including shouting, swearing, and name-calling, as well as malicious gossip and spreading false rumors.

About one in five cases now includes bullying through Facebook and other social media.

While there are no specific laws on the books that prohibit bullying, there are a wide variety of more general laws that could be used to hold a bully legally liable, or to hold an employer liable if it knows about a bully’s actions and doesn’t take steps to stop them. Which of these laws applies depends on the circumstances.

For instance, bullying could amount to illegal discrimination if it includes harassment based on sex, race, religion, national origin, or disability.

Spreading certain types of lies could lead to a lawsuit for defamation. And threats of violence could lead to a claim for assault or battery.

Other laws prohibit deliberately inflicting emotional distress on a person, or holding a person somewhere against their will.
Employers can be held legally responsible in certain circumstances for workers who bully others in the course of their jobs. Employers can also be held liable for carelessness in hiring and supervising employees.

Workers’ compensation claims can also be based on the effects of bullying, if certain criteria are met.

If an employee feels that bullying is so severe that he or she has no choice but to quit, the law may consider that a “termination,” and the employee could potentially sue for a wrongful firing.

Also, whether or not employees belong to a union, the law protects their right to band together to work for improvements in the workplace. If a group of employees complains together about a bully, the law may prohibit an employer from retaliating against them.

In addition to all this, at least 10 states are currently considering passing specific anti-bullying laws. For example, a proposed New York law would make it illegal to create an abusive working environment or to deliberately undermine a co-worker’s job performance. The law would allow companies that allow bullying to be sued for lost wages, medical expenses, pain and suffering, punitive damages, and attorney fees. Individuals who bully others or permit bullying could be sued as well.

For employers, a good first step in combating bullying is to have a written anti-bullying policy, which can be similar to current discrimination and sexual harassment policies. A policy should clearly describe the types of behavior that constitute bullying, and create a reporting, complaint and investigation procedure. An employment lawyer can help with this.

It’s also good to periodically train supervisors on how to recognize, investigate and address bullying behavior.

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