Bullying – the Next Frontier of Litigation?

Posted on June 16, 2010

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According to the Wall Street Journal, New York State’s Senate recently passed a bill “that would allow workers who’ve been physically, psychologically or economically abused while on the job to file charges against their employers in civil court.” While the bill is not yet law, many fear that the anti-bullying trend will quickly spread to other states. (In the past, 16 other states have already attempted like laws.) And unlike much employment legislation, no one will be exempt.  Both small and large companies can be held accountable if their employees feel intimidated, belittled or forced into submission by a supervisor or even a co-worker.

Also, unlike years past, when anti-bullying lawsuits were considered “a liberal cause,” New York’s bill is co-sponsored by a Republican.

New York’s Senate “defines bullying broadly and includes the repeated use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets, as well as conduct that a ‘reasonable person’ would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating,” says the Journal.

The Journal also states that, “According to New York lawmakers, between 16% and 21% of employees have experienced health-endangering workplace bullying, abuse and harassment, and such behavior is four times more prevalent than sexual harassment.”

For those employers worried about what this pending legislation could mean for their businesses, the story also offers advice for those concerned about what could become an onslaught of legal suits.

Tips for Avoiding “Bully” Lawsuits:

1. Be careful who you hire. Past work performance isn’t the only indicator of how good an employee will work with and fit in at your firm. Relationships with former colleagues and subordinates are also necessary factors to consider if you want to keep a bully from even stepping through the door.

2. Establish an anonymous tip line for your employees. Workers already intimidated by or frightened of a supervisor or co-worker probably won’t feel comfortable facing the problem head-on for fear of even greater repercussions and belittlement. An anonymous tip line encourages employees to speak up and gives employers a heads up as to potential workplace hostilities.

3. Take swift action if you become aware of bullying. Putting a quick end to any sort of demeaning behavior in the office not only makes for a more pleasant workplace environment, it also might exempt you, as the employer, from any sort of bullying lawsuit.

4. Make sure to check the mirror. No bullies in your workplace? Be sure that you’re not the culprit. According to the Wall Street Journal, if you’re taking all of the credit for the company’s success and/or you have a high rate of employee turnover, you might very well be the problem when it comes to bullying in the workplace.

Is it an outburst due to a high pressure work environment, normal discipline for an out-of-line employee or true bullying? Within a few years, it may be up to the courts to decide.

Many are concerned that with high unemployment and employers nervous about the fragile economy that this additional regulation can only make matters worse. While financial reform may be appropriate in the wake of the economic crisis, bully reform may be misguided. My hunch is that there are plenty of Americans who would clamor at the opportunity to have any boss, even a bully.

Brice M. Johnston
Goodrich Law Firm, LLC

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