When you are an attorney you deal with a lot of interesting issues. One that isn’t so interesting is the issue of bullies in the workplace. Bullying goes beyond little kids on the playground and teens in high school. Adults can experience bullying in the workplace, too. Is bullying occurring in your workplace? Here’s what you need to know.
The Legal Aspect of Workplace Bullying
As of 2020, there are no federal laws or state laws that prohibit workplace bullying. Bullying in the workplace is illegal only if it violates federal or state harassment and discrimination laws. Here are some examples of laws that deal with bullying in the workplace.
Harassment and discrimination laws protect employees based on specific characteristics. Legally protected characteristics include: race, color, disability, gender, sex, age, religion, and country of origin.
If a workplace bully taunts a co-worker based on a protected characteristic, then it’s considered illegal harassment. The bullied co-worker can claim the workplace is hostile if the bullying is severe, pervasive, and abusive.
For example, say that a manager constantly taunts a co-worker. In this example, the co-worker is a man. The manager calls the co-worker lazy, stupid, and dumb on a daily basis. It these taunts are based on sex or gender, then they are considered harassment.
For example, the manager says things to the co-worker like, “I thought men were smart, but you proved me wrong.” That statement is possibly illegal because it’s gender-based harassment. This same rule applies if the manager bullies all the men in the office, but never any of the women.
However, if the manager’s comments aren’t linked to gender or any protected characteristic, then it’s not illegal. Even if the manager bullies everyone in the office, the actions are not illegal unless they’re based on a protected characteristic. Workplace bullying can violate other laws, however.
If a workplace bully threatens physical abuse against a co-worker, then that’s potentially a case for assault. And a workplace bully who taunts a co-worker both on and off the job is possibly guilty of stalking.
Dealing with Workplace Bullying
Some states are taking action to prevent workplace bullying. For example, California requires companies with at least 50 employees to train managers on how to identify and prevent abusive workplace behavior.
Abusive behavior in the workplace is any conduct that the average person would think is offensive or hostile. The conduct is also unrelated to legitimate business matters. Offensive or hostile actions in the workplace can include threats of physical abuse, verbal abuse, and sabotaging a person’s work.
The best way to discourage workplace bullying is to stop it before it starts. Encourage respect, kindness, and communication between co-workers. And when bad behavior does occur, take immediate action to deal with the situation.
Create an Anti-Bullying Workplace Policy
Bullying in the workplace isn’t illegal. But you can create an anti-bullying workplace policy for your employees. This policy is a preventive measure that will give you support should bullying occur.
Include the following in your workplace policy:
1. An in-depth definition of bullying that includes several examples.
2. Instructions on how to confidentially report workplace bullying without concerns about retaliation.
3. A clear explanation of what happens after a complaint is received and how the investigation process works.
4. An in-depth and clear explanation of the consequences of violating the policy.
Every employee should receive a copy of the anti-bullying policy. After sharing the policy, have every employee read and sign a code of conduct stating they’ve read, agree to, and understand the policy. A code of conduct is a legally binding document that outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the workplace.
When Policy Violations Occur
Take action immediately when workplace bullying is reported. Immediate action prevents the situation from becoming worse. However, thoroughly investigate the situation before taking disciplinary action.
Suggestions for handling the situation include:
1. Facilitate a meeting between the workplace bully and the victim. Discuss the situation. The bully and the victim can possibly solve the problem between themselves. However, this is only suggested if there is no threat of physical danger. Make sure you’re also present at the meeting.
2. Meet privately with the workplace bully. Explain the reason for the meeting, and discuss possible solutions. You don’t have to provide details about who reported the bully.
3. Provide details on the consequences should the behavior continue. A verbal warning is sometimes enough to stop the bullying behavior. But if the abusive behavior continues, counseling, a written warning, a demotion, or termination may result.
4. Document details of the reported incident, and any meetings between yourself, and the bully and/or victim. This is a legal measure to protect you and the business.
5. Support the victim. Bullying often causes emotional distress. Offer support to the bullied employee. You may want to suggest they join a support group or see a doctor.
Seek Legal Support
If you’re unsure about how to handle workplace bullying, you can seek legal counsel. Technically, workplace bullying isn’t illegal unless it’s based on a legally protected characteristic. And you might need guidance on knowing when bullying is illegal and when it isn’t.