Workplace Bullying

March 26, 2008

Workplace bullying has been receiving a fair bit of attention recently, mainly thanks to recent headlines proclaiming “workplace bullying worse than sexual harassment.” This news coverage was generated by a review presented at a bullying conference (sponsored in part by the American Psychological Association and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) at which Canadian researchers looked at studies on the two issues and concluded that workplace aggression had greater adverse effects on “work stress and physical, psychological and emotional well-being” than did sexual harassment.

The discussion seems to have struck a chord with many people; after posting on the topic at the New York Times’s Well Blog and receiving more than 300 comments, blogger Tara Parker-Pope posted a second entry on Monday to specifically ask readers if they had experienced bullying, and nearly 250 comments and many harrowing tales have already been shared, including some commenters who report physical and psychological problems they attribute to their work environments.

It may seem odd initially to consider bullying as equal to or worse than sexual harassment, but gains over the last decades have resulted in legal protections and clear workplace policies that allow workers to confront and address physical and verbal abuse of a sexual nature, while non-sexual verbal abuse has been left unaddressed. As this piece notes, “Business groups often argue that existing laws are adequate to protect workers. But bullying generally does not involve race, age or sex, which have protected status in the courts. Instead, most workplace hostility occurs just because someone doesn’t like someone else.”

Indeed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in defining harassment in general, states that “To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” The “persistent criticism, yelling, spreading gossip, and insults” mentioned in one of the Well blog posts certainly seems to fit this criteria, but federal law indicates that the offensive conduct must be “conduct that is based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, and/or age.” Despite this distinction, both forms of abuse seem like affronts to basic human dignity, and both are likely bad for productivity, morale and employee retention and recruitment.

To address this loophole, laws have been proposed in various states, but have not succeeded to date. A bill has been proposed in New York State that proclaims “The social and economic well-being of the state is dependent upon healthy and productive employees” and would make subjecting an employee to an abuse work environment illegal while allowing for civil action by the worker, with damages up to $25,000 even when a negative employment outcome (such as firing the worker) did not occur.

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