4 Truths to Know About Laws Against Workplace Bullying

While many efforts are underway to thwart bullying at school, adults are beginning to realize that bullies don’t only exist on the playground. Harassment in the form of teasing, name-calling, yelling and making belittling comments are fairly commonplace in the work environment. Specifically, 27 percent of respondents in a 2014 U.S. Workplace Bullying survey reported having experienced abusive conduct in the workplace. Here are four things that every American employee should know about workplace bullying.

Bullying is perfectly legal
There are no federal laws that make bullying illegal, nor have any states made it outright illegal. The subjective nature of bullying makes it hard to define and even more difficult to persecute. However, as of 2016, 32 states and two territories have some anti-bullying legislation called The Healthy Workplace Bill. In other words, many employers are trying.

As employers become more aware of instances of workplace bullying, more is being done to protect employees. In 2013, Jonathan Martin resigned from the Miami Dolphins after complaining that his teammates were bullying him. The following year, the CEO of technology company GitHub left the company after an employee insisted that the CEO and his wife were bullying him. An internal investigation found that GitHub had committed no legal wrongdoing.

Bullying and harassment
That said, there are many laws against workplace harassment that can occasionally be pertinent in cases of bullying. This is especially true in instances where a person is a member of a protected class or is a whistleblower. If someone is targeted because of their race, sex, religion, age or disability, they likely have legal protections. If a bully threatens to physically harm an employee, the employee may be able to sue on the basis of assault.

What bullying is (and isn’t)
Although there isn’t any universally accepted definition of workplace bullying, many scholars have attempted to create a common definition. Generally, it entails a person becoming the target of negative social behaviors. Incidents occur regularly and negatively impact a person’s ability to do his or her job. Often, the bullying acts escalate over time and the target lacks the ability to successfully defend himself. Behaviors may include social exclusion, humiliation, intimidation, or personal attacks.

Contacting Human Resources is likely an ineffective way to stop bullying
While reporting bullying to HR is a common-sense solution, it often falls on deaf ears. That’s because most forms of bullying occur by people in upper management, of which HR has minimal impact. More than 85 percent of people who report bullying to HR discover that their complaints either intensify or stay the same after making a report.

Instead, targets should emphasize to employers the cost of keeping a bully on payroll, including a loss in productivity and higher turnover.