New Bill Targets Workplace Bullying

Americans face bullying long after they have left the playground with a startling 35% of adults either been bullied or currently experiencing bullying at work, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Workplace bullying is defined by the WBI as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one of more persons by one or more perpetrators," and includes verbal abuse, offensive conduct and behaviors (including nonverbal) that are threatening, humiliating or intimidating and work interference or sabotage, which prevents work from getting done.

These actions have serious side effects for victims, according to the WBI, including heart disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now lobbyists are increasing their calls for state lawmakers to pass anti-bullying in the workplace legislation.

Dr. Gary Naime, national director of the Healthy Workplace Campaign, started lobbying for anti-bullying laws in 2003. Right now, his "Healthy Workplace Bill," has been introduced in 21 states with New York the closest sate to passing it into law. The New York bill has 43 current co-sponsors, and a new Senate version of the bill is in the process of being written. A companion Senate bill was introduced and referred to the Labor Committee in March 2011.

For employers, the bill defines an "abusive work environment" and requires proof of health harm by licensed professionals. It gives employers reason to terminate or sanction offenders and requires plaintiffs to use private attorneys.

"It's very soft on employers, and will give them rewards for taking care of bullying voluntarily," he says. "If they do, they have no responsibility [legally] they are freed."

For workers, the New York bill provides an avenue for legal action against "health harming cruelty at work," and allows a victim to sue the bully as an individual. It also holds the employer accountable by allows for restoration of lost wages and benefits, and compels employers to prevent and correct future instances.

According to a 2010 WBI survey, 15% of workers reported they have witnessed bullying in the workplace. With that said, 50% of respondents reported they have never seen or "don't know" what bullying is.

"It's not that they don't see it, but what they do see they do not consider unacceptable," Naime says. "They consider it routinenot negative or bad. It's much more severe than trivial stuff. It is repeated malicious verbal abuse, threats, humiliation and work sabotage. That is pretty severe."

As the national sponsor of the Healthy Workplace Bill, Naime says he is not looking for lawsuits to bring an end to bullying in the workplace. His goal is to have bullying treated the same way as harassment in the office.

"Employers are ignoring it and HR has dropped the ball72% of bullying is done by management."

Also according to the Institute, once a person is targeted by a bully, they have a 64% chance of either being fired or quitting his/her job.

Polly Wright, senior consultant at HR Consults Inc., a management and human resource consulting and training firm, says bullying in the workplace is extremely common. She remembers being bullied by a manager at her first job out of college, but she stayed at the job because she had no other options.

"I was married to that job for financial reasons," she says. "Bullying is just basically harassment. And sometimes you don't even realize it is happening. As employers we should be handling it the same as we would unlawful harassment."

Bullying in the workplace can begin with cliques forming in the office, or by hiring someone with a bad temper or anger-management issues. Wright  says many of the Human Resource policies she has recently created for businesses have included wording about bullying in the workplace.

All managers in a company should be trained on what the legal line of harassment actually is, and make sure employees aren't crossing this line, Wright says. Also, employees may try to work out the issue amongst themselves, but once HR is brought into the picture an investigation will be launched, she says.

"I really think that it takes a toll on morale, to the point where employees are so disengaged in their work environment they are just going through the motions," Wright says. "They will go through their day trying to have the least amount of interaction with their bully as possible."

Although Wright condemns bullying, she is not in favor of the Healthy Workplace Bill and says it can be addressed in already-established policies, like those that deal with harassment.

"It will be another burden on employers," she says. "Hopefully we keep it out of final legislationemployers should just address [bullying] in conjunction with harassment. We shouldn't need a law to tell us that."

If a worker is being bullied in a family business, or small company, Naime advises to leave right away, and says changing the culture in a smaller office is often more difficult than in a corporation setting.

"All you can do is try and make it, but in a small business you are trapped," he says. "In a bigger company there are more layers and you do have a chance of convincing someone that the idiot needs to go, not you."