Employers have long been aware of laws prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, national origin, and other protected characteristics. But what about uncivil or intimidating behavior unrelated to protected class status? Many employees complain to employers about coworkers creating “toxic” work environments, but the offending behavior falls outside of the umbrella of state and federal harassment and discrimination laws. How should employers handle these situations?
Workplace bullying can take the form of verbal abuse, physical abuse, work interference or sabotage, gossip or rumors, or social isolation. While workplace bullying may fall outside of the harassment and discrimination prohibited by law, it can still have a devastating effect on employers. Sixty-five percent of targeted employees are terminated or quit due to workplace bullying, and 40 percent of targeted employees suffer adverse health effects. This results in retention problems, a drop in employee morale, and attendance issues for affected employers. Even if a targeted employee cannot prevail on a discrimination or harassment claim, a claim for retaliation or negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress could succeed. A Nevada jury recently awarded $500,000 to an employee whose coworkers posted a sign referring to the employee as “Fat Andy,” and whose managers failed to remove the sign after the employee complained.
Tennessee is the first state to enact legislation designed to encourage employers to enact and enforce anti-bullying policies. The Tennessee law provides a model policy, and employers who adopt the model policy receive immunity from infliction of mental anguish claims in the state of Tennessee. Twenty-nine other states have proposed legislation prohibiting workplace bullying, and the prospect of employer liability for workplace bullying is on the horizon.
Contact myHRcounsel with questions regarding workplace bullying, or to request a sample anti-bullying policy.
Written by: Britt Waterman