Think bullies are relegated to elementary school playgrounds?
Our Boston business attorneys know that an increasing number of employer liability claims are stemming not from sexual harassment, but workplace bullying.
Victims of bullying aren’t necessarily a protected class, but it is considered a form of harassment. Some 40 percent of workers surveyed in Massachusetts said they had been bullied at some point during their career.
Such actions might include:
- Verbal abuse;
- Work interference, sabotage or any actions that prevent the victim’s work from getting done;
- Offensive behavior or conduct, including non-verbal, that is intimidating, humiliating or threatening.
For example, a bully might falsely accuse a co-worker of mistakes or errors. They may yell, shout or scream. They may practice exclusion through the silent treatment. They might withhold necessary information or resources from the victim. They might lob excessive put-downs, insults or harsh criticism. They might make unreasonable work demands.
Some believe these types of actions have increased amid the heightened pressure heaped on employers and employees in this struggling economy. Victims may not have many options to leave their jobs, meaning they are forced to stay and suffer the mistreatment.
Firms without policies in place to stop bullying or those that fail to take steps to stop it once it is reported could find themselves shelling out a lot of money for settlements.
In Massachusetts last year, the Healthy Workplace bill was introduced to provide some form of relief to workers who had been hurt either physically, psychologically or financially as a result of being subjected to an abusive work environment. The bill would have provided incentives for employers to enact preventative measures.
It didn’t pass last year, but it was reintroduced this year as HB 1766. The measure currently has 31 House sponsors and eight Senate sponsors, all but one being Democrat.
The bill would hold that:
- No employee should be subjected to an abusive work environment;
- An employer may be held liable when violations of this right result from a lack of reasonable preventative action, failure to appropriately correct the problem or retaliation against the employee who complained;
- An employee may be held individually liable if he or she is found to have perpetuated the abuse.
Already, the National Association of Government Employees Local 282 is one of the first unions in the country to include anti-bullying clauses in its collective bargaining agreements.
Massachusetts is among roughly a dozen states to consider such action. The idea is that plaintiffs may be able to pursue lost wages, medical expenses, benefits, and essentially compel employers within the state to prevent a work environment that is rife for abuse.
While the vast majority of complaints stem from verbal abuse, lies or malicious gossip, these actions may not even need occur in person to qualify as harassment or abuse. A federal appeals court in California last year found that a corrections agency was liable for harassment of one employee via a blog. While this decision is not binding on Massachusetts, it sets persuasive precedent for other courts, should a suit of a similar nature be brought elsewhere in the country.
It can be confusing for employers to know what exactly their obligations are or what measures they can take to shield themselves from this kind of action. And employees who have suffered from this kind of maltreatment need a place they can go to learn more about their rights.