Bullying – the Next Frontier of Litigation?
I have previously blogged about the problem of cyber-bullying in society in general and in schools in particular that has created a hostile environment for some young people who then contemplate revenge and, in extreme cases, suicide. In this blog I look at the growing trend of creating cyber-bullying legislation to control bullying in the workplace. In my next blog I will address steps to stop bullying the workplace.
According to the Wall Steet Journal, New York State’s Senate recently passed a bill “that would allow workers who’ve been physically, psychologically or economically abused while on the job to file charges against their employers in civil court.” While the bill is not yet law, many fear that the anti-bullying trend will quickly spread to other states. (In the past, 16 other states have already attempted like laws.) And unlike much employment legislation, no one will be exempt. Both small and large companies can be held accountable if their employees feel intimidated, belittled or forced into submission by a supervisor or even a co-worker.
New York’s Senate defines bullying broadly and includes the repeated use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets, as well as conduct that a ‘reasonable person’ would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating. The Journal reports that, “According to New York lawmakers, between 16% and 21% of employees have experienced health-endangering workplace bullying, abuse and harassment, and such behavior is four times more prevalent than sexual harassment.”
For employers worried about what this pending legislation could mean for their businesses, Brice M. Johnston of the Goodrich Law Firm, LLC, provides advice for those concerned about what could become an onslaught of legal suits including tips for avoiding “Bully” lawsuits. These include:
1. Be careful who you hire. While past work performance may be an indicator of how good an employee will work with and fit in at an organization, relationships with former colleagues and subordinates are also necessary factors to consider to prevent a bully from even stepping through the door.
2. Establish an anonymous tip line for your employees. An anonymous tip line encourages employees to speak up, gives employers a heads up as to potential workplace hostilities, and provides an effective outlet for workers already intimidated by or frightened of a supervisor.
3. Take swift action if you become aware of bullying. Swift action against workplace bullying is essential to send the message the organization takes such unacceptable behavior seriously. It also may afford legal protection from any sort of bullying lawsuit.
4. Be sensitive to the signs of bullying. Taking credit for others’ work, threatening e-mails and other forms of communication, a high turnover rate, and a shutdown in communication are signs that bullying may be taking place in your organization.
Perhaps the least understood fact about bullying is that it imposes costs in the workplace. These include: (a) refocusing employee energy from productivity to self-protection; (b) staff turnover and burnout; (c) intensified use of sick leave; (d) increased medical and workers’ compensation claims due to occupational stress; and (e) increased out of court settlements, legal fees and litigation.
Estimates of the cost of bullying in the workplace have been as high as $100,000 per year for a single incident. A survey of 9,000 employees estimated a cost of more than $180 million in lost time and productivity. There are many reasons for these costs including: declining quality of work, increase in time spent on a project, increased time spent dealing with bullying problems, costs to exacerbate the problem, lost employee time, turnover costs, and litigation costs.
Bullying is unwanted, recurring, aggressive messages aimed at one or more individual, and that involve a power imbalance between bully and target. Bullying in the workplace invites significant damaging consequences for victims, observers, and the organization – including depression, burnout, job dissatisfaction, reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and turnover, health related stress, workers compensation expenses, lawsuits, and even a bad reputation.
Bullying is unethical and those who enable it or fail to take corrective action are just as guilty as the one doing the bullying. Bullying has no place in the workplace and the problem must be met head on. If it is swept under the rug, then the signal is sent to the offender that it is OK to bully. It feeds into the no consequences society that seems to have developed over the years in the U.S. where those with authority to stop inappropriate behavior fail to do so out of indifference, fear of getting involved, fear of lawsuits and, most important, a lack of courage.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 23, 2011