Workplace bullying is a serious problem, for the individuals subjected to it and their employers.
Workplace bullying is abusive behavior, by a supervisor, coworker, or group of other employees, that targets an individual. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment” of an employee by one or more other employees. That mistreatment may include “verbal abuse . . . or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or some combination of the above.”
Many forms of bullying are obvious: the manager who speaks only in passive aggressive sarcasm; the supervisor who habitually shouts at subordinates; the coworker who insists on telling racially or sexually charged jokes in the breakroom; the “office clown” who misses no opportunity to embarrass or humiliate a cubicle mate.
But bullying can take more subtle forms, as well. Workplace bullies also gain advantage by ignoring subordinates, undermining colleagues, shutting others out of critical workplace conversations and communities, and gaslighting superiors. When faced with open discussions about their behavior, they engage in diversion and minimization. “It’s just a joke.” “I didn’t mean anything by it.” “Everyone is oversensitive.”
The effects of workplace bullying extend well beyond the workplace. Bullying at work can create stress that affects your health and your relationships outside of work. It can cause, or aggravate, anxiety and depression. Dealing with a workplace bully every day is exhausting, leaving little energy for activities that give you joy. In turn, the stress, anxiety, and depression increase.
Unfortunately, workplace bullying is not illegal. Although a number of states have considered a bill to make workplace bullying illegal, only Puerto Rico has passed a bill. No federal law makes bullying broadly unlawful or requires employers to respond to it.
That said, victims of bullies are not left without recourse. Persistent, harmful bullying behavior may open up the bully to suit for intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, or other claims. And the employer who does not act to end the behavior can be held liable for negligent supervision and other claims.
Unless it crosses the line into harassment. Bullying and harassment are quite similar in everyday language, but harassment has a particular meaning in the law. Harassment is a pattern of continued, unwanted actions toward another person because of the target’s membership in a protected class.
In other words, while bullying in general is not illegal, bullying based on someone’s race, gender (including gender identity and sexual preference), age, national origin, or religion is illegal. And an employer who does not act to stop such behavior can be held accountable–under both federal and state law—for creating a hostile work environment.
It’s not easy to win a hostile work environment claim. The burden of proof is on the employee to show not only that the bullying occurred but also that it was based on a protected category and that the employer knew of the bullying and failed to act to stop it. The employee must also prove that the bullying was severe enough that a reasonable person would find it intolerable.
If you’ve been subjected to workplace bullying, and your employer has refused to address the problem, you should consult an attorney. An employment law attorney can help determine whether you may have a civil rights case or a personal injury claim and advise you on how to proceed to preserve your rights.
At Miller Law Group, we can help you navigate the effects of bullying and protect your legal rights. Contact us or call us for a consultation.