Workplace Bullying: The Big Picture

I am pleased to be quoted in a  Businessweek  feature on the problem of workplace bullies but I also find it frustrating that  the American media consistently fails to see the big picture about this serious national problem.

Workplace bullying is not just about misguided individuals who bully co-workers and subordinates. More importantly, it is about American employers.

American employers permit bullying in the workplace because there is no law or regulation that requires them to stop it – despite the fact that it is widely recognized as a form of workplace violence. Other industrialized countries recognize workplace bullying as an important public health and safety problem. And decades of research show that workplace bullying causes targets to suffer potentially severe emotional and physical harm.

Only employers can stop workplace bullying. Employees who are targeted for bullying generally are completely helpless to do anything about it, especially if the bully is a superior.

Why don’t employers stop it?

Because in America, workplace bullying is seen as a prerogative of the employer. In fact, some unscrupulous employers use bullying strategically to accomplish a goal – such as to avoid unions, downsize without paying unemployment compensation, or to evade a potential worker’s compensation claim. In my own practice of law, I saw many cases where employees were bullied and driven out of the workplace by an employer after they complained about wage theft (which, by the way, is epidemic in the United States). 

Why don’t workers do anything about it?

The vast majority of American workers are completely priced out of the American legal system and,  besides, federal judges (who have lifetime tenure barring bad behavior) are appallingly ignorant and unsympathetic to claims of  employment discrimination and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

So one in three or four American workers are bullied by employers, either directly or because the employer tolerates or fails to stop an abusive workplace environment.  

This all  stands in sharp contrast to other industrialized countries – including the European Union – where authorities recognize workplace bullying as a major problem and have placed the burden of eliminating workplace bullying squarely on employers.

Activitists in the United States have been spinning their wheels for more than a decade in an attempt to get a state-by-state solution to the problem of workplace bullying but the only real answer lies with the federal government.  States should act – and I hope they will act – but this is not the solution.  Today, many states will do virtually anything to attract new business; it is wishful thinking that they will voluntarily pass a law protecting targets of workplace bullying  if they can gain any competitive edge by not doing so. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has acknowledged the problem by enacting workplace bullying protections for its own employees but it has failed to take any steps to protect the health and safety of millions of American workers across the nation.

This blog is a member of the coalition Protect-US-Workers that has launched a petition drive asking U.S. President Barack H. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis to formulate a national response to the problem of workplace bullying.

Talk to your legislators. Sign the petition.

Federal Agencies Urged to Address Workplace Bullying

merit

Create Culture of Respect

When an incident of assault, harassment, intimidation, or bullying occurs in a federal workplace, it is usually caused by an employee rather than a customer, criminal, or someone who has a personal relationship with the victim.

This is the conclusion of a study on workplace violence in the federal sector released in September by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent federal agency that promotes the efficient and effective use of the federal workforce. 

 The study, entitled Employee Perceptions of Federal Workplace Violence, recommends that federal managers “foster organizational cultures that do not tolerate violent behavior and that takes reports of such behavior seriously.”

 Essentially the board is recommending that federal agencies adopt workplace anti-bullying and harassment policies that cultivate  “organizational cultures that treat employees with dignity and respect.”   

 The study’s definition of workplace violence includes emotional violence –  bullying, harassment and intimidation – as well as physical violence.

 The study found that overall 13 percent of the federal employees surveyed – which is estimated to be one in eight federal employees – observed an incident of workplace violence in the past two years. The incidence was much higher in certain occupational groups – 26 percent of federal employees in medical/hospital occupations and 21 percent in police/security occupations.

 About 54 percent of the violence observed was perppetrated by current or former federal employees; 34 percent was perpetrated by a customer; 7 percent by an individual who had a personal relationship with an employee; and four percent involved criminals.

 Overall, the report states that 73 percent of the employees said their agency took sufficient steps to ensure their safety from violence in the workplace.  However, that figure shrank to only about one-third  of employees who had observed workplace violence by current or former employees or by individuals who had a personal relationship with an employee.

 The report recommends that agencies adopt  strategies to deal with workplace violence by current and former employees

 Specifically, the report recommends the following strategies:

  • Foster healthy organizational cultures that do not tolerate aggressive or violent behaviors;
  • Complete appropriate pre-employment background checks;
  • Train employees on workplace violence issues;
  • Resolve serious workplace conflicts before they escalate into violence; and
  • Administer human resources programs properly so as not to introduce undue stress into the workplace.  

According to the report, conflicts in the federal workplace are fairly commonplace. The survey states that 49 percent of supervisors and 37 percent of all employees indicated that they had dealt with at least one serious conflict during the past two years. This survey defined “serious conflict” as one that the survey participant “felt if not addressed would result in negative workforce consequences such as low morale, low organizational productivity or performance, perceived unfairness, absenteeism, attrition, or even fear.”

The findings in the report are based primarily on an analysis of the MSPB’s 2010 Merit Principles Survey, which surveyed 71,910 full-time, permanent, non- Postal federal employees. The workers were asked about their perceptions of their jobs, work environments, supervisors, and agencies. There was a 58 percent response rate and 42,020 surveys were deemed valid.

 The United States lags behind many other industrialized countries that have adopted laws and regulations to address workplace bullying. Last year, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration  passed a workplace anti-bully measure for its own workers. And now the Merit Systems Protection Board is recommending other federal agencies do the same. However, there is no federal or state legislation protecting private sector employees from workplace bullying.

Other Options to Halt Workplace Bullying

After a decade, questions are being raised about whether the state-by-state campaign to pass the so-called Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) is a realistic solution to the epidemic of workplace bullying in the United States.

This blog suggested last fall that it was time to think about options other than the HWB,  which was first proposed a decade ago and has yet be adopted by any of the 20 states that have considered it. I proposed that the U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis empanel a task force to study the problem and propose new legislation on how to best address the problem of workplace bullying nationally.

The Vermont Senate has thrown out efforts to pass the HWB in that state and voted to create a task force to determine the best way to provide relief and redress for state residents suffering in abusive work environments.   Senate Bill 52 suggests looking at different models to remedy workplace bullying, including:

  • Create a private right of action that would include the recovery of damages (like the HWB).
  • Create a mechanism for injunctive relief similar to those relating to stalking, hate crimes, or relief-from-abuse orders.
  • State enforcement similar to the employment discrimination law.
  • State enforcement by the Vermont occupational safety and health administration.

Gary Namie, the director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, this week issued a defense of the HWB  which the institute has supported since it was drafted by Suffolk University Law Professor David Yamada in 2002.

Namie primarily argues the HWB’s private right of action is best because it is “revenue neutral” and won’t burden states financially.

For the following reasons, I support a different approach:

  •  Proponents of the HWB have been advocating for a decade to pass the HWB in individual states. Twenty states have considered the HWB so far but no state has passed a bill. One state might yet be persuaded to pass a version of the HWB but it could take decades for a significant number of states to do so.  Some extreme pro-business states will never voluntarily pass a workplace anti-bully bill, just as they have fought tooth-and-nail against other workplace protections.
  • The HWB as proposed is anemic. It contains hurdles that are not found in laws adopted in other industrialized countries, or in other U.S. civil rights laws involving the concept of a hostile work environment. These hurdles include requirements that targets prove malice and psychological injury and a $25,000 cap on damages for targets who are not demoted or fired. Many – if not most  — targets will find it difficult or impossible to obtain a meaningful remedy.  (Namie and Yamada refused to respond to questions about the troubling language of the HWB.)
  • Under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 (OSH Act), employers are required to provide employees with a safe workplace. Overwhelming research shows that workplace bullying can result in potentially serious mental and physical harm.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which administers the OSH act, should protect workers from bullying, just as it protects workers from physical hazards. It’s not a question of passing a new law but enforcing the OSH Act.  (Last year, OSHA adopted a workplace anti-bully policy for its own workers.)
  • Workplace bullying is widely acknowledged to be a form of workplace violence.  Although it is primarily psychological in nature, it can lead to physical violence. It exists on the same spectrum of violence as domestic violence and elder or child abuse, all of which are addressed on a federal and state level.  One of the core functions of society is to protect its vulnerable citizens from violence. The HWB provides a private right of action.  This means that its enforcement mechanism is the embattled target, who after months or decades of bullying may lack the emotional, physical, and financial resources to hire an attorney and to embark on lengthy litigation with an uncertain outcome.  What happens if a target cannot or will not act? The bully moves on to his or her next target.
  • A workplace bully is not always an individual. Employers  use “strategic harassment” to get rid of workers who demand their rights and to cheat workers out of their legal rights – such as unemployment compensation, worker’s compensation, and/or fair pay and benefits.  A target suing a single employer cannot solve this problem.

 Other arguments advanced by Namie lack persuasiveness.

An enforcement action by a federal agency would be covered by the press, just like a private lawsuit.

And, yes, the  monetary penalty for state and federal OSH Act violations is insufficient but this can and should be addressed.   OSHA citations also trigger other penalties (including possible criminal sanctions) and an expensive investigation and hearing process.  Employers work diligently to avoid OSHA citations.

Namie and Yamada are concerned about the risk of burdening the court system with cases that rest on “hurt feelings” rather than true bullying. But wouldn’t this argument apply equally to any other lawsuit involving a complaint of a hostile work environment, including sexual harassment or race discrimination lawsuits? Where is the evidence to suggest that frivolous lawsuits will be a particular problem with respect to workplace bullying? And why should this be a focus of concern for anti-bully advocates? Isn’t this what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce does?

Vermont’s bill notes that the Vermont office of attorney general’s civil rights unit reports that of the 1,200 to 1,300 requests for assistance it receives each year, a substantial number involve allegations of severe workplace bullying that cannot be addressed by current state or federal law or common law tort claims.

The United States lags behind many other industrialized countries in addressing workplace bullying.  That is shameful.  We owe a debt to Namie and Yamada for significantly helping to raise public awareness about the problem of workplace bullying, and for their extensive work on the issue. However, a solution is long overdue.  It is time to consider other options to protect the one in four American workers who suffer with this insidious health and safety problem.

OSHA Adopts Workplace Anti-Bullying Policy

 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has adopted a safety program for its own workers that includes a workplace anti-bully policy.

The policy is contained in a 278-page document, the OSHA Field Health and Safety Manual, which was released on May 23, 2011. The manual outlines safety practices for OSHA’s field offices. It was drafted in cooperation with the National Council of Field Labor Locals, a union that represents OSHA workers.

OSHA’s workplace bullying policy is significant because the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees … .” However, OSHA has not enforced that provision with respect to workplace bullying, despite overwhelming research that workplace bullying may cause severe damages to a target’s mental and physical health.

The stated purpose of the workplace bullying policy, contained in the manual’s “Violence in the Workplace” chapter, is: ”To provide a workplace that is free from violence, harassment, intimidation, and other disruptive behavior.”

The manual defines “intimidating behavior” as:

“Threats or other conduct that in any way create a hostile environment, impair Agency operations, or frighten, alarm or inhibit others. Verbal intimidation may include making false statements that are malicious, disparaging, derogatory, disrespectful, abusive, or rude.”

 And, “workplace violence” is defined as:

“An action, whether verbal, written, or physical aggression, that is intended to control, cause, or is capable of causing injury to oneself or other, emotional harm, or damage to property.”.

 All OSHA employees are required to “treat all other employees, as well as customers, with dignity and respect. Management will provide a working environment as safe as possible by having preventative measures in place and by dealing immediately with threatening or potentially violent situations. No employee will engage in threats, violent outbursts, intimidations, bullying harassment, or other abusive or disruptive behaviors.”

The manual states that the Assistant Regional Administrator/Director for Administrative Programs or equivalent unit will:

1. Disseminate the workplace violence policies and procedures to all employees;

2. Provide annual training on this policy and U.S. Department of Labor workplace violence program for responsible OSHA Manager(s); and

3. Conduct an investigation and complete a Workplace Violence Incident Report for all incidents reported. The report will be submitted to the Regional Administrator within 24 hours of completion.

Congress created the OSHA  to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance. OSHA is part of the United States Department of Labor.

Other Federal Laws

OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT OF 1970

Some experts say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should take the lead on combating workplace bullying.*  There is overwhelming evidence that workplace bullying can lead to serious injury and even death.  In fact, a term has been coined for workers who are driven to suicide as a result of bullying – “bullycide.”  In several other countries, workplace bullying is considered a health and safety issues and is regulated by a federal agency like OSHA. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in May 2011 adopted a safety program for its own workers that includes a workplace anti-bully policy. The policy is contained in a 278-page document, the OSHA Field Health and Safety Manual,  which outlines safety practices for OSHA’s field offices. It was drafted in cooperation with the National Council of Field Labor Locals, a union that represents OSHA workers.

OSHA’s workplace bullying policy is significant because the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees … .” However, OSHA has not enforced that provision with respect to workplace bullying.

The stated purpose of the workplace bullying policy adopted by OSHA for its own workers,  contained in the manual’s “Violence in the Workplace” chapter. is: ”To provide a workplace that is free from violence, harassment, intimidation, and other disruptive behavior.”

Here is the OSHA General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) SEC. 5:

Duties

(a) Each employer —

(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees …

*See Susan Harthill. “The Need for a Revitalized Regulatory Scheme to Address Workplace Bullying in the United States: Harnessing the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act.” University of Cincinnati Law Review 78.4 (2010): 1250-1306.

WAGE AND HOUR LAWS

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not address workplace bullying per se but it can be used to combat certain types of abuse. The FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments. Covered nonexempt workers are entitled to a minimum wage of not less than $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009. Overtime pay at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay is required after 40 hours of work in a workweek.  The FLSA is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division  If one aspect of the bullying campaign is failure to pay proper wages or overtime, for example, the FLSA is one potential remedy.

THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT

The National Labor Relations Act  (NLRA) was passed in 1935 to protect the right of employees in the private sector to create labor unions, engage in collective bargaining and to take part in strikes. The act is also known as the Wagner Act, after its sponsor, Sen. Robert F. Wagner.  The act is regulated by the National Labor Relations Board.

 Specifically, the National Labor Relations Board protects the rights of employees to engage in “protected concerted activity,”  which is when two or more employees take action for their mutual aid or protection regarding terms and conditions of employment.  A single employee may also engage in protected concerted activity if he or she is acting on the authority of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action.

A few examples of protected concerted activities are:

  • Two or more employees addressing their employer about improving their pay.
  • Two or more employees discussing work-related issues beyond pay, such as safety concerns, with each other.
  • An employee speaking to an employer on behalf of one or more co-workers about improving workplace conditions.

Most employees in the private sector are covered by the NLRA. However, the Act specifically excludes individuals who are employed by federal, state, or local governments, agricultural laborers, some close relatives of the employer, domestic servants in a home, independent contractors, employers subject to the Railway Labor Act, etc.

FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT

The Familiy and Medical Leave Act (FMLA offers potential help for employees who are suffering health effects from workplace abuse.  Administered by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, it  entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Eligible employees are entitled to:

Twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for:

-the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth;

-the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;

-to care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition;

a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job;

– any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a covered military member on “covered active duty;” or

Twenty-six workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness who is the spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin to the employee (military caregiver leave).