What to do about workplace bullying?
The Boston Globe published an article on the problem of workplace bullying recently that focused on a proposed state-by-state solution that has been touted since 2001 by Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute and Suffolk University Professor David R. Yamada, author of the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB). Originally introduced in California in 2002, the HWB has been considered in some form by more than two dozen states. If Massachusetts eventually passes the HWP, that only leaves workers in 49 states, five territories and the District of Columbia without protection from workplace bullying.
Is this really where all the din and struggle of the past decade has gotten us? The United States is falling even farther behind other western democracies, some of which acted decades ago to protect workers from bullying.
The Globe article also perpetuates the common misconception that all workplace bullies are sadistic bosses and mean-spirited co-workers. In fact, much of the problem can be attributed to unscrupulous employers that use bullying tactics strategically to expel older workers and workers who demand better working conditions or a legal right (i.e., overtime pay). The absence of anti-bullying laws and regulations in the United States leave these bottom-of-the-barrel employers free to cut corners and evade their legal responsibilities. Taxpayers are left to pick up the tab in the form of higher social welfare costs.
The Globe article, like so many others, fails to note that there are many possible approaches to the problem of workplace bullying in addition to the HWB.
I support giving every worker the same legal protection from harassment at work that currently is provided only to members of protected classes who can prove illegal discrimination. This “status blind” protection would benefit protected classes by eliminating the need to prove illegal discrimination to get relief from severe harassment. Status blind protection could be accomplished by amending Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or by passing a new federal law. This option would not encourage frivolous lawsuits because the legal standard of proof to show a hostile workplace environment is high.
Society could also treat workplace bullying as a health and safety issue. The Occupational Safety and Health Act already 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.” There is overwhelming research showing that workplace bullying poses a serious risk to the health and safety of workers.
Scientific studies show conclusively that severe stress at work leads to a host of chronic health conditions, including heart attack, hypertension and other disorders. There are many documented instances of “bullycide” or suicide by workers who were bullied at work. Moreover, workplace bullying is widely recognized to be a form of workplace violence. In recent years, there have been regular news reports of workplace bullying that escalated into severe violence, including mass shootings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, there were 403 workplace homicides in the United States in 2014 (and that doesn’t include workers who were maimed and injured).
With some tweaks, the OSH Act, implemented by OSHA, could be used to require employers to protect workers from severe workplace bullying.
There was resistance to the OSH Act when it was passed in 1970 and there is resistance to efforts to require employers to protect workers from severe bullying. The Globe article quotes a representative of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts as stating that bullying is “a hopelessly subjective term that makes the legalistic approach untenable.” The fallacy of this argument is evident by the fact that there are laws and regulations in every state to protect students from peer-to-peer bullying. Ultimately, the term “bullying” is no less vague than the terms “sexual harassment” and “race discrimination.” Any law would have to define the term as precisely as possible.
The real problem is that society has deemed victims of sexual harassment and race discrimination to be worthy of protection but we are not there yet for workplace bullying, even though it can be just as harmful to a target.