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MEMBER BLOG: Workplace Bullying

April 20, 2015

Attorney Stuart M. Katz, Cohen and Wolf, P.C.

Workplace Bullying – Do You Have A Proactive Anti-Bullying Policy In Place?

Employers in Connecticut often feel like they are tiptoeing through a minefield of potential liabilities.  Misclassification of employees, discrimination, workplace injuries, and harassment are all buzzwords that represent risks of legal exposure.  Now there is a new one on the horizon – workplace bullying.  Bullying is not a new concept; bullies have been roaming the planet and dominating workplaces for generations.  But how does bullying impact the workplace? Can it cause legal liability for employers?

The most-well publicized workplace bullying case in the past couple of years involved the Miami Dolphins.  Jonathan Martin, a 300 pound offensive tackle, made national headlines when he accused a co-worker of bullying him.  The scrutiny placed on the Dolphins following these accusations was intense and far-reaching. The story was front page news for weeks, in large part because the players in this drama – at least in the victim role – did not meet the stereotype.

While the Martin story shined a national spotlight on the issue of workplace bullying, it is important to realize that advocates and legislators have been paying attention to workplace bullying for the past few years.

What is workplace bullying?  The Workplace Bullying Institute – which has conducted national surveys since 2007 – poses the following question:  “At work, what has been your personal experience with the following types of repeated mistreatment: abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage or verbal abuse?”

The Institute’s 2014 survey revealed dramatic results.  27% of workers report having been bullied at their job.  21% have personally witnesses bullying.  Overall, 72% of those surveyed were aware that workplace bullying happens.  Although the survey results tracked bullying victims based on race, ethnicity and gender, the Institute concluded that “bullying is cruelty that transcends race and gender boundaries.”

The United States is the only major western democracy that does not have specific anti-bullying laws on the books.  That said, it may just be a matter of time, as many states – including Connecticut – have begun to consider various versions of the Healthy Workplace Bill. This proposed law has varied in substance from state to state, but in its strongest form would define an “abusive work environment” and create liability both for the bully/employee and for the employer. A private right of action would allow for successful victims to recover of back pay, front pay, compensatory and punitive damages, and an award of attorney’s fees.

Although this is not yet the law in Connecticut, that day could be coming. Indeed, some of the conduct that would fall into the definition of bullying already is illegal under state and federal anti-discrimination laws, although those laws only protect people who are members of defined “protected classes.” 

Present legal ramifications aside, employers need to be concerned about the impact of bullying on the workforce and should be proactive.  Bad morale and decreased productivity are symptoms that should not be ignored.  Employers should be on the lookout for behaviors that might indicate bullying:  teasing that isn’t reciprocal; behavior that targets certain employees; comments that focus on an employee’s weakness or inferiority.  Employers should ensure that managers model behaviors that do not promote bullying.  Businesses should consider creating anti-bullying policies that include a commitment to investigate reports of workplace bullying.   Like many aspects of employment law, devoting some time and effort to preventing problems generally is a prudent and worthwhile investment that will enable a business to avoid or minimize costly and time-consuming distractions down the line.

Attorney Stuart M. Katz is Chair of the Litigation Group of Cohen and Wolf, P.C.  He practices mainly in the area of employment law.  Visit the Cohen and Wolf website or email Stuart via this link to BRBC Business DirectoryCohen and Wolf, P.C. is a proud BRBC member.