Battle Workplace Bullying

Proposed legislation would give employees new rights—and new claims against employers.

August 24, 2011

This year, legislatures in at least 11 states, from New York to Washington, are considering legislation to prohibit bullying in the workplace.

This proposed legislation is in response to a surge of complaints about bullies at work, from office settings to construction sites. More than one-third (35%) of employees report being bullied at work and another 15% have witnessed this behavior, according to a 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute.

The proposed legislation aims to stop workplace bullying and to compensate victims of such acts when employers fail to take appropriate action. This legislation would provide employees with new rights and new claims against employers, including damages for lost wages, medical expenses, compensation for emotional distress, and, possibly, punitive damages.

As with civil rights claims, the value of the damages will vary on a case-by-case basis. But they could be comparable to discrimination damages.

Workplace bullying defined

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industry defines workplace bullying as “repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees) which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine; or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s).”

Workplace bullying must be distinguished from isolated acts by a co-worker and from tough or demanding supervisors who are respectful but demand high performance. Examples of bullying can include:

  • Unwarranted or invalid criticism;
  • Repeated attempts or acts to isolate or exclude an employee;
  • Shouting at an employee;
  • Verbally humiliating an employee;
  • Regularly setting unrealistic deadlines for an employee; and
  • Profane language.

Workplace bullying differs from harassment because harassment is due to the targeted employee’s protected class—whether race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, or other protected status. Any employee, regardless of protected status, can be the target of workplace bullying.

Even without the risk of lawsuits under the proposed law, failure to address workplace bullying causes increased absenteeism, loss of valuable employees, loss of productivity, increases in health-care costs, and more lawsuits for a hostile work environment based on a protected status, such as race or gender.

Currently, most employers lack adequate policies and practices to address bullying. Now is the time to combat workplace bullying—before legislation is passed exposing your credit union to the hottest new trend in employment litigation.

Credit unions should:

  • Develop a bully free workplace policy that defines bullying behavior, provides complaint and investigation procedures, and prohibits retaliation.
  • Update and strengthen existing anti-harassment and open-door policies to address all current laws, provide alternative reporting options, implement effective investigation procedures, and prohibit retaliation. Broaden employees’ ability to use open-door policies to report concerns about inappropriate behavior or actions that could lead to workplace bullying.
  • Train supervisors. Remind them not only about how they interact with their employees but also about the need to observe and immediately report suspected workplace bullying. Encourage supervisors to acknowledge and reward professional behavior and interactions.
  • Train supervisors to not overlook interpersonal skills when hiring and promoting employees.
  • Train all employees on your credit union’s expectations of professionalism when interacting with both members and colleagues.
  • Investigate and take seriously all complaints of workplace bullying so employees feel comfortable coming forward.

As schools and educators have learned, investing time and effort to promote a healthy social climate will help eliminate bullying behavior at your credit union.

KELLY TILDEN is a shareholder at Farleigh Wada Witt, Portland, Ore.