Workplace Bullying: Is it Illegal?


Workplace Bullying: Is it Illegal?

This is a question I am asked almost daily. Individuals who believe they are targets of bullying at work want to know their rights and company managers want to know their liabilities. While I am not certain that workplace anti-bullying legislation is a good idea, the answer, at least in the US, is NO!

In fact, as of July, 2012 Australia, Sweden, Great Britain and France are among the countries with anti-workplace bullying laws, but to date, no U.S. state has one, according to the institute. The Workplace Bullying Institute is driving the legislation vehicle. They use a definition of bullying that focuses on emotional or physical harm to targets. This gives teeth to any legislation because it creates a consequence that is measurable and documented. For example, doctor’s visits, psychotherapy, and prescriptions are all real consequences that can be linked to workplace bullying and can be proven in a court or hearing.

Canada, specifically British Columbia, is trying out some anti-bullying legislation. Amendments to the province’s Workers Compensation Act came into effect on July 1, meaning employers could now be on the financial hook for emotionally harmful work environments. The new legislation amends the act’s definitions of harassment and injury, and enables workers suffering from a mental disorder resulting from “significant work-related stressors” to seek compensation through WorkSafeBC.


Workplace Bullying: Is Legislation the Answer?

Will legislation turn the time and reduce the growing problem of workplace bullying? If our experiences with anti-discrimination legislation and sexual harassment regulations are evidence, then the answer is MAYBE. While the aforementioned legislation has been critical to improving the rights of minorities and women in the workplace, and while companies have anti-discrimination policies as well as training programs designed to educate people about discrimination and harassment and warn them of the dire consequences of such bad behavior, the truth is, discrimination and harassment continue. Just look at the plethora of cases filed with the EEOC and in state and federal court and you will understand how widespread the problem of discrimination is in our country.

So, what does anti-bullying legislation offer us?

  • Legitimacy — legislation tells us the problem is real and noteworthy.
  • Fear — employers will start to create civility policies.
  • Confusion — employers will have a hard time outlining what is and isn’t bullying and will decide on a case-by-case basis, just as they do with discrimination and harassment cases
  • False hopes — people who have been targeted by bullying behavior will feel they can call a boss or HR professional and be protected. And they will believe that they can call an attorney and prevail against their employer. In truth it will be just as difficult to prove bullying as it has been to prove discrimination and harassment.


Workplace Bullying Legislation’s Saving Grace:

Legislation will offer acknowledgement of the wrongness of bullying and something courts can use to measure the impact on targets.

Only time will tell how our society will deal with bullying. I hope we can at least stop blaming victims and start looking for solutions. Right now our major solutions are: documenting the incidents and prevalence of bullying and some stabs at legislation. Surely we can do better than that.

For more information on how to analyze workplace bullying so that you can stop it NOW, contact me, Kathleen Bartle. I have years of experience tailoring workplace conflict solutions that will work specifically for your organization.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts. You can contact me here.