Employers face growing push to counter workplace bullying
WASHINGTON — Margaret Fiester is no shrinking violet, but she says working for her former boss was a nightmare.
“One day I didn't do something right, and she actually laid her hands on me and got up in my face and started yelling, ‘Why did you do that?'” said Fiester, who worked as a legal assistant for an attorney.
Fiester doesn't have to worry about those tirades anymore, but she hears lots of similar stories in her role as operations manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, where she often fields questions about the growing issue of workplace bullying.
On-the-job bullying can take many forms: from a supervisor's verbal abuse and threats to cruel comments or relentless teasing by a co-worker.
And it could become the next major battleground in employment law as a growing number of states consider legislation that would let workers sue for harassment that causes physical or emotional harm.
“I believe this is the new claim that employers will deal with. This will replace sexual harassment,” said Sharon Parella, a management-side employment lawyer in New York. “People who oppose it say these laws will force people to be polite at work. But you can no longer go to work and act like a beast and get away with it.”
Many companies recognize workplace bullying as a problem that can sap morale, lead to increased employee turnover and even affect the bottom line.
Half of the employers in a 2011 survey by the management association reported incidents of bullying in their workplace, and about a fourth of human resource professionals said they had been bullied.
At St. Anthony North Hospital outside of Denver, human resources director Robert Archibold says most of the bullying incidents he sees are peer-to-peer. In a recent case, one worker got offended by a co-worker's remark and suggested they “take it out to the parking lot.” The offending worker was suspended under the hospital's anti-bullying policy, which has been in place for more than a decade.
“Hostile work environments, threats, bullying can come from anywhere,” he said. “You can't tell by looking at someone who it will be.”
One reason the issue has attracted more attention in recent years is that parents who deal with school bullying realize it can happen in the workplace, too.
Some employers have put into place anti-bullying policies, but advocacy groups want to go even further. They have been urging states to give legal rights to workers who do not fit into a protected class based on race, gender or national origin.
More than a dozen states, including New York and Massachusetts, have considered anti-bullying laws in the past year that would allow litigants to pursue lost wages, benefits and medical expenses and compel employers to prevent an “abusive work environment.”
Gary Namie, a social psychologist who co-founded the Bellingham, Wash.-based Workplace Bullying Institute in 1997, is among those leading the charge, along with labor unions and civil rights groups. He says the economic downturn has made bullying even worse and argues that passage of the laws would give employers more incentive to crack down on bad behavior in the workplace.
“People are trapped; they don't have the same alternative jobs to jump to,” Namie said. “They are staying longer in these pressured, stress-filled, toxic work environments.”
Business groups have strongly opposed the measures, arguing they would open the floodgates to frivolous lawsuits.
“We would look at a bill like this as overreaching,” said Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said the bill would punish an employer for acts of its employees that it may not be able to anticipate.
Parella, the employment lawyer, thinks it's only a matter of time before states begin passing these laws and bullying issues become a major factor in workplace litigation.
“Once it passes in a few states, there will be a chain reaction,” she said, noting that other countries such as England, Ireland and Sweden have laws addressing workplace harassment.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Falling demand for steel not likely to reverse any time soon
- Tourists rush to visit Cuba before Americans
- Aggressive drivers to face Progressive surcharges
- Credit card use reflects confidence, flat wages
- Dow Chemical, Olin in $5B cash-and-stock deal
- Economy in steady, but poky expansion
- Internet ‘one road in and out’ for rural users
- Stocks snap 4-day losing streak; corporate earnings concerns linger
- Heinz merging with Kraft in mega-deal; headquarters to stay in Pittsburgh
- Reliable family car feels upscale
- One secret Facebook doesn’t want you to know