Workplace Bullying – Who is responsible?

Incidents of workplace bullying are on the rise, but what do you do when the offender isn’t an employee? Who is responsible?

Such a case was recently brought to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Freeman v. Dal-Tile Corp. Freeman states that while she worked for Dal-Tile, she was subject to harassment, inappropriate racial remarks, and sexual comments from an independent sales representative employed by a distributor to Dal-Tile. Freeman brought the situation up with the assistant manager and Human Resources. Although Dal-Tile prohibited Koester from communicating with Freeman they continued to allow him on the premises. The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of Freeman citing that Dal-Tile Corp knew of the harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action.

The Workplace Bullying Take-Away

Employers are responsible for all bullying activity that occurs on company property under the course of routine business operations. If you have a bully in your midst – even if the offender is not directly employed by your company – it’s inbest interest of your company to take the matter seriously and begin corrective action immediately.

What is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, physical abuse and humiliation. Although anti-bullying legislation is being introduced in states such as Massachusetts (H.1766), critics claim that this legislation will encourage frivolous lawsuits and imply that some may sue because someone was ‘mean to me’ or someone ‘doesn’t like me.’ Advocates of anti-bullying legislation see it as the only way to counteract the inadequacy of legal protections in place.

The Healthy Workplace Campaign (HWC), says that bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal discrimination and can have a wide range of effect on employees. It’s also a problem for employers, often resulting in frequent absenteeism, decreased trust in management, and the loss of valuable employees.

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Free Workplace Bullying Policy and U.S. Employment Law

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in th...

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in the film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The classic schoolyard scenario: a shy, smaller child contends with a big mean bully during a school lunch break in front of the swing set – or bullying’s updated online counterpart: cyberbullying.

Many of us have memories of bullies from our school years, and bullying often is perceived as a problem that only children face from one another. However, 37% of adult American employees have experienced bullying at work.

Bullying remains a significant challenge even after graduating from the playground to the break room.

Workplace Bullying Policies Up to Each Employer

While European nations (like Sweden way back in 1994), Australia, and Canada have codified federal prohibitions against workplace bullying, the U.S. still has no federal legislation defining and prohibiting workplace bullying.

Legal efforts to curb bullying in the U.S. focus on the playgrounds and classrooms. Forty-nine states in the U.S. now have passed school anti-bullying legislation (every state except Montana). Sioux City Community School District in Iowa led the nation in 2009 by expanding its anti-bullying policies from only protecting students to protecting District employees from bullying in the workplace.

This leaves to individual employers to take initiative to institute workplace bullying policies that integrate with a company’s anti-harassment policies until legislation like the Healthy Workplace Bill passes.

Meanwhile, for employers who would like to implement an anti-bullying policy, the Society of Human Resources (SHRM) offers a free bullying prevention policy template here.

What is Workplace Bullying?

Dr. Gary Namie, Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute calls workplace bullying a “systematic, laser-focused campaign of interpersonal destruction” with the intent of undermining the careers of coworkers whom the workplace bully perceives as a threat.

Dr. Namie stated that conflict resolution is ineffective in dealing with workplace bullies.

“It’s not conflict,” Namie said. He claimed the bully’s world view affects behavior, and, therefore, bullies will not change from a conflict resolution process. “Solutions have to involve making a person healthy.”

Workplace bullying includes the repeated practice by one or more coworkers of behaviors such as:

  • Verbal abuse.
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating
  • Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done.