Bully.jpgIt seems that every time you pick up a newspaper or tune into your local news there are stories of students being bullied by their classmates.  Last year, in particular, the news was dominated with headlines of students driven to suicide because of bullying.  For example, Rutgers University student, Tyler Clementi, killed himself after his roommate and another student secretly taped and streamed video of him having sex with another man.  Massachusetts high school student, Phoebe Prince, hanged herself after several older girls harassed for dating a popular football player.  Bullying is even a topic in current television programs such as “Glee.”  These stories caused me to wonder whether bullying was just a schoolyard problem.  Could bullying actually exist in the workplace?

It did not take long for me to discover the story of Kevin Morrissey who was the managing editor of the University of Virgina’s journal the Virginia Quarterly Review.  Morrissey allegedly committed suicide as a result of bullying from his boss.  Although Morrissey’s family admits he suffered from depression, they insist he took his own life after the university ignored several telephone calls from him complaining of bullying. 

The Workplace Bullying Institute, a pro-employee organization, claim bullying is a real and growing problem in the workplace.  The Institute also commissioned the research firm Zogby International to collect data on the topic of workplace bullying.  The results of the survey show that 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 62% of bullies are men, and that 58% of their targets are women.  In addition, bullies who are women target other women in 80% of cases. 

Lawmakers have also introduced anti-workplace bullying legislation in numerous States without success.  However, New York became the first State last year to come closest to passing a bill that would allow workers to sue for damages caused by workplace bullying.  The New York Senate passed the Healthy Workplace Bill which establishes a civil cause of action for employees subjected to an abusive work environment.  The bill defined “abusive conduct” as repeated infliction of verbal abuse, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.  The State Assembly voted to table the bill.  Proponents of the bill vowed to renew their efforts to enact this legislation this year.

The problem of workplace bullying will not be solved by more legislation.  Such laws will only encourage employees to find bullying where none existed.  Ordinary interoffice conflicts and personal disputes would give rise to actionable claims.  These laws may also chill the employer’s ability to deal with legitimate employee performance issues for fear of a lawsuit.  However, because current headlines regarding bullying will continue to fuel efforts to enact anti-bullying legislation, employers may be on the verge of having to deal with specific anti-bullying laws for the workplace.  Consequently, there are steps employers can take to address possible bullying in the workplace.  For example, anti-harassment policies typically protect against harassment based on a protected class such as race or gender.  As a result, employers should consider revising existing policies, codes of conduct or personnel rules to expand their protections against harassment beyond conduct based on protected class status.  Employers should also respond to bullying complaints by promptly investigating and correcting the alleged abusive conduct.  Finally, managers and supervisors, who act as leaders within their agencies, should always be mindful of creating a professional work environment that fosters courteous and respectful communication.