"He hit me!" "You started it!" "He made fun of me!" "She stole my lunch money!" Bullies have always been around and always will be. Not just in the school yard and on the path to school, but in the workplace. In today's difficult economic climate, many employees may find themselves having to keep quiet about a bully at work, because they fear of losing their job and paycheck.
Workplace Bullying Widespread
Many people have found themselves victims of teasing, taunting and name-calling. To some, this has been bothersome and irritating but not bad enough to report it or take other action. However, in many workplaces the level of tension caused by "bullies" is so high and continuous that it creates problems for employees and the workplace as a whole.
Some studies indicate that workplace bullying affects nearly half of the US workforce, but is most often unreported and unresolved. Especially in today's difficult economy, many employees and supervisors may be reluctant to "rock the boat" by reporting workplace bullying. They don't want to risk any negative impact on their job. Bullies may sense this and take advantage of the situation, especially if they have no fear of losing their jobs.
Workplace Bullying as Harassment
State and federal laws protect people against unlawful harassment when it's based on certain improper grounds and amounts to unlawful employment discrimination. For example, a female employee who is repeatedly taunted about her physical appearance, or who is the brunt of sexually explicit jokes and remarks, may file a claim of employment discrimination and sexual harassment. If she is disciplined or fired as a result of her complaints or her reporting of the harassment, she may file a complaint for retaliatory discharge.
Other prohibited grounds for discrimination by an employer besides gender include race, ethnicity, age, religion and sexual orientation. However, these grounds vary by state, and by the case law in a particular state or federal court.
An attorney can give you guidance about whether the situation in your workplace would be an appropriate basis for a complaint. Be cautious about time deadlines, however, as most states require that an employee provide the employer with a notice of their intent to sue within 180 days of the discrimination.
An attorney's advice will be essential to understand and interpret the deadlines and methods of filing a complaint. Most likely, you will first need to file a complaint with your state's department of human rights, and then, if your employer has a sufficient number of employees, with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Consequences of Workplace Bullying
Studies have shown that bullying can lead to stress, reduced employee productivity and harm to the physical and emotional health of employees. You should consider the most effective way to address the problem. You may first attempt to resolve it through a private, one-on-one discussion with the bully.
If your employer has an HR department, you may seek the assistance of an objective third party to try to limit the potentially emotional reaction. If that doesn't lead to a satisfactory resolution, you can try to get the help of your direct supervisor, especially if your productivity or health is being negatively impacted. The proper time and place to bring up the subject will be important, so that you are not viewed as a complainer or tattletale, but are instead viewed as an employee concerned for the good of the company.
It will also be important to document the dates, locations and content of the harassment or bullying to which you are subjected along with the steps you have taken to try to address the problem.
You should be sensitive to the prospect of being viewed as a bully or harasser by others. For example, be cautious when discussing or joking with your fellow employees about anything that might be construed as racially or sexually offensive remarks or conduct. Even participating in the laughter and joking could taint your credibility.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I'm being bullied at work, and the subject of the bullying involves both my sex and my ethnicity, but I'm concerned about trusting in my employer's policies against this behavior because the bully is a good friend of our managers. Can you help me figure out my options?
- I'm mad and upset about being bullied at work, and my health is suffering from the stress. I'm pursuing complaints for unlawful harassment. Can I also sue the bully personally?
- Can a workplace bully's actions also amount to a crime, for example if a woman was being touched in an unwelcome way?