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Are Employees Protected from Workplace Bullying?


A phenomenon most often referred to as "workplace bullying" has increasingly becoming a common complaint in the workplace. Generally speaking, workplace bullying is recognized as offensive behavior against employees, characterized by vindictive, cruel or humiliating attempts to undermine that employee. However, there is no widely accepted definition for this type of abuse, at least not recognized by law. So, many clients question whether there are any protections in place for employees who are subjected to workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying is more than just employee conflict

There are several important differences between workplace bullying and employee conflict. A "bully" is more often a supervisor who abuses his or her authority over a subordinate employee, in order to attack that employee. The attacks are intentional, repeated and meant to undermine or destroy the credibility of the targeted employee. Usually, a bully's conduct is motivated by self-interest, as opposed to the good of the company. This is much different than personal conflicts that can often arise between employees for various reasons.

An accepted understanding of what constitutes bullying

According to some scholars who have discussed the issue of workplace bullying, a general definition could include the following types of conduct:

  • Harassment and offensive conduct
  • Socially excluding an employee
  • Intentionally having a negative effect on an employee's work tasks

It is also commonly accepted that this type of conduct occurs repeated and regularly, typically escalating until the targeted employee finds himself or herself in an intolerable workplace environment. A few off-hand, rude comments, or isolated incidents generally do not rise to the level of bullying.

How does the EEOC see workplace bullying?

At least right now, the EEOC does not use the phrase "workplace bullying" in the same way. However, the EEOC and the federal anti-discrimination laws it enforces, have recognized workplace "harassment." In fact, harassment at the hands of a supervisor has its own place in the anti-discrimination laws. Basically, as recognized by the EEOC, harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on the protected characteristics outlined in the statutes. The same types of misconduct described above, may form the basis of an unlawful harassment claim.

When is workplace bullying (or harassment) unlawful?

Bullying becomes unlawful when the continuing, offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Federal anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

A "bad employer" is not always guilty of harassment

In reality, there are many "employment" lawsuits that simply involve employers who are using bullying behavior as a strategy to rid their workplace of unwanted employees, while avoiding violations of anti-discrimination laws. In other words, an employer may bully an employee in order to force them to quit, so a workforce can be downsized, without paying unemployment compensation or worker's comp claims. The most common situation where bullying is used is against employees who have made come type of complaint. If successfully proven, this could easily be a claim for unlawful retaliation.

If you feel you have been the victim of harassment or discrimination, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment attorneys at Michel | King , either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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