According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (“WBI”), workplace bullying is defined as:
- Repeated and health-harming mistreatment of an employee, by one or more employees;
- Abusive conduct taking the form of verbal abuse;
- Behaviors that could be considered threatening, intimidating, and/or humiliating;
- Work sabotage; and/or
- Any combination of the above.
Generally speaking, bullying at work is still considered to be an inevitable or even necessary business practice. In terms of statistics for 2021, the WBI provides the following:
- 30% of adult American employees are bullied while at work;
- 76.3 million adult American workers have been affected by workplace bullying;
- 61.3% of workplace bullying is said to be same-gender bullying; and
- 43% of American remote workers experience workplace bullying.
The term itself, workplace bullying, is a relatively recent term that is used to describe certain forms of unacceptable behavior in the workplace. To reiterate workplace bullying generally involves verbal misconduct, such as teasing and/or name-calling, and is associated with harassment claims. Workplace harassment will be further discussed below.
In certain circumstances, the workplace bully is often an employer or supervisor who misuses their authority in order to obtain personal gain from a co-worker of lower rank. As previously mentioned, workplace bullying can take many forms; generally speaking, most claims involve one or more of the following examples of behavior:
- Any form of teasing, name-calling, degrading, and/or taunting;
- The use of threats, intimidation, or other behavior to coerce someone into doing what the bully wants;
- Using their position to obtain favors, fringe benefits not offered to other employees, etc; and
- Taking advantage of a person’s fear of reporting misconduct. An example of this would be how a workplace bully may tell their victim that if they report this behavior, they will be terminated from their job.
What Is A Hostile Work Environment?
Simply put, a hostile work environment is created when anyone in the workplace engages in an act of harassment, making it impossible for an employee to perform their job duties.
This type of harassment generally includes unwelcome comments or conduct based on the victim’s:
- Skin color;
- Religion or lack of religious belief system;
- Sex and/or gender, whether present or assigned at birth;
- National origin;
- Age, when aged 40 or older;
- Disability, including pregnancy;
- Genetic information; and/or
- Any other legally protected characteristic that may unreasonably interfere with an employee’s work performance.
Hostile work environments may be created by:
- A coworker;
- A supervisor or manager;
- Repeat clients;
- Contractors; and/or
- Other employment staff which have significant contact with an employee.
It is important to note that not every isolated incident, petty slight, or annoyance will necessarily constitute a hostile work environment. However, if you are in a situation in which you have been subjected to offensive and unwelcome conduct that has affected the terms and conditions of your employment, you could sue your employer for harassment for a hostile work environment.
A hostile work environment can present itself in a variety of ways, from sexual remarks and harassment to creating an environment of fear and intimidation. What qualifies as a hostile work environment can vary from workplace to workplace. Generally, a person may claim that another person or action is creating a hostile work environment if they are so affected by the situation that they cannot work. This is especially true if the hostile party began acting in such a way simply to intimidate or make the employee uncomfortable.
Are There Any Workplace Bullying Laws?
Laws associated with workplace bullying are generally considered to be the same as those associated with a hostile workplace.
Federally, The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (or, “EEOC”) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal laws against workplace discrimination based on the aforementioned characteristics. As the EEOC helps resolve issues regarding workplace discrimination, this would include hostile workplaces. Generally speaking, in terms of suing an employer based on a theory of a hostile work environment, you must prove the legal requirements of a hostile work environment.
When the EEOC is investigating a workplace to determine whether it is hostile, they generally consider the following legal elements:
- Type of Conduct: The EEOC will determine whether the conduct was verbal, physical, or both. Physical threats or intimidation will result in higher penalties for the bully;
- Frequency of Harassment: The EEOC will also consider whether the conduct has become a pervasive and long lasting problem, as opposed to a simple isolated incident. Simple isolated incidents generally do not meet the requirements of creating a hostile work environment, unless they are considered to be especially serious;
- Discriminatory Intent: The victim must be able to demonstrate discriminatory intent. What this means is that the harassing behavior must be discriminatory against any of the aforementioned characteristics or other categories that are legally protected by the EEOC;
- Employer’s Response: The EEOC will also investigate any response made by the employer and senior management when made aware of the harrassing situation, such as whether they took immediate steps to correct the problem. If an employer was aware of the situation but failed to further investigate, intervene, or otherwise address the issue, it is more likely that they will be held liable for fostering a hostile workplace.
- Because of this element, employees are encouraged to inform the harasser directly that their conduct is unwelcome and must stop. Additionally, employees should report harassment to management at an early stage to prevent escalation of the hostile work environment, as well as give management an opportunity to address the issue; and
- Effect of Harassment on Employees: The hostile work environment and harassment must be so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would consider the work environment to be intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Generally speaking, this means that an employee’s desire or ability to perform their job duties has been significantly affected.
In addition to federal protections against hostile work environments, your local jurisdiction or state may also have laws or agencies regulating workplace harassment and discrimination.
Are There Any Legal Remedies For Workplace Bullying?
One of the largest problems associated with workplace bullying is that it often goes unreported for long periods of time. This is largely because many employees do not want to risk losing their job by reporting incidents of bullying. However, it is imperative that you inform your employer or HR department if the bullying causes issues in your workplace. No one deserves to be bullied or mistreated.
Some common examples of legal remedies for workplace bullying include, but may not be limited to:
- The employer having the bully reprimanded or disciplined for their actions;
- Recovering damages for emotional distress through a civil suit;
- A court order which requires the employer to institute new company policies; and/or
- If the bullying has caused a loss of job or lost wages, the victim may be able to get their job back, plus back pay.
To reiterate, workplace bullying is generally filed as a harassment claim, especially if the bullying involves sexual harassment. Additionally, it may be possible to file the claim under anti-discrimination laws. Employment discrimination issues may also be considered if the bullying is aimed at the person’s belonging to one of the aforementioned protected classes. Finally, workplace bullying can also be included in a lawsuit for a hostile work environment, as previously discussed.
Do I Need An Attorney For Workplace Bullying?
If you are experiencing workplace bullying, either as the recipient or as the employer of a workplace bully, you should consult with an experienced and local workplace lawyer. An area attorney can help you understand your legal rights, options, and obligations according to your state’s specific laws regarding workplace harassment and discrimination. Additionally, your employment attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.