Two former New Hampshire state employees have filed a lawsuit claiming they were bullied by a supervisor after reporting that she regularly took paid two-hour lunch breaks. The employees complained to the Department of Health and Human Services about their supervisor’s behavior but nothing was done. The supervisor learned that women had made the report and called a mandatory meeting where she threatened to punish her subordinates for being even a minute late for their shifts. Following the meeting, the supervisor began to accuse them of insubordination and failure to do their job, she sent them threatening emails and piled unreasonable amount of work on them to set them up for failure.
In the United States, the combination of at-will employment and the lack of protections against workplace bullying may leave mistreated workers feeling legally powerless especially when they are subjected to severe workplace bullying by a supervisor. Currently no states have anti-bullying laws in the workplace.
Employment law experts have drafted a Congressional bill called the Healthy Workplace Bill which, if passed, will hold employers responsible for workplace bullying and harassment, even if the bullying is not the result of the victim’s protected class. Proponents point out that under current Federal Employment Discrimination Laws, the recipient of the mistreatment must be a member of a protected status group based on gender, race, disability, etc. If you are a white male being bullied by a white male, you may not currently be protected by the Discrimination laws. In the instant case, the employees sued for wrongful termination and retaliation under the Whistleblower Protection Act. However, if a bullying bill was currently in place, they would have been able to add the additional claim to their lawsuit.
In the bill, workplace “bullying” is defined as verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors including nonverbal which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating and work interference including sabotage. The bill states that thirty-seven percent (37%) of adult Americans suffer from bullying in the workplace. The Bill was crafted by law professor David Yamada for the Healthy Workplace Campaign and it gives employers incentives to do the right thing by avoiding expensive litigation. The Bill makes a distinction between being “a jerk” and bullying stating that the Bill allows for action only when mistreatment is so severe that it impairs a worker’s health. The Bill requires potential plaintiffs to prove by licensed health or mental health professionals their health was harmed by bullying and to use private attorneys to pursue their claims.
Other countries have anti-bullying laws; the first being passed in Sweden in 1994. In 2011, Australia even passed the first criminal law prohibiting workplace bullying. While not yet illegal, many companies have zero-tolerance policies toward workplace bullying; as strive to allow employees to speak up for themselves. If you feel you are being bullied at work, contact a lawyer to discuss your legal rights.