Workplace bullying: the next generation of employment law claims?

Bullying in the workplace is fostering a new generation of employment-related lawsuits.

Sadly, bullies are a fact of life. Whether we are on the playground or in the workplace, there will always be people who feel compelled to build themselves up by tearing down others. Local, state and federal governments have taken note of the psychological, physical and mental harm that bullying can cause for children, and there are myriad laws on the books to protect kids against being bullied by peers, teachers and administrators (both in-person and online). Those laws often don't apply to adults, however, so on-the-job bullying continues to be a problem across America.

Recent studies have shown that workplace bullying is on the rise, and it is an underlying cause of a growing number of employment-related complaints, administrative claims and lawsuits in both the private and public sector. The term "workplace bullying" encompasses a wide range of behaviors and actions by both individuals and corporations/institutions, among them:

  • Unwarranted, excessive criticism
  • Disparate treatment (including non-merit-based employment actions)
  • Use of foul or profane language in communication
  • Excluding or socially isolating the "target" of the bullying
  • Excessive oversight or micro-managing to the point it makes performing job duties nearly impossible
  • Jokes - be they sexual in nature, related to job performance, dealing with religion or political affiliation or other topics - at the target's expense, whether in writing or in person
  • Unrealistic, impossible-to-meet deadlines for job duties
  • Disciplinary action against the target for acting in the same or similar ways as other workers who don't face such consequences
  • Creation of a hostile work environment for the target
  • Ignoring complaints by the target regarding workplace stress, hostility, incivility or rudeness from peers, colleagues, customers, managers/superiors or administrators
  • Promising promotions or other positive employment-related actions in exchange for complaining about, belittling, insulting, isolating or otherwise mistreating one or more fellow employees

    What can you do if you are being bullied?

    There are few states that actually have anti-workplace bullying statutes in place, and the federal government also hasn't taken action to stop such behaviors. That could mean that your legal options are limited if traditional routes like confronting the person, complaining to higher-ups, reporting the behaviors to human resources and seeking administrative solutions (like contacting a union rep) fail to resolve the issues.

    It doesn't mean you are powerless to stop the situation, however. Bullies often target those who are different from them, including those who are of another gender, age, religious affiliation, political affiliation, sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity or nation of origin. Of course, discrimination and disparate treatment against a worker on the basis of membership in any of those constitutionally protected classes violates state and federal laws and could be the basis of a lawsuit or claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).

    Regardless of whether you are in the public or private sector, you don't have to face a hostile work environment alone. Speaking with an experienced employment law attorney - like those at The Devadoss Law Firm, P.L.L.C. - will give you a better idea of options you may have to make the harassment, discrimination, disparate treatment and unwanted attention stop.