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Workplace Bullying

  1. Is it illegal for my boss to bully or harass me?
  2. What is workplace bullying? 
  3. Might general harassment or bullying be illegal in the future?
  4. How can an employer protect employees from bullying in the workplace?

1. Is it illegal for my boss to bully or harass me?

Generally, no. It is not illegal for your boss to harass you unless it is done for an illegal reason. The law does not require that your boss be nice, kind or fair, only that your boss does not treat you differently because of your age, sex, race, religion, national origin, or disability.

So, for example, say there is a workplace comprised of mostly men, with one lone female employee, she alleges that her manager abuses, belittles, and harasses her, but then admits that the manager also treats all of the other male employees the same way, can she legally sue for harassment?

Generally no, because her manager is an equal-opportunity abuser, she cannot sue for harassment. A court examining this very issue comments that there was generally no evidence to suggest the conduct, although rude and obnoxious, was motivated by gender Personality conflicts, even if severe, do not currently equate to hostile work environment claims simply because the conflict is between a male and a female employee.

However, If bullying starts as retaliation against an employee who has reported ethical concerns about the company, the employee may be protected under whistleblower statutes. To learn more, check out our pages under whistleblowing and retaliation.

2. What is workplace bullying? 

Workplace bullying typically involved malicious behavior such as deliberate insults, threats, demeaning comments, constant criticism, overbearing supervision, profane outburst, blatant ostracism, being overworked, or simply not communicating with colleagues. More subtle forms of bullying can include withholding or supplying incorrect work-related information, sabotaging projects, passive-aggressive behavior, blocking promotions, providing unclear or contradictory instructions, or requesting unnecessary or menial work.

3. Might general harassment or bullying be illegal in the future?

Possibly, there is currently a movement hoping to make bullying in the workplace illegal. This may be in part due to some startling statistics, according to one survey:

  • Almost 72 percent of employees report being bullied themselves or have witnessed other employees being bullied
  • Some 65 million U.S employees report being affected by workplace bullying
  • 93 percent of adult Americans support a law outlawing generalized bullying in the workplace

Workplace bullying can have severe effects upon a victim, and has even been purported to manifest in stress symptoms more generally associated with domestic violence. Bullying decreases morale and interferes with good job performance. It can weaken quality control, discourage team building, increase turnover and absenteeism, and in the most extreme case, bullying can even result in workplace violence. You might be wondering if a law could be written so has to direct people to alter their personalities, but given management's unwillingness or inability to curtail abusive behavior in their workplace, the legislature might very well choose to respond.

4. How can an employer protect employees from bullying in the workplace?

To discourage and eliminate bullying, it is necessary that direction comes from the top. The most effective strategy employers can pursue is to treat bullying as though it is already illegal. Create a workplace culture wherein bullying is not tolerated. The following is a list of actions you might consider taking to create a harmonious work environment:

  • Include bullying in your anti-harassment or other workplace conduct policies
  • Explain to your employees that you do not tolerate bullying and instruct them on what to do if a bullying incident occurs
  • When an employee complains about bullying, do not ignore it, investigate it and implement discipline commensurate with the severity of the conduct
  • Be prepared to address any retaliation that may result from disciplinary action
  • The selection of managers and supervisors should consider an individual's ability to communicate well and treat employees with respect

If you believe that you are being harassed for one of the above reasons, you should contact your nearest Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or log onto www.eeoc.gov to find your nearest office.

O'Malley & Madden Weekly Weekly

Topic of the Week

Racial Harassment

Under federal law it is illegal to harass a person in any aspect of employment because of that person’s race or color. Harassment can include racial slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s race or color, or the display of racia


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5 Steps For Creating A Safer Work Environment

Regardless of which side of the political fence you sit on, we can all agree that employees deserve and need a safe work environment. It’s the company’s moral obligation and legal responsibility to provide a safe environment for all of its employees. But what’s the best way to do that?

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"It is essential that we shine a light on the immense contributions of black Americans in politics, business, art, science, and civic life. But if we just celebrate, we’re ignoring the harder truth that racism continues to hold black professionals back from leadership roles in corporate America. Workplace racism can end only when employees who are not black see, hear, and accept the truth about what their black colleagues have experienced and continue to experience. Black History Month is a great opportunity to begin this process."

–Trudy Bourgeois and Julia Taylor Kennedy

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from Center for Talent Innovation

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  • Black adults hold only 8% of professional jobs and 3.2% of executive or senior-level management positions. 
  • While 65% of black professionals say that black employees must work harder to advance in their careers.

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