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Although there are several laws protecting employees from the bad actions of their employers, only a few states actually have laws against workplace bullying. To make matters worse, the laws are rather limited in what they actually protect. However, regardless of the weak legislation, there are steps employees can take to prevent and fight workplace bullying using the laws already on the books.
Although bullying can take many forms, if you are being physically abused, or even intimidated, involving law enforcement is advisable. Physical intimidation, or any unwanted touching, is illegal under criminal law, even if the touching is not hitting or sexual. Additionally, employers have a duty to keep their employees safe, and if you are being assaulted, physically or verbally, at work, your employer is failing in that duty.
When Does Bullying Violate the Law?
As state law governs most employment, the laws that protect employees from bullies vary across the country. However, because bullies often focus on the personal characteristics of their victims, federal and state anti-discrimination laws can often be invoked. If a workplace bully has crossed the discrimination line, filing a complaint with the EEOC and/or state equivalent can provide an employee with an avenue to a remedy and protection from retaliation.
In California, bullying violates the state Violence-Free Workplace laws when a bully commits an act of violence, or threatens violence, or acts in a manner that makes an employee reasonably believe violence will follow. Additionally, California is one of a handful of states that recognizes the contract principle of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in all employment, which allows a bullying victim to claim that their employment contract is being breached.
Tennessee passed an anti-bullying law a few years ago, the Healthy Workplace Act, which is designed to prevent and punish workplace bullying, but only applies to state and local government employment. Utah has passed a similar law, but one that is not restricted to government work only.
Even in states where there is no specific legal protections, common law claims can still be brought for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, interference with business contracts, and potentially more serious claims such as fraud and/or assault.
Beware of, but Still Use, HR
While we all know that human resources is really on the side of your employer, workplace bullying is treated similarly to hostile work environment claims. As such, an employee needs to provide their employer with an opportunity to remedy the bullying by notifying them that the bullying is both happening and unwanted. If the employer fails to remedy the bullying, then legal action may be possible. For an employer to be liable for not keeping an employee safe, or for allowing a manager to verbally abuse an employee, it will need to be shown that the employer knew about it, had an opportunity to correct it, and failed to do so.
However, tread very carefully and consult an attorney before taking action as there are no anti-retaliation provisions for cases that are not based on discrimination or sexual harassment.