Is bullying in the workplace legal?

Bully bosses can be very damaging to a company.
Bully bosses can be very damaging to a company.

I got an email the other day from someone who was asking what they can do about a bully boss. Generally my advice is not geared toward individuals; rather I deal with helping companies. I told the person to talk to their HR department. Upon reflection that was a rather incomplete answer so I wanted to give an answer that might be more informative to both individuals and companies. The first question to answer is whether bullying in the workplace is legal?
The bad news
There is bad news in this answer for employees and employers alike. The answer is “NO”, bullying in the workplace is not illegal, at least not under any federal law. For bullying to be illegal it must be tied to someone’s “protected category”. That means the bully must be targeting someone because of their race, or sex, or religion, or disability, etc. If they are just being a bully to everyone, because they enjoy the power of the situation, then they are free to do so. This is bad news for the victim of the bully because there is no legal protection to fall back on. This is bad news for the employer because there is no legal prohibition against it like there is against discrimination. This means it is harder to identify and define and subsequently harder to control. It is easy to have that policy against discrimination and to discipline a bully for being discriminatory. However, without a strong culture of “fairness” dealing with bullies becomes harder.
72% of bullies are also bosses
Unfortunately too many bullies are also people in positions of authority. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute 72% of bullies are bosses. Additionally, my advice of going to HR would not have worked according to the WBI. They say that bullies derive most of their support from HR. They say “It’s a club, a clique that circles the wagons in defense when one of their own is accused.” I am certain that is not the case in many organization, but it may certainly be so in smaller organizations where HR is not the strongest and may themselves be victims of the bullying.
A definition
According to the WBI workplace bullying is:

Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

I have always viewed it as an exercise in power by someone who has been put in a position of power without the training needed on how to exercise that power. Many bullies have modeled other bosses, or their parents, or others who have gained rewards for their improper exercise of power.
Negative consequences
There are many negative consequences to having bullies in the workplace. These include:

  • Turnover- people leave because they can no longer tolerate the abuse
  • Lost productivity- people don’t leave but stop working because of the abuse
  • Increased illness- bullying causes stress and stress causes illness.
  • Poor company reputation- The word gets out, and today that is easier to do, and you will find it harder and harder to attract talented candidates.
  • Lawsuits- Bullying may not be illegal under federal law but more and more states are making It illegal. Plus you never know when the bully may step over the line to harassment or discrimination.

What can you do?
Here are my suggestions for what you can do to eliminate bullying in the workplace:

  • Admit it occurs and identify the bully.
  • Hold the bully accountable for their behavior. They are costing the company money, a lot of it, and that should be reflected in their performance appraisal.
  • Never let a supervisor become a supervisor without training on proper supervision. (See my post from yesterday.) Train people on how to deal with people.
  • Fire the bully. If you have tried to change them and can’t don’t bear the damage they are doing any further.

My last piece of advice? This is for HR. GET A BACK BONE! Don’t tolerate the damage a bully can do. Of course if the bully is your boss or the president of the company then you may be S.O.L. and you have my sympathies.

6 thoughts on “Is bullying in the workplace legal?”

  1. What I’m seeing is the subtle elimination of avenues for employees to bring up problems they are having with their managers. In an organization I worked at, managers succeeded, not because they were effective, but because the culture from top down through layers of management supported only actions against the lowest ranks; manager ineffectiveness was never acknowledged or addressed — all managers protected each other. Employees were penalized for speaking up or suggesting improvements — they were found to be troublemakers and eventually dismissed. When I talked with HR about a misrepresentation by my manager (and I had documented proof), I was told that HR had to support what my manager said and my account of the situation was dismissed. I consider this bullying and worse but I see it happening more often.

  2. but isolated acts of incivility are not conceptually bullying despite the apparent similarity in their form and content. In case of bullying, the intent of harm is less ambiguous, an unequal balance of power (both formal and informal) is more salient, and the target of bullying feels threatened, vulnerable and unable to defend himself or herself against negative recurring actions.

  3. Good post Mike,
    One of the ongoing dilemmas for HR folks is how do you identify where a bully is operating? Sure there are turnover metrics and traditional items that pop up, but entrenched bullying is a cultural thing that inhibits folks from coming forward even in exit interviews. Something you may consider a post on or your readers may wish to comment on is how you get information from the affected employees in a safe manner. If you do an environmental scan of certain departments you may get some useful information. This is not an employee attitude, opinion or satisfaction survey. Rather asking questions on the climate in the department focusing on the climate for communication, advancement, training and such. You can really get some good information if you do it right and be able to identify where the climate may not be in line with the cultural norms of the company.

  4. Why did I let it happen to me? See previous answers. Because you had little or no knowledge of bullying, no training in how to deal with it, those around you denied or ignored it, you didn’t recognise the bully as a sociopath, the bully disempowered you, you were vulnerable, you’re honest and unwilling to compromise your integrity, the law is weak, jobs are scarce so you were frightened to report it, personnel and management probably didn’t help or took the side of the bully, etc.

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