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When Workplace Bullying Crosses the Legal Line


The term "bullying" has become a buzzword of late - one that often evokes images of schoolyard taunts and assaults, in which the "strong" mercilessly prey on the weak and vulnerable, often with traumatic and lasting harm to the victim. We are (unfortunately) accustomed to hearing about such conduct amongst children in school. But what happens when it involves adults, and the bullying is not taking place in the schoolyard, but in the workplace?

Workplace bullying is a far too common phenomenon that often involves the targeting, harassment and intimidation of an employee. Sometimes the bully is a co-worker, but oftentimes it is a supervisor - someone who should be charged with upholding basic standards of civility and professionalism in the workplace. Workplace bullies often have authority within the job, and they use that authority to harass their victims - such as by giving negative performance evaluations, denying promotions, assigning degrading job duties, and issuing unwarranted disciplines. Many times employees, who cannot afford to quit and are afraid to rock the boat, feel helpless. This feeling is especially strong when the bully's conduct is well-known to the employer and nothing has been done to stop it.

Victims of workplace bullying may have legal options. While "workplace bullying" is not per se illegal, the conduct underlying the harassment and the context in which it is committed may be. For example, if an employee is targeted for bullying because of a protected characteristic (such as race, gender, age, national origin or religion), the bullying may give rise to a civil rights discrimination or hostile environment claim. Bullying that is sex-based and of an offensive and unwelcome sexual nature may constitute sexual harassment. Bullying that arises from an employee's complaints about actual or suspected illegal activity may give rise to claims under the civil rights retaliation laws and multiple whistleblower protection acts. Also, sustained and intentional harassment, or harassment that gets physical, may give rise to tort actions, including for assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Notably, workplace bullying often affects an employee's health, and can result in mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, as well as physical conditions such as migraines and high blood pressure. The health impact of workplace bullying not only affects the relief you may be entitled to if you are able to bring a successful legal claim, it may also give rise to legal rights and remedies in its own right, including worker's compensation relief and eligibility for protected medical leave.

While the law does not prohibit every bad act or rude word that a supervisor may employ, there are legal lines that workplace bullies can and do cross. If you believe that you are being bullied, consult with an attorney who can help you determine your legal rights and what steps you can take to protect yourself.

For information or questions regarding this postreaders can contact the author Nakisha Chaney.

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