While there are no current federal laws that prevent workplace bullying in the private sector, “Healthy Workplace” bills have been introduced in 26 states since 2003.  Tennessee recently became the first state to pass the “Healthy Workplace Act,” a law designed to encourage public sector agencies to create an anti-bullying policy that addresses “abusive conduct” by making the agencies immune to bullying-related lawsuits if they adopt a policy that complies with the law. 

More recently, California passed a workplace anti-bullying law for private-sector employers that became effective on January 1, 2015.  California’s A.B. 2053 requires employers with 50 or more employees that already provide training on preventing sexual harassment to include new training on preventing “abusive conduct” in the workplace to supervisory employees.  It is likely that other states will follow suit and pass their own “Healthy Workplace” bills in the coming years as anti-bullying continues to trend in the news and become a focus in the workplace.

Statistics show bullying in the workplace may be a real problem, with 65.6 million U.S. workers being affected by it.  According to 2014 National Survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27 percent of U.S. workers reported that they had experienced abusive conduct at work and 21% of U.S. Workers have witnessed abusive conduct of others at work.

The 2014 National Survey uncovered that most employees do not think that their employers do enough to address workplace bullying:

  • 25% of employees’ surveyed asserted that employers deny that bullying and harassing conduct takes place and fail to investigate complaints
  • 16% asserted that employers discount bullying or describe it as non-serious
  • 15% asserted that employers rationalize it by describing the bullying as innocent
  • 11% asserted that employers defend abusive conduct when the perpetrators are executives and managers

Only 12% of employees’ surveyed found that their employers took steps to eliminate bullying by creating and enforcing certain policies and procedures.  The perceived failure from employees and state lawmakers that employers are adequately addressing workplace bullying may be one reason for the recent passage of anti-bullying laws in Tennessee and California and the introduction of similar bills in other states. 

Under Tennessee’s Healthy Workplace Act, “abusive conduct” is broadly defined as acts or omissions that would cause a reasonable person, based on the severity, nature, and frequency of the conduct, to believe that an employee was subject to an abusive work environment, such as: (A) Repeated verbal abuse in the workplace, including derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets; (B) Verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature in the workplace; or (C) The sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance in the workplace.

California’s A.B. 2053 similarly defines “abusive conduct” very broadly.  “Abusive conduct” means conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.  It may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.  The Act recognizes that a single act shall not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious.

While California and most other states do not provide a private right of action for an employee to sue for workplace bullying, bullying at the workplace – that goes unchecked – can result in negative consequences, such as decreased productivity and efficiency, increased absenteeism, loss of morale, increased resignations or transfer requests, and increased hotline calls and internal complaints.   It may also result in employees suing their employers for harassment or a hostile work environment based on a protected class, such as race and gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or for tort liability claims, such as negligent hiring or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Thus, employers would be well-advised to manage this risk and develop a stronger workplace conduct policy now.  To address the potential for workplace bullying and the possibility that states will follow Tennessee’s and California’s lead in regulating workplace bullying, employers should analyze the workplace culture for incidents or prevalence to bullying and develop a workplace bullying prevention program.