While more than two dozen states have introduced workplace anti-bullying bills, Tennessee is the first state to enact workplace anti-bullying law. 

The Volunteer State’s Healthy Workplace Act encourages public-sector employers to prevent abusive conduct in the workplace by adopting model policy to be created by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR). 

Under the new law, a public-sector employer would be legally immune to bullying-related lawsuits if it adopts a policy that complies with the law, but individuals may still be held personally liable for abusive conduct. A model policy from the TACIR should be available no later than March 1, 2015. 

Private employers are not affected by the new law. However, there is legislation pending to extend the law to private-sector employers. As State Representative Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis), who introduced the bill in the state House, said, “While we would love for the private sector to adopt this policy, we needed a place to get it in the code first….We needed to get something on the books that we could build upon.”  It is not clear whether the new law applies to local governmental entities, such as sheriff’s departments, school systems, and the like.  

Under the Act, “abusive conduct” means 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:

  1. Repeated verbal abuse in the workplace, including derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets;
  2. Verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature in the workplace; or
  3. The sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance in the workplace.

The Act provides that the model policy should:

  1. Assist employers in recognizing and responding to abusive conduct in the workplace; and
  2. Prevent retaliation against any employee who has reported abusive conduct in the workplace.

Though federal laws ban workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and other protected statuses, advocates say laws are needed to recognize the verbal abuse of employees regardless of whether they fall under a protected class.