How is “Workplace Bullying” Different From Harassment?

Posted on March 21, 2013


It isn’t, really.

There is a new push on to combat workplace bullying, and I am all for it.  “Unless it’s discrimination, bullying is almost always legal,” reports Chris May for CBS.

But, wait a minute.  Why is it not OK to bully someone over race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and other “protected categories”… but it is OK to bully them over their weight, say, or an accent, their glasses, lack of fashion sense, their teeth, or their personality?  If there is such a thing as “sexual harassment,” then isn’t there also just plain old “harassment,” and why should it be any more acceptable?

It shouldn’t.

No state yet has a law against workplace bullying, but 23 states have at least introduced the Healthy Workplace Bill.  It’s a step in the right direction; it would precisely define what constitutes an “abusive work environment,” and give employers grounds to discipline or fire offenders.  Good!  However, in the not-so-good category, suing the workplace bully and holding the employer accountable would require the worker to show “proof of health harm by licensed health or mental health professionals.”  Whaaaat?  Why?  Either the work environment is abusive by definition, or it is not.  Some people will feel stigmatized by seeking mental health services, or fear that doing so could impact their lives in other ways; they may not be able to afford counseling and worry that they won’t recoup the costs; or they may simply be thicker-skinned than most, and not “harmed” by the bullying – but does that mean they should have to put up with it?  I think not.  This “must show proof of harm” requirement is basically like saying that someone can punch you every day so long as you never get a bruise.

Supervisors and business owners don’t want laws against workplace bullying because it’s a burden on them.  It’s just one more liability, one more expense, one more requirement for “sensitivity training,” and so on.  I can see their point of view.  What a hassle, and what a risk for frivolous lawsuits.  But the alternative is lost productivity, low morale, high worker turnover, higher employer medical expenses when workers suffer stress-related illnesses, and even lawsuits (there may not be a law against workplace bullying yet, but there are laws against assault and inflicting emotional distress).  That all adds up to big bucks over time.  So either way, bullies cost businesses money.  Why let them?

Schools and parents are finally getting wise to the dangers and harm caused by school-age bullying.  It’s high time employers got smart about it, too.