Dear Mr. President: Workplace Bullying Negatively Impacts Lives; It’s Time for Better Employment Protections

Link to this article on HuffPost

Mr. President I applaud your efforts to fight for individual rights and liberties.  During your tenure, you’ve addressed socio-economic, educational, marital, and racial inequalities.  These actions are very important as the undercurrents of these historical issues are driven by misunderstandings, unnecessary judgments, elitism, and often racism.  Notwithstanding your work and progress to remove some social injustices, there are still opportunities to better protect workplaces from abuses that impact productivity, upward mobility, earnings, and health (e.g., emotional, mental, physical, spiritual).

Too often, the initial reaction(s) to someone who discloses a workplace bullying incident is that an individual should become tougher — as if a target of workplace bullying can easily minimize reactions to ongoing abusive behavior by ignoring it.  It’s this type of shortsighted thinking that creates environments that workplace bullying is allowed to flourish.  As a result, the cumulative effects of workplace bullying extend well beyond hurt feelings and extend into employees’ lives outside of work.  The implications of these actions can negatively effect an organization’s culture, ethical decision making, successful project delivery, and employee/company performance, along with impacting an individual’s health, quality of life, peace of mind, and happiness.
Individuals might not report workplace bullying incidents due to fear, perceptions of weakness, retaliation, and one of the biggest issues is financial loss due to delayed promotions, blocked pay raises, or being forced to leave a job (voluntarily or involuntarily) due to retaliation.  Also, the risk of a potential income loss is a powerful motivator that causes too many workplace bullying targets to remain silent and witnesses to become complicit, especially with worries about an inability to take care of themselves or loved one(s).  Additionally, the perceived or real threat of a job loss and an inability to take care of themselves or their family can lead to submission/surrender by anyone who wants to address a workplace bullying incident for themselves or others.

Organizations have a responsibility to implement and enforce policies that protect all resources (e.g., direct, contract, vendors) from unnecessary attacks that affect anyone’s self-esteem, emotional well-being, or physical health.  However, without laws to discourage and that also have actionable remedies, workplace bullying targets are at the mercy of organizations, challenged to take on an often unwinnable fight, or forced to rely on supportive individuals to render assistance.

It’s interesting that workplace bullying is often discussed as abusive or hostile behavior, but it doesn’t seem to drive changes on the state and federal levels to implement legal remedies to prevent it.  If similar behavior occurred in social or familial settings, these actions would raise concerns as being emotional or psychological abuse.

Another issue is that it’s not always understood that discrimination is generally legal in the U.S., as long as the actions aren’t related to a protected class.  According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, discrimination is illegal if it’s based on someone’s age, disability, equal pay/compensation, genetic information, harassment, national origin, pregnancy, race/color, religion, retaliation, sex, and sexual harassment.  Therefore, this gap in legal protections provides opportunities for individuals to engage in activities — such as workplace bullying — that aren’t legally prohibited in most U.S. jurisdictions.  Consequently, workplace bullying can be and is used as a new form of discrimination.

Nowadays, individuals who want to engage in discriminatory actions don’t always use symbolic or overt discriminatory gestures nor is it as customary to use racial epithets; instead, other behaviors are used to camouflage their actions or intent in more subtle, less detectable, and legal ways.  For example, by using isolation, demeaning behavior, the use of authority to overly control someone’s performance, or trying to convince a target that the attacks are their fault.

Another significant concern is at-will employment laws that provide employers with virtual impunity against claims, because workplace bullying targets understand that the power in an employment relationship mostly resides with company representatives.  Moreover, employment protections don’t prevent workplace bullying targets from being constructively discharged while trying to protect their rights that outside of the workplace would be considered abuse.  Furthermore, companies can continue to impact targets after their employment by providing questionable or bad references.

Generally, individuals who face harassment or defamatory comments socially have legal remedies to redress an issue; however, this is usually not the case for workplace bullying/harassment that isn’t covered by a protected class. Therefore, it’s beyond time that employment laws protect all resources equally from unnecessary and sometimes orchestrated abuses that impact anyone’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Additional information on workplace bullying can be obtained in Mr. Young’s solution-oriented books “Bullies… They’re In Your Office, Too: Could you be one?” or his mini-book “Management Spotlight: Workplace Bullying.”