Workplace bullying victims can get legal help

Dec. 21, 2012 at 6:21 a.m.

The following does not constitute a legal opinion or advice. A licensed attorney should be consulted if readers wish to discuss any of the ideas contained therein for help in their work environment.

In a recent Advocate guest column, the writer introduces the idea of "workplace bullying." Hooray for having the courage to expose a problem whose remedy can have positive effects on reducing hostility in the workplace. Not many years ago, sexual harassment was considered a simple fact of life that one had to endure as the price of working. Today, employers know that sexual harassment in the workplace is a violation of federal law and have policies in place.

But what about the workplace bully? Can the law help the victim? The simple answer is yes. Workplace harassment, or more commonly "bullying," as a problem is becoming recognized for its potential legal issues. The victim may already be covered under the Civil Rights Act and other federal laws if the bullying targets race, religion, national origin, age, gender or disability. The employee who falls under one of these protected categories would be known as a status-based victim. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) would receive a complaint and possibly investigate bullying for employees protected by their status. Recognition for the rights of those protected because of status is common.

The larger problem is that most employees do not experience status-based bullying. However, what is not yet as common is the recognition that any employee has a right to a bully-free work environment. Until it becomes settled that an employee should not have to experience being bullied, legal remedies offer the non-status-based individual some relief. Without having to litigate, the victim could write a Cease and Desist (a C and D) letter warning the bully to stop bullying. Of course, the substance of the letter must describe the bullying behavior as that which amounts to defamation, invasion of privacy, or intentional infliction of emotional distress. The C and D would need to provide the what, how and when in sufficient detail so as to rise above fearful projecting. The C and D letter can be more effective if written by an attorney. Even more effective is a C and D prepared by an attorney as an order and signed by the court. In the event the bully does not stop, the filed C and D can serve as a precursor to litigation. In the event the bully does not stop, a court-ordered C and D, could lead to contempt of court resulting in fines and or jail.

Absent a personnel policy describing and forbidding bullying behavior, the victim has little recourse but to seek legal remedies outside the workplace. In the years ahead, we will look back on workplace bullying as a problem that should have been addressed along with other forms of harassment sooner. Until then, it will be up to voluntary efforts of enlightened human resources departments and courageous victims who understand that they have a right to work in a harassment-free environment for their good and the good of the company.

Larry Rossow is an educator with more than 40 years of experience at all levels of education.



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