As reported earlier, the Society for Human Resource Management — the nation’s leading association for HR professionals — has advised its members to oppose the Healthy Workplace Bill, which would create a legal claim for those who have been subjected to malicious, health-harming psychological abuse at work.
The sad irony is that the Healthy Workplace Bill is actually quite HR-friendly, and here’s why:
Currently there are no general legal protections against severe workplace bullying for American workers. This huge gap in the law means that managers who bully workers can leverage HR’s assistance in targeting another employee for mistreatment. At organizations rife with bullying, HR often becomes complicit in the abuse. Too many HR professionals become accomplices in bullying situations by doing management’s dirty work, such as firing a bullied worker as the final step of abuse.
Passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill would help conscientious HR professionals oppose workplace bullying and refuse to take part in efforts to bully a target out of a job, promotion, or raise. The keys to this are two provisions of the bill that allow employers to sharply mitigate their liability exposure by acting preventively and responsively to bullying at work.
Acting preventively and responsively
The Healthy Workplace Bill holds employers strictly liable for bullying committed by any co-worker. However, in situations where there has been no negative employment decision as part of the bullying (such as a termination, forced resignation, or demotion), an employer may escape liability if it can show that it acted preventively and responsively concerning the situation.
This gives HR ample ammunition to tell management to handle bullying situations fairly. It also gives HR a shield against being dragged into assisting in the mistreatment.
Limited cap on damages
The Healthy Workplace Bill also has a provision that limits emotional distress damages to $25,000 in bullying situations where there has been no negative employment decision. The reasoning behind this is that most severe bullying includes some sort of tangible job consequence. The cap on emotional distress damages — which form the “wild card” of many employment-related lawsuits — serves as an incentive to employers to address bullying situations before they become out of control and bullying targets lose their jobs.
The Healthy Workplace Bill empowers HR to refuse to engage in an illegal employment practice and to oppose bullying, on the ground that severe bullying accompanied by a negative employment decision can open up the employer to significant damages. HR is put in a position to say stop this, unless you want to get hammered with a big lawsuit.
SHRM, time to rethink?
With that in mind, it appears that SHRM’s members are being ill-served when they are advised to oppose the Healthy Workplace Bill. SHRM members who abhor and oppose this destructive form of abuse may want to lobby their leadership to take a different position.