On this Labor Day weekend of 2010, I’d like to consider the political implications of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), the anti-bullying legislation I’ve drafted that has been the template for bills introduced across the country.
Briefly, the HWB provides workers with a legal claim for damages if they can establish that they were subjected to malicious, health-harming workplace bullying. It also provides legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively, as well as provisions that discourage frivolous lawsuits.
Although many of the bill’s supporters are liberal in their political beliefs, people from across spectrum — save perhaps the far, far right — have endorsed it. This has led me to ponder the political leanings of the HWB, and here are some of my thoughts on that:
Okay, no surprises here: The Healthy Workplace Bill is protective legislation that benefits workers who have been treated abusively on the job. It enjoys a lot more support from liberals (especially) and moderates than from conservatives. More Democrats than Republicans have sponsored it in various state legislatures across the country. Labor unions and civil rights groups are getting behind it, while management and employers organizations are lining up to oppose it.
For example, as reported here in 2009, a major public employee union has been one of the key supporters of the HWB in Massachusetts. Earlier this year, the board of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (whose executive committee I chair), voted to support the HWB. In opposition are groups like the Society for Human Resource Management.
So, this is a no-brainer, right? The Healthy Workplace Bill is your standard pro-worker, liberal legislation.
But wait a minute…
Winning a claim under the HWB will not be easy. It will require establishing that the bullying behavior was malicious in nature, a high standard of intent under the law. It also will require showing tangible physical or psychological harm. Weaker claims may be subject to a cap on emotional distress damages, a category that is the scariest litigation “wild card” for employers.
While providing compensation to severely bullied workers is a primary objective of the HWB, even more important is the goal of prevention. Toward that end, the HWB attempts to balance interests by allowing employers to sharply reduce their liability exposure by engaging in effective training, prevention, and response concerning bullying.
One prominent political writer has attached the label of “radical middle” to characterize the underlying politics of workplace bullying legislation. Mark Satin, whose Radical Middle newsletter and book (Mark Satin, Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now, Westview/Perseus, 2004) have attracted wide readership, has written approvingly of our efforts to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill (here and here).
It’s (sneakily) conservative!
The HWB does not single out any group or category of persons for special protections or preferential treatment. Instead, it proclaims that everyone should have a right to be free from malicious abuse at work. In essence, it borrows from our friends in New Hampshire and says, Don’t Tread On Me, just let me do my job without enduring disabling and demoralizing abuse.
True, maybe there’s nothing conservative about allowing legal intervention and liability to encroach upon management rights and the free market, but the underlying goals of the HWB are completely consistent with promoting productive workplaces and high-performance employees.
Perhaps that’s why when the New York State Senate voted to approve the Healthy Workplace Bill earlier this year, it did so with strong Republican support, including a GOP lead sponsor.
Bottom line: It’s about promoting worker health, dignity, and productivity
When I first started researching the legal implications of workplace bullying, I assumed that existing employment laws provided sufficient protections and legal relief for bullied employees. Only after discovering this was not the case (by a longshot) did I draft the Healthy Workplace Bill.
For now, maliciously subjecting an employee to psychological abuse is largely legal in this country, and even those who are bullied out of jobs and careers often find themselves without recourse under the law. In the meantime, productivity suffers and morale sags when bullying is left unchecked. Workplace bullying is a phenomenon where just about everyone loses.
Whether deemed liberal, moderate, or conservative in nature, the Healthy Workplace Bill promotes worker health and productivity. It’s not perfect — there is no such thing when it comes to drafting legislation — but it fills a massive gap in the law. On this Labor Day, I include it on my wish list for America’s workers, so that all may have a baseline right to dignity on the job.
Addendum: In the newly-released 2010 public opinion survey on workplace bullying conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International pollsters, some 64% of respondents supported anti-bullying legislation that tracks the language of the Healthy Workplace Bill. In terms of political self-identification, this included 90% of liberal respondents, 78% of moderate respondents, and 47% of conservative respondents. It is especially notable that there is fairly strong support even among conservatives.
For more information
Healthy Workplace Bill Legislative Campaign
If you’d like to become active in the national campaign to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill, click here.
Scholarly articles about workplace bullying and the law
My longer scholarly articles about the legal implications of workplace bullying can be downloaded without charge from my page on the Social Science Research Network, linked here. This includes Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment, which will be published later this year and can be accessed in a pre-publication draft form here.
Shorter presentations and commentaries about workplace bullying
Many of my shorter pieces on workplace bullying, as well as a copy of the HWB introduced during the 2009-10 session of the Massachusetts legislature, can be downloaded without charge from my page on Academia.edu, linked here.