Does the Healthy Workplace Bill “demonize” workplace aggressors?

I’ve read and heard opposition to the adoption of laws that address bullying in work or school settings on the ground that such measures “demonize” those accused of engaging in bullying behaviors.

I can’t speak for all current and proposed anti-bullying laws. However, as the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which serves as the primary template for workplace anti-bullying legislation across the country, I certainly can address whether that criticism fairly applies to this particular proposal.

The Healthy Workplace Bill provides targets of severe workplace bullying a legal claim for damages and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to take preventive and responsive measures toward this form of mistreatment. It allows claims to be brought against both employers and offending co-employees.

Prevention, not demonization

Prevention is the most important public policy objective for any workplace bullying law. The HWB achieves this by significantly reducing liability exposure for employers that pro-actively prevent workplace bullying and respond promptly and fairly to claims of workplace bullying.

The HWB doesn’t even mention the terms “bullying” or “bully” in its key language. Rather, it uses the term “abusive work environment” to define the conditions that lead to liability.

Damages

The HWB allows for a full range of potential damages to be awarded to individuals who can prove their claims, including punitive damages for especially egregious behavior.

So yes, it is possible that an individual aggressor could be found liable under the HWB. However, it is more likely that employers, rather than individual aggressors, would pay the bulk of those damages. Put simply, most plaintiffs employment lawyers know that unless liability can be imposed upon the employer, the likelihood of recovering damages is slim.

Change of heart

In my earliest writings about this topic, I suggested that punishment should be among the public policy goals of any workplace bullying law. I’ve softened on that point since then.

I fully understand the emotions that cause some targets of workplace bullying to desire retribution. And while I do believe that compensation is a just goal for the Healthy Workplace Bill, the objectives of revenge and punishment seem less appropriate to fuel legislation designed, ultimately, to affirm human dignity.

That said, holding someone accountable for engaging in proven, targeted, health-harming interpersonal abuse is not “demonization.” We must be careful not to overuse the term, lest we become resistant toward all notions of personal responsibility for severe, intentional mistreatment of another.

16 responses

  1. Regarding softening your position on punishment for employers, here’s the thing: The only thing these companies understand is the threat of legal problems that could result from allowing a known bully to continue. This is the only thing that will make them be concerned about bullying in their workplace, and actually do something about it. Punishment for the employers of bullies is not about targets taking revenge, it’s about making the employers take it seriously and take action.

    The company I worked for knew all about the person who was bullying me and many other people in my company. They didn’t do anything because they didn’t care.

    I hope you will reconsider your position that it’s about targets taking revenge.

    • Before responding to your comment, I reread my post to confirm that I didn’t inadvertently take a “position that it’s about targets taking revenge.” Rather, I acknowledged that many targets, quite understandably, want retribution, but I’ve come to the point of believing that prevention of bullying and compensation to targets are more important objectives.

      I think the rest of the post shows we’re in complete agreement with your statement that “it’s about making the employers take it seriously and take action.”

  2. I facilitate many workshops that focus on respect in the workplace. Nearly all of the employees in these sessions cite workplace aggression that was not addressed by their former employers as the primary reason they chose to leave. Stress, anxiety, and fear should not be part of a “normal” work environment; work-related stress is a normal factor, humans intentionally causing distress is not. Making employers accountable for responding to claims of workplace aggression is a logical, essential step in improving our workplaces, reducing turnover, and promoting peaceful relationships.

    • I think you’re seeing the difficulties of trying to tackle a common and destructive form of workplace mistreatment for which employers are not held accountable. Abusive bullying is dismissed as a personality conflict, the same way sexual harassment was dismissed as “just having some fun” 40 years ago.

      • Mistreatment is pervasive and employers are hesitant to get involved, often brushing it off as personality conflicts between employees. The bullying persists, often, because the target is afraid that bringing the aggressor forward will lead to being fired! Person after person has told me that when they brought the aggression up to their employers there were repercussions. Also, it’s often the very supervisors who would take the report that are the aggressors.

  3. Our efforts online are under construction for our specific group. Several of us are on board and in the Healthy Workplace Bill database as supporters and contributors. Thank you for everything you’ve done David.

  4. Who claims that bullies are being “demonized”? I’ve only seen this term in reference to kids, not adults.

    On the broader topic of how to stop bullying in the workplace: seems to me that the problem is the lack of corporate governance and accountability. HR regards itself as a cost center and justifies its salaries as do loss prevention departments. Boards of Directors of both private and public companies are a “club” that protect their own. Even though we have laws on the books now, attorneys won’t take employment discrimination cases because they are so hard to prove. I like the Healthy Workplace Bill, but even if it’s passed, who’s to say that it will actually be effective?

    • Marcia, the term has been raised by some who believe the workplace anti-bullying movement is all about identifying and going after the “bullies,” usually coming up in various comments to articles about workplace bullying and bullying in general.

      There is no guarantee that the Healthy Workplace bill will be “effective,” however one defines the term. Just as discrimination law hasn’t ended discrimination, the HWB won’t end workplace bullying. It will be subject to the same level of scrutiny and application as other protective employment laws, which means results will be imperfect. However, we’re already seeing that the mere possibility of it becoming law is causing employment lawyers to advise their clients to have policies, trainings, and procedures to cover bullying.

      Enacting the HWB will be a big step forward, but legal reform is only one piece of the solution.

      • David, thanks for your reply. Can you tell me, either here or privately, who has claimed that bullies are “demonized”? I think it’s important for supporters of the bill to know who the opponents are.

      • Marcia, I’m going to pass on naming names publicly or privately, because some of that discussion has become personalized and I’d rather not fuel it. The main opponents of the HWB have been corporate and business interests whose objections have been grounded in liability exposure and what they believe is the burden of unfair lawsuits. The criticism to which I refer in this post has not come from them, but rather from those who regard the label of bully as being unfairly stigmatizing. It’s not a huge group, but they’ve made their concerns known.

      • David: Thanks again for taking the time to reply. In retrospect, do you think your article was helpful if you aren’t able to provide specifics? I think one needs to be cautious about making assertions without backing them up, that’s all.

      • I think that concern is more apt if I was accusing someone of wrongdoing or impropriety without backing it up and presenting it as a news story. But I opted to generalize the topic — i.e., the fact that some are making the claim that anti-bullying laws demonize the aggressors — rather than fueling what has become a more personalized exchange in other places. If that undercuts the impact of this post, I can live with that trade-off.

      • One more thought: I would define “effective” to mean that it will be possible for an aggrieved employee to find an attorney to represent them and to win a suit against an abusive employer. To quantify that, I claim that the bill would be a success if 10% of the same number of lawyers doing personal injury work now were to add “Healthy Workplace” claims to their practice specialties. My point is that unless attorneys will be willing to take on cases, then passing the bill won’t matter.

        If the Healthy Workplace bill passes, and I hope it does, then we’ll need a foundation to either pay attorneys to take these cases or to recruit retired lawyers to represent workers. Otherwise, it’ll be the same situation as now, where it’s difficult if not impossible to enforce laws against discrimination because no one is sure they are going to win.

  5. This topic is a rather provocative one and understandably so. Personally, I do think that if we need to soften the language and the legal remedies in order to enable a baseline bill to pass, then perhaps, that is what is needed.

    Once a bill has been passed, then we can work on advocacy measures that will, in time, create tougher penalties for the individuals who initiate work place aggression and abuse. So, if the only palatable consequences for finding someone liable for work place aggression Is a civil claim (if I am understanding the issues correctly), then so be it, in my opinion.

    For now it sounds as though the opposition to the bill may lessen if the focus of the liability is on the employer, not the individual, is that correct?

    As someone who is currently in a hostile work environment and someone who has suffered grievously and continues to do so-most recent attack upon me was last Thursday- I can say that I fully understand the resistance to wanting to soften on this issue.

    However, I want, more than anything, to get something passed so that we have an issue that has been legitimized.

    As for finding employment attorneys who will consider taking one’s case, the resistance to expending the time knowing that these cases are tough to prove, has been a concern, as well as an obstacle for me, as well.

    I have spoken with several attorneys over the years and I have finally found one very empathic attorney who has been supportive. He has laid out what the grounds would be in order for him to take my case-given the current laws- which includes my being able to keep rather accurate records of the offenses, while at the same time, requiring that I voice my concerns-risking termination- which I have done.

    He stated that he can only potentially help me if after incidences where I speak up for myself and have documented proof, in which I have been, either, fired or demoted, then, he would review my materials in order to see if there is a claim that supports retaliation or something to that effect.

    Having something on the books is a start, in my opinion. And if we can continue to build from the watered-down law, then, let’s do it, I say.

    In the meantime, David, I wonder if you could share some anonymous responses from people who oppose the bill so that we can better understand the opposing perspective, which might increase our ability to understand what a middle ground approach might look like, as well as being able to fine tune our approaches to this issue, so that the targets do not inadvertently fuel the opposition and, then, slow down the time frame in which the bill can be passed.

    I do think we need to engage in this process in a strategic manner. As any one of us knows all too well, our bullies are fine tuned in the art of the strategy of deceit, as it pertains to grooming their targets and finding ways to rationalize their behaviors to HR to whomever is in charge so much so that they come out smelling like a rose.

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