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.
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.