Types of workplace bullying and potential legal protections in the U.S.

Last year, counselor Rosemary K.M. Sword and noted psychologist Philip Zimbardo wrote up a nice little summary about the types of bullying that one might encounter in our society, including workplaces, for their Psychology Today blog, Time CureI’d like to take a quick look at those categories and then briefly discuss what potential legal protections may be available in cases of bullying at work.

Sword and Zimbardo identified six basic categories of bullying, while recognizing that these forms may overlap:

  • “Physical Bullying” covers “physical actions to gain power and control over their targets.”
  • “Verbal Bullying” uses “words, statements and name-calling to gain power and control over a target.”
  • “Prejudicial Bullying” is grounded in “prejudices people have toward people of different races, religions or sexual orientation.”
  • “Relational Aggression” refers to “a sneaky, insidious type of bullying that manifests as social manipulation.”
  • “Cyberbullying” involves the use of “the internet, cell phones or other technology to harass, threaten, embarrass or target another person.”
  • “Sexual Bullying” involves “repeated, harmful and humiliating actions – sexual name-calling, crude comments, vulgar gestures, uninvited touching or sexual propositioning – that target a person sexually.”

Sword and Zimbardo offer further explanations for each category; I suggest reading the complete post for the full profiles.

Their solutions emphasize responses for helping children who have been bullied. There’s less that applies to adult targets. However, their blog is primarily about “(n)ew approaches to overcoming PTSD, depression, and anxiety,” so it may be of general interest to readers here. (By the way, Dr. Zimbardo may be especially familiar to some readers for his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.)

Legal and liability perspectives

In the context of workplace bullying, some categories are more relevant than others in terms of potential legal protections, employee benefits, and employer liability in the U.S. Here is a very brief summary, with my usual disclaimer that it should not be considered or relied upon as legal advice:

Prejudicial bullying and sexual bullying are clearly the most obvious candidates for legal intervention, as they directly implicate employment discrimination laws. However, workers still need to prove that the bullying was motivated by their sex, race, or some other characteristic covered by these laws.

Physical bullying that causes injury may qualify a target for workers’ compensation and, in some instances, open doors to tort claims such as assault and battery against the aggressors.

With cyberbullying, much depends on the content. Obviously, if it involves, say, sexual harassment, then legal protections may apply. But generic bullying may escape legal responsibility.

Verbal bullying that causes disabling emotional distress may qualify a targeted workers for workers’ compensation and, in some cases, create tort liability for individual aggressors for claims such as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Relational aggression, which sometimes delivers the hardest punches to emotional well being and reputation, unfortunately presents the least in terms of potential legal protections, due largely to its often complicated and insidious nature. Unpacking behaviors such as sabotage, defamation, and deliberate undermining is not easy.

Two other points:

First, if an employee handbook covers generic bullying and harassment, workers may have a contractual right to raise complaints about such mistreatment and to seek relief.

Second, an employee covered by a union-secured collective bargaining agreement may find in it provisions that relate to bullying in the form of unfair or abusive management practices.

Obviously the legal situation in America is far from ideal. Enactment of the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill will fill in many of these gaps, but until that day comes, many forms of severe bullying at work will continue to be beyond the reach of the legal system.

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