My 2017 written testimony in support of the MA Healthy Workplace Bill

As some readers know, I am the author of the template version of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), model workplace anti-bullying legislation that provides a civil claim for damages for bullied workers who can show they have been subjected to an abusive work environment and suffered physical and/or psychological harm as a result. The bill also includes liability-reducing incentives for employers who act preventively and responsively toward workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

During the past eight years, we have been steadily building support within the Massachusetts legislature to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill, which has been filed in the current 2017-18 session as Senate No. 1013. Along with other advocates and supporters, I have filed written testimony in support of the HWB. Here is a slightly edited version of what I submitted in March:

***

Written Testimony in Support of Senate No. 1013,

“An Act addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment, without regard to protected class status”

 

(a/k/a “Healthy Workplace Bill”)

 

David C. Yamada

Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School

Author, Healthy Workplace Bill 

Dear Members of the General Court:

As the author of the original language contained in Senate No. 1013, workplace anti-bullying legislation informally known as the Healthy Workplace Bill, I respectfully submit this testimony to summarize what we know about workplace bullying, the need for legal reform, and key features of the legislation. This is our fourth full session in bringing this bill to the Legislature, and we strongly believe that it should become law.

Workplace Bullying is a Form of Targeted, Interpersonal Abuse

Workplace bullying is the intentional, repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one employee by one or more employees, by verbal and non-verbal means. Individual bullying behaviors come in overt and covert varieties, such as

  • false accusations of mistakes and errors;
  • yelling, shouting, and screaming;
  • exclusion, ostracism and the “silent treatment”;
  • withholding resources and information necessary to the job;
  • behind-the-back sabotage and defamation;
  • use of put-downs, insults, and excessively harsh criticism;
  • hostile glares and other intimidating non-verbal behaviors;
  • unreasonably heavy work demands designed to ensure failure.

Workplace bullying is not:

  • everyday disagreements and “dust ups” in the office;
  • someone having a bad day and losing his/her temper;
  • reasonable instructions, directives, and employee reviews.

In the United States, workplace bullying is common, often top-down, and typically does not end well for those targeted. A 2014 national public opinion survey sponsored by the Workplace Bullying Institute and conducted by Zogby pollsters found that:

  • 7% of respondents are currently experiencing workplace bullying, and another 20% of respondents previously have experienced workplace bullying, using a definition that tracks the language of the Healthy Workplace Bill.
  • 56% of bullying is committed by supervisors; 33% by co-workers; 11% by subordinates.
  • The most common “resolution” is that the target leaves the job: Quit or forced out (48%); terminated (13%); transferred (13%).

Human and Organizational Costs

Workplace bullying can inflict health-impairing physical and psychological harm on targeted employees, including:

  • stress disorders of all types
  • clinical depression
  • high blood pressure
  • cardiovascular disease
  • impaired immune systems
  • suicidal ideation
  • symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • severe residual effects on family and personal relationships
  • life-altering decisions about whether to stay in or leave a job.

Workplace bullying is very costly to employers. Organizations that play host to workplace bullying may suffer a variety of negative effects, including:

  • decline in productivity
  • reduction in morale
  • fear and mistrust permeating the workplace
  • greater attrition and “presenteeism” (i.e., workers going through the motions)
  • higher health insurance and benefit costs
  • elevated risks of workplace violence

The Need for Legal Reform

Current Law Does Not Protect Bullying Targets or Encourage Employer Prevention

  • Most instances of severe workplace bullying, especially those unrelated to protected class status (sex, race, disability, etc.) and whistleblower retaliation fall between the cracks of existing employment law.
  • Targets of severe workplace bullying are repeatedly told by plaintiffs’ attorneys that they have no legal recourse.
  • In the 2014 Workplace Bullying Institute national survey, 63% of respondents “strongly support” and 30% of respondents “somewhat support” workplace bullying laws.

Main Features of Senate No. 1013

  • Provides workers with a legal claim for severe bullying behavior, but with a high threshold: They must establish that the behavior was intentionally abusive and caused tangible physical and/or psychological harm.
  • Imposes liability on both individual aggressors and employers, but allows employers to minimize liability by preventing and responding to bullying situations.
  • Includes provisions that discourage weak or frivolous claims.
  • Claims brought in court; no agency involvement.

Debunking Myths about the Healthy Workplace Bill

  1. “Existing harassment law is sufficient to protect bullying targets.” — This is untrue. Existing harassment law protects only those individuals who can prove that the harassment is due to their protected class membership, such as sex, race, or age.
  2. “Existing tort (personal injury) and workers’ compensation laws are sufficient to protect and compensate bullying targets.” — This is untrue. In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court has held that under exclusivity provision of the state’s workers’ compensation law, workers may not sue their employers for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) and many other tort actions. Furthermore, workers’ compensation benefits are very difficult to recover for so-called “mental-mental” injuries, i.e., claims for psychological impairment based upon psychological mistreatment or harassment at work.
  3. “The HWB will open floodgates of litigation.” — Of course there will be lawsuits under the HWB; it would not be doing its job if workers did not bring claims under it. However, after an initial surge of litigation, the number of claims will moderate considerably once lawyers and the courts recognize the fairly high threshold for recovery. In fact, the HWB has been criticized from sectors of the left as setting too high a standard for recovery. Furthermore, Under the HWB, an employer may avoid liability by showing that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any bullying behaviors and that the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of these remedial measures. This is practically identical to the liability-reducing incentives contained in current federal law covering sexual harassment.
  4. “The language of the Healthy Workplace Bill is too vague.” — Not if you consider the bill in its entirety. The HWB draws its definition of an abusive work environment from the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of a hostile work environment for sexual harassment.
  5. “The HWB takes away traditional management rights.” — This is untrue. The HWB takes away only the current right to treat someone abusively. It preserves management rights by providing an affirmative defense where the complaint is based on upon (1) an adverse employment action (such as a termination) reasonably made for poor performance, misconduct, or economic necessity; or (2) a reasonable performance evaluation; and (3) where the complaint is based on the employer’s reasonable investigation about potentially illegal or unethical activity.

An Emerging Law Reform Movement on Behalf of Human Dignity at Work

  • Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) and related bills in 30 states — Since 2003, the Healthy Workplace Bill and related workplace bullying legislation have been introduced in 30 states.
  • Massachusetts – In the 2011-12 and 2015-16 sessions, the HWB advanced to Third Reading in the House; in the 2013-14 session, the HWB advanced to Second Reading.
  • Illinois — In March 2010, a version of the HWB covering public employees was approved by the Illinois State Senate by a 35-17 vote.
  • New York — In May 2010, the New York State Senate passed the HWB by a 45-16 vote that included strong bipartisan support.
  • California – In 2014, California enacted a law requiring larger employers to engage in supervisor training and education concerning workplace bullying.
  • Tennessee – In 2014, Tennessee enacted a law directing a state commission to develop a model workplace bullying policy for public employers.
  • Other nations — Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, and Sweden are among the growing number of nations that already have enacted laws and regulations covering workplace bullying.

Conclusion

If I can be of any assistance toward understanding the phenomenon of workplace bullying and the underlying legal and policy issues, as well as specific provisions contained in the Healthy Workplace Bill, please contact me.

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