MAYBE IT IS OKAY FOR AN EMPLOYER TO BE “BIG BROTHER”

Siblings fight.  They also tend to get over it quickly – after all, they’re stuck with each other.  My boys are no different.  The other day, The Sheriff told his arch-nemesis younger brother not to worry about when he got to middle school.  If anyone picked on him, he’d take care of it.  I thought it was sweet, but it really comes down to a slightly different message: NO ONE can pick on my little brother . . . except me.

Bullying is not just gaining attention on school grounds these days; it’s become somewhat of a workplace issue too.  I’m headed to a seminar later this week that covers this emerging topic and hopefully will be able to share even more useful tips about this subject with you in a later column.  One of the things I’m anxious to hear discussion about is the disconnect between workplace bullying and existing discrimination laws.  Title VII and most state discrimination protections only prohibit conduct based on certain protected characteristics, like race, gender, and national origin.  For his (or her) part, the bully doesn’t necessarily discriminate – the target may be perceived as weaker, “different,” or a threat.  Perhaps the bully has mental, emotional, or other issues that are causing the behavior.

Without guidance from a specific workplace bullying statute, employers are left to deal with the issue within the current framework of the law.  It’s my view that workplace bullying should be prohibited by employers.  Employee morale suffers, and that’s typically tied to productivity.  Plus, an employer that permits “legal” harassment may still very well find itself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.  You may want to consider broader use of your anti-discrimination/harassment policies to discourage bullying behavior from the outset.  Encourage employees to report bullying behavior so that it can be addressed as soon as possible.  Your EAP program may be a useful tool in addressing these problems, as well – both for the employee trying to deal with the stress of being a victim and for the bully to mend his/her ways.

In the absence of potentially newer strategies learned this week on how employers should define and handle “bullying” behavior, I think for now the conscientious employer should just follow The Sheriff’s lead and be a big brother (without the caveat).  If you’ve faced workplace bullying issues, I’d love to hear your views on how you handled them.

 

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
 
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