Employment News

Is Bullying in the Workplace Illegal?

Oct 09, 2012

Whether it’s your coworker, supervisor or manager, bullying in the workplace is an unfortunate but all too common problem for employees.  Numerous advocacy organizations and media outlets have broadcasted the extent of the problem and its costly impact on the workplace.  Bullying can include repeated verbal abuse, including derogatory remarks, insults, or epithets; verbal or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature; the sabotage or undermining of an employee's work performance; or attempts to exploit an employee's known psychological or physical vulnerability.

While bullying is a lot like harassment or discrimination and equally destructive, there are at least two important differences.  First, bullying is not necessarily based on a specific and protected characteristic like sex, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability.  Second, unlike harassment and discrimination, there are no laws specifically protecting employees against bullying in the workplace unless it is motivated by a discriminatory bias.  But it looks like that may soon change.  Over the last decade more than half the states in the U.S., including Minnesota, have introduced legislation specifically protecting employees against bullying.  And, although no new law has been passed, employees bullied in the workplace have still found protection under existing laws.

For example, in Absey v. Echosphere LLC, Dish Net-work Services LLC, and Marshall Hood, Civil No. 62 CV-10-6691, an employee was awarded $270,000 for reporting his supervisor’s bullying and abusive conduct.  Absey’s supervisor, Marshall Hood, engaged in repeated verbal and physical abuse in the workplace.  For example, he brought a satellite dish into the office and threw it down near two employees while screaming at them.  On several occasions Absey witnessed Hood with his arms crossed, appearing hostile, yelling and screaming at employees to the point he would turn red and purple with rage.  On another occasion, Absey witnessed Hood punch a hole through a plywood door.  Absey reported Hood’s conduct to human resources several times but they did not do anything.  Absey was later let go in a reduction in force.  The court found that Absey was a whistleblower under 181.932 because he reported a violation of Minn. Stat. § 1.5 which states that “The State of Minnesota hereby adopts a policy of zero tolerance of violence.  It is state policy that every person in the state has a right to live free from violence.”  The court pointed to the public policy interests of a violence free workplace in the state.  Minn. Stat. § 609.72 Subd. 1. 

A similar result occurred in Indiana in Raess v. Doescher, 883 N.E.2d 790 (Ind. 2008).  Mr. Doescher, worked as a perfusionist in a local hospital.  Dr. Raess worked at the same hospital as a surgeon and during a procedure he became angry with Doescher and “aggressively and rapidly advanced toward [Doescher] with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet red face, popping veins and was screaming and swearing at him.  [Doescher] backed up against the wall and put his hands up, believing that [Raess] was going to hit him.”  Raess did not hit Doescher but walked away and told him “you are finished, you’re history.”  At trial, Doescher claimed emotional distress, tortious interference with business relations and assault and was awarded $325,000 for the assault claim.  This award was affirmed by the Indiana Supreme Court, which made clear that workplace conflicts may also support claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

If you are being bullied in your workplace and have already reported it and are either still experiencing it or are now experiencing retaliation as a result, contact one of our employment lawyers. The employment lawyers at Baillon Thome are experienced in workplace harassment, employment discrimination and illegal bullying.  We will answer your employment questions and work with you through the next steps you should take to protect your employment rights.