FEDERAL LAWS

There is no federal law per se that prohibits workplace abuse but there are many laws that may capture some of the behaviors that are used by the abuser. For example, an abuser who systematically harasses a person of color  may be  vulnerable to a lawsuit alleging discrimination on the basis of race.  What follows are federal laws that may be relevant in a case of workplace abuse:

FEDERAL DISCRIMINATION LAWS

Most workplace bullying falls outside the parameters of federal discrimination laws. However, workplace abuse may be the result of illegal discrimination and, if so, you may be able to file a lawsuit seeking damages from your employer.

Federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of age, disability, national origin, genetic information, pregnancy, race/color, religion and sex. These laws generally cover employees, applicants for employment, former employees and applicants to, and participants in, training and apprenticeship programs. An employer may include private sector and state and government entities, depending on the law.

These laws also make it illegal to retaliate against a person who has complained about an equal employment opportunity violation, or participated in filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under the applicable statute.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces most of these laws (Go to: www.eeoc.gov).

Here is a list of major federal laws relating to employment discrimination:

RACE AND COLOR, RELIGION, NATIONAL ORIGIN, OR SEX

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. It is also illegal to harass a person because of that person’s race, color, national origin or sex. Harassment goes beyond simple teasing or an offhand comment; it generally must be severe and frequent, creating an hostile or offensive work environment or resulting in an adverse employment decision (such as being fired or demoted). The law also requires that employers reasonably accommodate applicants’ and employees’ sincerely held religious practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.

PREGNANCY

  • Title VII was amended by The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), which makes it illegal to discrimination against a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

EQUAL PAY

  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) makes it illegal to pay different wages to men and women if they perform the same work in the same workplace. The jobs must be substantially equal and all forms of compensation are covered, including salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, etc. The EPA protects both men and women.
  • Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) also prohibits compensation discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability. Unlike the EPA, there is no requirement that the jobs be substantially equal.  The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 establishes that each paycheck that contains discriminatory compensation is a separate violation regardless of when the discrimination began.

AGE DISCRIMINATION

  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) makes it illegal to discrimination against people who are 40 years of age or older on the basis of age.

DISABILITY

  • Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) makes it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability in the private sector and in state and local governments. A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Employers are required to reasonably accommodate the known physical or mental limitation of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or an employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 make it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability in the federal government.

GENETIC INFORMATION

  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which took force on November 21, 2009, makes it illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants because of genetic information. Genetic information includes information about an individual’s genetic tests and the genetic tests of an individual’s family members, as well as information about any disease, disorder or condition of an individual’s family members.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT

  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission promulgated guidelines (Sec. 1604.11) pursuant to the adoption of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that make sexual harassment illegal. This includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:  made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment; submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual, or; such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. With respect to fellow employees, an employer is responsible for acts of sexual harassment in the workplace where the employer (or its agents or supervisory employees) know or should have known of the conduct, unless it can show that it took immediate appropriate corrective action.

CITIZENSHIP STATUS AND NATIONAL ORIGIN

  • Claims of discrimination based on citizenship status and national origin are covered both by Title IX and by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).
  • The IRCA states that employers cannot discriminate because of national origin against U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, and authorized aliens. Also, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of citizenship status against U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, and the following classes of aliens with work authorization: permanent residents, temporary residents (that is, individuals who have gone through the legalization program), refugees, and asylees. For example, citizenship verification must be obtained from all employees, not just “ethnic” looking employees.The IRCA is implemented by the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Office of the Special Counsel for Immigratoin Related Unfair Employment Practices.
  • Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin. It bars discrimination against an individual because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group. This law is administered by the EEOC.

WAGE AND HOUR LAWS

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments. Covered nonexempt workers are entitled to a minimum wage of not less than $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009. Overtime pay at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay is required after 40 hours of work in a workweek.  The FLSA is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division

THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT

Specific federal laws that govern collective bargaining, including:

The National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935 to protect the right of employees in the private sector to create labor unions, engage in collective bargaining and to take part in strikes. The act is also known as the Wagner Act, after its sponsor, Sen. Robert F. Wagner. The Act does not apply to workers who are covered by the Railway Labor Act, agricultural employees, domestic employees, supervisors, federal, state or local government workers, independent contractors and some close relatives of individual employers. The act is regulated by the National Labor Relations Board

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Power and Control

One can see similarities between domestic violence and workplace abuse by looking at a tool developed by domestic violence advocates in Duluth, Minnesota, 30 years ago to illustrate the tactics used by domestic violence abusers, the Power and Control Wheel (see below).  By substituting the workplace for the home, one can see the application of this tool in the context of workplace abuse:

  • Instead of male privilege, abusive bosses exert “supervisory” privilege.
  • The abusive boss alone feels entitled to define the boss/employer relationship, whether or not it bears any similarity to the victim’s job description.
  • The abusive boss emotionally abuses the victim, putting him/her down, calling him/her names, etc.
  • The abusive boss uses intimidation, coercion or threats, including unfair threats of demotion or dismissal.
  • The abusive boss uses economic tools to abuse the victim by meting out rewards and punishment as he or she pleases, without regard to merit or actual job performance.
  • When the abuse is pointed out, the abusive boss makes light of it,  minimizes it, or accuses the victim of being overly sensitive.
  • The abusive boss may send out a signal that encourages others to abuse an employee, a phenomenon that has been called “mobbing.”
  • The abusive boss may isolate the employee by making it clear the employee is “unsafe” to be around because he/she is viewed as a pariah by management.

Here’s my primitive adaptation of the Power and Control Wheel for workplace abuse/bullying situations, followed by the original Duluth Model Power and Control Wheel:

 

 

Here’s the original Duluth model:


Definitions: Workplace Abuse & Bullying

There is no universally agreed upon definition for abuse or bullying.  There are many critical differences between workplace conflict and bullying.  The bully is often a supervisor who  abuses his/her authority. A bully boss intentionally, repeatedly and unfairly undermines or destroys the credibility of the target. The bully’s actions are  motivated by self-interest, not the good of the company.  The bully is often threatened by the target, who may be a talented, well liked and hard worker. What follows are authoritative definitions of workplace bullying  from diverse source. All point to the common theme that a bullying supervisor is seeking improper power and control over the target.   – PGB

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INTERNATIONAL

A  general definition for workplace bullying suggested by leading international  scholars on the topic is:

  • Harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks.
  • The interaction or process occurs repeatedly and regularly (e.g. weekly) and over a period of time (e.g. about six months).
  • The process escalates until the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts.

(Note: In some countries, a single incident of bullying is sufficient to trigger a civil remedy.)

* From  Katherine Lippel, Introduction, 32 COMP. LABOR LAW & POL’Y JOURNAL 2  (2010), citing Ståle Einarsen et al., The Concept of Bullying and Harassment at Work: The European Tradition, in Stale Einarsen, et al, BULLYING AND HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE: DEVELOPMENT IN THEORY, RESEARCH AND PRACTICE 3, 32 (2d ed., forthcoming  2011).

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THE U.S. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION

The EEOC has an Enforcement Guidance entitled Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors  that discusses employer liability for harassment.

Generally, harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where

1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or
2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Federal anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

*EEOC

EEOC ENFORCEMENT GUIDANCE

The EEOC has an Enforcement Guidance entitled Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors  that discusses employer liability for harassment.

Generally, harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where

1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or
2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Federal anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

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Strategic Harassment: Bad Employers

Many lawsuits involve employers that use bullying tactics  strategically to rid the workplace of good employees to avoid a legal obligation.  For example, employers may  bully employees to force them to quit so The employer can  downsize without paying unemployment compensation or avoid a potential worker’s compensation claim. Many employers use bullying strategically to rid the workplace of employees who  demand pay or overtime to which they are entitled or who assert a legal right to organize collectively. One of the most common types of employee lawsuits involves retaliation, where an employer bullies an employee for complaining about illegal discrimination or harassment.

–  Patricia G. Barnes, J.D., author, Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace.

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An April  2011  publication by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries contains an overview of workplace and corporate bullying. It  provides the following definition:

“Workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine; or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s).”

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The phenomenon of workplace abuse has been well studied in Europe, where it is called “mobbing.” The concept was introduced in the United States with the publication, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Here is how the authors define mobbing:

  1. Assaults on dignity, integrity, credibility, and competence;
  2. Negative, humiliating, intimidating, abusive, malevolent, and controlling communication;
  3. Committed directly or indirectly in subtle or obvious ways;
  4. Perpetrated by  ≥1 staff member;
  5. Occurring in a continual, multiple, and systematic fashion over time;
  6. Portraying the victim as being at fault;
  7. Engineered to discredit, confuse, intimidate, isolate, and force the person into submission;
  8. Committed with the intent to force the person out;
  9. Representing the removal as the victim’s choice;
  10. Unrecognized, misinterpreted, ignored, tolerated, encouraged, or even instigated by management.

*  Source: Adapted  from Davenport N, Schwartz RD, Elliott GP. Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Ames, IA: Civil Society Publishing; 1999:41.

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GAINING INSIGHT FROM DOMESTIC VIOLENCE …

Although abuse in our society is silo-ed, in reality, abuse exists on a continuum. It starts in childhood and progresses until the problem behavior is addressed by the abuser or there is an intervention by an outside party.

Here is a definition of abuse used by the federal government in the context of domestic violence. Many aspects of this definition could apply to abuse in the workplace.

The U.S. Dept. of Justice Office of Violence Against Women says domestic violence can be defined as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.

Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.

Some specific categories of domestic violence:

Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair-pulling, biting, etc. Physical abuse also includes denying a partner medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use.

Sexual Abuse: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner.

Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.

Economic Abuse: Making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding one’s access to money, or forbidding one’s attendance at school or employment.

Psychological Abuse: Causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, children, or partner’s family or friends; destruction of pets and property; and forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work.

Workplace abuse usually does not include overt physical  behaviors – though it certainly can. For example, sexual harassment is a form of workplace abuse that can involve both men and women.

However, more often, workplace bullying involves emotional and economic abuse.

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In April  2010 the Massachusetts’ state legislature unanimously passed what is called the toughest anti-bullying law in the nation with respect to schools. The law was precipitated by two cases of  Massachusetts youths committing suicide after allegedly being bullied. The legislation requires school employees to report all instances of bullying and require principals to investigate them. PGB

ACCORDING TO THE MASSACHUSETTS‘ 2010  SCHOOL ANTI-BULLYING LAW:

“Bullying”, the repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof, directed at a victim that:

(i)  causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim’s property;

(ii) places the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property;

(iii) creates a hostile environment at school for the victim;

(iv) infringes on the rights of the victim at school; or

(v) materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a  school. For the purposes of this section, bullying shall include cyberbullying.

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THE INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANIZATION (ILO) SAYS …

Workplace bullying is one of the fastest growing complaints of workplace violence. It constitutes offensive behaviour through vindictive, cruel, malicious or humiliating attempts to undermine an individual or groups of employees through such activities as:

  • Making life difficult for those who have the potential to do the bully’s job better than the bully;
  • Shouting at staff to get things done;
  • Insisting that the bully’s way of doing things is the only right way;
  • Refusing to delegate because the bully feels no one else can be trusted;
  • Punishing others by constant criticism or by removing their responsibilities for being too competent.

*ILO

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Bullying behaviors may include:

  • making life difficult for those who have the potential to do the bully’s job better than the bully;
  • punishing others for being too competent by constant criticism or by removing their responsibilities, often giving them trivial tasks to do instead;
  • refusing to delegate because bullies feel they can’t trust anyone else;
  • shouting at staff to get things done;
  • persistently picking on people in front of others or in private;
  • insisting that a way of doing things is always right;
  • keeping individuals in their place by blocking their promotion;
  • if someone challenges a bully’s authority, overloading them with work and reducing the deadlines, hoping that they will fail at what they do; and
  • feeling envious of another’s professional or social ability, so setting out to make them appear incompetent, or make their lives miserable, in the hope of getting them dismissed or making them resign.

*Duncan Chappell and Vittorio Di Martino, VIOLENCE AT WORK, International Labour Organization (2006)

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The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  •  Verbal abuse.
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors that are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating.
  • Work interference, i.e. sabotage, that prevents work from being done.

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PSYCHOLOGICAL TERROR

“Workplace bullying is traumatic because it is unexpected and always perceived as undeserved and unjustified (Keashly and Neuman, 2005). Abuse is not a requisite aspect of work duties, is unrelated to job demands, and is, consequently, perceived as unwarranted. The shock of being singled out for repeated abuse can be as traumatic as divorce or a loved one’s death (Mikkelsen and Einarsen, 2002) and can evoke levels of anxiety and psychological pain necessitating therapeutic help (Randall, 2001). What makes this experience especially corrosive is that it is ongoing, frequent, enduring, and escalatory—typically worsening over time. The trauma is also a function of the intensive fear and dread bullying creates. In fact, bullying and mobbing are often called ‘psychological terror’ (Leymann, 1996: 375).”

– Lutgen-Sandvik, P. (2006). Take this job and …: Quitting and other forms of resistance to workplace bullying. Communication Monographs, 73, 406-433.