Alleged Bullycide of Wisconsin Woman Prompts Bill

April 7, 2010

Amid emotional testimony, bill targets workplace bullying

By DEE J. HALL

In 2008, 31-year-old Jodie Zebell appeared to have a full life. The UW-Madison graduate was married with two young children and a part-time job as a mammographer at a La Crosse clinic, where she was praised as a model employee.

But soon afterward, Zebell became the target of co-workers who unfairly blamed her for problems at work. After she was promoted, the bullying intensified, her aunt Joie Bostwick recalled during a legislative hearing Wednesday attended by members of her niece’s family, including Zebell’s mother, Jean Jones of Spring Hill, Fla.

After her niece had a run-in with her supervisor, Bostwick said, the boss joined in the harassment, filling Zebell’s personnel file with baseless complaints about her performance and loudly criticizing her in front of others.

“This went on for a series of months,” said Bostwick, a Blue Mounds native who now lives in Naples, Fla. “It just got worse and worse.”

On Feb. 3, 2008, the day before she was to receive a poor job review, Jodie Zebell allegedly committed bullycide – took her own life as a result of depression over bullying. A Madison attorney told the family it had no legal recourse since she wasn’t protected from workplace discrimination as would be an older worker or a racial, ethnic or religious minority.

“We were astounded to find there was nothing we could do. There were no laws unless you were part of a protected class,” Bostwick said.

The tragedy sparked Zebell’s family to join a national movement seeking to ban bullying from workplaces and give victims — who prefer to call themselves “targets” — tools to stop the harassment or sue abusive employers and bullies in court.

Abusive conduct

On Wednesday, the Assembly Labor Committee heard 90 minutes of often emotional testimony on a bill sponsored by state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, that would require employers to implement and enforce anti-bullying policies — or face their abused employees in court.

Seventeen states are considering such legislation, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute of Bellingham, Wash., whose director, Gary Namie, also testified at the hearing.

Under the proposal, workers who believe they have been harmed by “abusive conduct” could sue to force the employer to stop the bullying, to seek reinstatement or to get compensation for lost wages, medical costs, attorneys’ fees, emotional distress and punitive damages.

The bill defines abusive conduct as “repeated infliction of verbal abuse, verbal or physical conduct that is threatening, intimidating or humiliating, sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance or exploitation of an employee’s known psychological or physical vulnerability.”

Vaguely worded bill

Representatives of business groups told the committee the bill is too vaguely worded and would invite frivolous lawsuits by disgruntled and incompetent workers.

“AB 894 paints a target on the back of small employers … (who) can’t afford to fight claims in circuit courts,” said Pete Hanson, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

Andrew Cook of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, a consortium of large business groups, agreed. Cook said if Wisconsin becomes the first state to pass such a bill, it would harm the state’s ability to attract business.

Emotional stories

But at the hearing, such concerns were largely overshadowed by these stories:

• A Spanish teacher testified she was “iced out and isolated” for four years by older colleagues in her school district. Once a marathon runner, Susan Stiede now suffers from clinical depression, chest pain, panic attacks and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She quit teaching in 2009.

• A nervous Stephanie Endres told of being harassed by a unnamed female boss in a state agency that she declined to name. Intimidated by Endres’ knowledge of the agency, the new supervisor circulated untrue rumors about her, Endres said, banished her to an office with no phone and separated her from her co-workers. When Endres took a six-month stress leave, the supervisor started bullying other members of the staff, she said.

• Dr. Deborah Lemke told lawmakers of an unnamed Wisconsin hospital where the nursing supervisor verbally bullied nurses on his staff. When she intervened on behalf of the nurses, Lemke said, holding back tears, she herself became a target.

Corliss Olson, associate professor at the UW-Extension’s School for Workers, said the bill is “desperately” needed.  Olson said most targets of bullying are “normal, competent people” who can be driven to disability or even death.  “This is a viciousness in the workplace that we need to stop,” Olson said. “We can and we must change our workplaces so they are civil.”

FROM: WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL

New York’s Healthy Workplace Bill (2010)

This bill was approved by the New York State Senate on May 12, 2010 by a vote of 45 to 16, with one abstention. It failed to gain passage in the House.  See the general blog entry about the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) to read an analysis of the problems with the HWB.  It’s needs work! PGB

S1823B: Establishes a civil cause of action for employees who are subjected to an abusive work environment

S1823B Summary Establishes a civil cause of action for employees who are subjected to an abusive work environment.

TITLE OF BILL : An act to amend the labor law, in relation to establishing a private cause of action for an abusive work environment

PURPOSE : To establish a civil cause of action for employees who are subject to an abusive work environment.

SUMMARY OF PROVISIONS : Clearly states the definitions of abusive conduct; abusive work environment; conduct; constructive discharge; employee; employer; malice; negative employment decision; physical harm; and psychological harm.

Section 3 defines Unlawful Employment Practice

Section 4 defines Employer Liability

Section 5 defines Defenses

Section 6 defines Retaliation

Section 7 defines Relief generally Employer liability

Section 8 defines Procedures Private right of action Time limitations

Section 9 defines Effect on Collective Bargaining Agreements

Section 10 defines Effect on other state laws other state laws Worker’s compensation and election remedies

JUSTIFICATION : The social and economic well-being of the state is dependent upon healthy and productive employees. Surveys and studies have documented that between 16 to 21 percent of employees directly experience health-endangering workplace bullying, abuse and harassment, and that this behavior is four times more prevalent than sexual harassment alone. Surveys and studies have also documented that abusive work environments can have serious effects on targeted employees, including feelings of shame and humiliation, stress, loss of sleep, severe anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, reduced immunity to infection, stress related gastrointestinal disorders, hypertension, pathophysiologic changes that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other such effects. This legislation will provide legal redress for employees who have been harmed, psychologically, physically, or economically. It will also provide legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to mistreatment of employees at work.
S1823B Text

S T A T E O F N E W Y O R K
1823–B
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, REPRESENTED IN SENATE AND ASSEM BLY, DO ENACT AS FOLLOWS:

Section 1. The labor law is amended by adding a new article 20-D to read as follows:
ARTICLE 20-D ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT SECTION 760. LEGISLATIVE FINDINGS AND INTENT. 761. DEFINITIONS. 762. ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT. 763. EMPLOYER LIABILITY. 764. DEFENSES. 765. RETALIATION. 766. REMEDIES. 767. ENFORCEMENT. 768. EFFECT ON COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENTS. 769. EFFECT OF OTHER LAWS.

S 760. LEGISLATIVE FINDINGS AND INTENT. THE LEGISLATURE HEREBY FINDS THAT THE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC WELL-BEING OF THE STATE IS DEPENDENT UPON HEALTHY AND PRODUCTIVE EMPLOYEES. SURVEYS AND STUDIES HAVE DOCUMENTED THAT BETWEEN SIXTEEN AND TWENTY-ONE PERCENT OF EMPLOYEES DIRECTLY EXPE RIENCE HEALTH ENDANGERING WORKPLACE BULLYING, ABUSE AND HARASSMENT. SUCH BEHAVIOR IS FOUR TIMES MORE PREVALENT THAN SEXUAL HARASSMENT. THESE EXPLANATION–Matter in ITALICS (underscored) is new; matter in brackets [ ] is old law to be omitted. LBD00743-04-0
S. 1823–B 2 SURVEYS AND STUDIES HAVE FURTHER FOUND THAT ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENTS CAN HAVE SERIOUS EFFECTS ON THE TARGETED EMPLOYEES, INCLUDING FEELINGS OF SHAME AND HUMILIATION, STRESS, LOSS OF SLEEP, SEVERE ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER, REDUCED IMMUNITY TO INFECTION, STRESS-RELATED GASTROINTESTINAL DISORDERS, HYPERTENSION, AND PATHOPHYSIOLOGIC CHANGES THAT INCREASE THE RISK OF CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASES. FURTHERMORE, THE LEGISLATURE FINDS THAT ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENTS CAN HAVE SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES FOR EMPLOYERS, INCLUDING REDUCED EMPLOYEE PRODUCTIVITY AND MORALE, HIGHER TURNOVER AND ABSENTEEISM RATES, AND SIGNIFICANT INCREASES IN MEDICAL AND WORKERS’ COMPENSATION CLAIMS. THE LEGISLATURE HEREBY FINDS THAT UNLESS MISTREATED EMPLOYEES HAVE BEEN SUBJECTED TO ABUSIVE TREATMENT IN THE WORKPLACE ON THE BASIS OF RACE, COLOR, SEX, NATIONAL ORIGIN OR AGE, SUCH EMPLOYEES ARE UNLIKELY TO HAVE LEGAL RECOURSE TO REDRESS SUCH TREATMENT. THE LEGISLATURE HEREBY DECLARES THAT LEGAL PROTECTION FROM ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENTS SHOULD NOT BE LIMITED TO BEHAVIOR GROUNDED IN A PROTECTED CLASS STATUS AS REQUIRED BY EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION STAT UTES. EXISTING WORKERS’ COMPENSATION PROVISIONS AND COMMON LAW TORT LAW ARE INADEQUATE TO DISCOURAGE SUCH ABUSIVE CONDUCT AND PROVIDE ADEQUATE REDRESS TO EMPLOYEES WHO HAVE BEEN HARMED BY ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENTS. THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE SHALL BE TO PROVIDE LEGAL REDRESS FOR EMPLOYEES WHO HAVE BEEN HARMED PSYCHOLOGICALLY, PHYSICALLY OR ECONOM ICALLY BY BEING DELIBERATELY SUBJECTED TO ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENTS; AND TO PROVIDE LEGAL INCENTIVES FOR EMPLOYERS TO PREVENT AND RESPOND TO MISTREATMENT OF EMPLOYEES AT WORK.

S 761. DEFINITIONS. AS USED IN THIS ARTICLE, THE FOLLOWING TERMS SHALL HAVE THE FOLLOWING MEANINGS:
1. “ABUSIVE CONDUCT” MEANS CONDUCT, WITH MALICE, TAKEN AGAINST AN EMPLOYEE BY AN EMPLOYER OR ANOTHER EMPLOYEE IN THE WORKPLACE, THAT A REASONABLE PERSON WOULD FIND TO BE HOSTILE, OFFENSIVE AND UNRELATED TO THE EMPLOYER’S LEGITIMATE BUSINESS INTERESTS. IN CONSIDERING WHETHER SUCH CONDUCT IS OCCURRING, THE TRIER OF FACT SHOULD WEIGH THE SEVERITY, NATURE AND FREQUENCY OF THE CONDUCT. ABUSIVE CONDUCT SHALL INCLUDE, BUT NOT BE LIMITED TO, REPEATED INFLICTION OF VERBAL ABUSE, SUCH AS THE USE OF DEROGATORY REMARKS, INSULTS AND EPITHETS; VERBAL OR PHYSICAL CONDUCT THAT A REASONABLE PERSON WOULD FIND THREATENING, INTIMIDATING OR HUMILI ATING; OR THE GRATUITOUS SABOTAGE OR UNDERMINING OF AN EMPLOYEE’S WORK PERFORMANCE. A SINGLE ACT SHALL NOT CONSTITUTE ABUSIVE CONDUCT, UNLESS THE TRIER OF FACT FINDS SUCH ACT TO BE ESPECIALLY SEVERE OR EGREGIOUS. 2. “ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT” MEANS A WORKPLACE IN WHICH AN EMPLOYEE IS SUBJECTED TO ABUSIVE CONDUCT THAT IS SO SEVERE THAT IT CAUSES PHYS ICAL OR PSYCHOLOGICAL HARM TO SUCH EMPLOYEE, AND WHERE SUCH EMPLOYEE PROVIDES NOTICE TO THE EMPLOYER THAT SUCH EMPLOYEE HAS BEEN SUBJECTED TO ABUSIVE CONDUCT AND SUCH EMPLOYER AFTER RECEIVING NOTICE THEREOF, FAILS TO ELIMINATE THE ABUSIVE CONDUCT. 3. “CONDUCT” MEANS ALL FORMS OF BEHAVIOR, INCLUDING ACTS AND OMISSIONS TO ACT. 4. “CONSTRUCTIVE DISCHARGE” MEANS ABUSIVE CONDUCT AGAINST AN EMPLOYEE THAT CAUSES SUCH EMPLOYEE TO RESIGN FROM HIS OR HER EMPLOYMENT. 5. “MALICE” MEANS THE INTENT TO CAUSE ANOTHER PERSON TO SUFFER PSYCHO LOGICAL, PHYSICAL OR ECONOMIC HARM, WITHOUT LEGITIMATE CAUSE OR JUSTI FICATION. MALICE MAY BE INFERRED FROM THE PRESENCE OF FACTORS SUCH AS OUTWARD EXPRESSIONS OF HOSTILITY, HARMFUL CONDUCT INCONSISTENT WITH AN EMPLOYER’S LEGITIMATE BUSINESS INTERESTS, A CONTINUATION OF HARMFUL AND ILLEGITIMATE CONDUCT AFTER A COMPLAINANT REQUESTS THAT IT CEASE OR S. 1823–B 3 DISPLAYS OUTWARD SIGNS OF EMOTIONAL OR PHYSICAL DISTRESS IN THE FACE OF THE CONDUCT, OR ATTEMPTS TO EXPLOIT THE COMPLAINANT’S KNOWN PSYCHOLOG ICAL OR PHYSICAL VULNERABILITY. 6. “NEGATIVE EMPLOYMENT DECISION” MEANS A TERMINATION, CONSTRUCTIVE DISCHARGE, DEMOTION, UNFAVORABLE REASSIGNMENT, REFUSAL TO PROMOTE OR DISCIPLINARY ACTION. 7. “PHYSICAL HARM” MEANS THE MATERIAL IMPAIRMENT OF A PERSON’S PHYS ICAL HEALTH OR BODILY INTEGRITY, AS DOCUMENTED BY A COMPETENT PHYSICIAN OR SUPPORTED BY COMPETENT EXPERT EVIDENCE AT TRIAL. 8. “PSYCHOLOGICAL HARM” MEANS THE MATERIAL IMPAIRMENT OF A PERSON’S MENTAL HEALTH, AS DOCUMENTED BY A COMPETENT PHYSICIAN OR SUPPORTED BY COMPETENT EXPERT EVIDENCE AT TRIAL.

S 762. ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT. IT SHALL BE UNLAWFUL TO SUBJECT AN EMPLOYEE TO AN ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT.

S 763. EMPLOYER LIABILITY. AN EMPLOYER SHALL BE CIVILLY LIABLE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF AN ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT WITHIN ANY WORKPLACE UNDER ITS CONTROL.

S 764. DEFENSES. 1. IT SHALL BE AN AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE TO A CAUSE OF ACTION FOR ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT, THAT THE EMPLOYER EXERCISED REASON ABLE CARE TO PREVENT AND PROMPTLY CORRECT THE ABUSIVE CONDUCT WHICH IS THE BASIS OF SUCH CAUSE OF ACTION AND THE PLAINTIFF UNREASONABLY FAILED TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE APPROPRIATE PREVENTIVE OR CORRECTIVE OPPORTU NITIES PROVIDED BY SUCH EMPLOYER. SUCH AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE SHALL NOT BE AVAILABLE TO AN EMPLOYER WHEN THE ABUSIVE CONDUCT CULMINATES IN A NEGA TIVE EMPLOYMENT DECISION WITH REGARD TO THE PLAINTIFF. 2. IT SHALL BE AN AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE TO A CAUSE OF ACTION FOR ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT, THAT THE EMPLOYER MADE A NEGATIVE EMPLOYMENT DECISION WITH REGARD TO THE PLAINTIFF WHICH IS CONSISTENT WITH SUCH EMPLOYER’S LEGITIMATE BUSINESS INTERESTS, SUCH AS TERMINATION OR DEMOTION BASED ON THE PLAINTIFF’S POOR PERFORMANCE OR THE COMPLAINT IS BASED PRIMARILY UPON THE EMPLOYER’S REASONABLE INVESTIGATION OF POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS, ILLEGAL OR UNETHICAL ACTIVITY.

S 765. RETALIATION. ANY RETALIATORY ACTION AGAINST ANY EMPLOYEE ALLEG ING A VIOLATION OF THIS ARTICLE SHALL BE DEEMED TO BE A RETALIATORY PERSONNEL ACTION AS PROHIBITED BY SECTION SEVEN HUNDRED FORTY OF THIS CHAPTER.

S 766. REMEDIES. 1. WHERE A DEFENDANT HAS BEEN FOUND TO HAVE ENGAGED IN ABUSIVE CONDUCT, OR CAUSED OR MAINTAINED AN ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT, THE COURT MAY ENJOIN SUCH DEFENDANT FROM ENGAGING IN SUCH ILLEGAL ACTIV ITY AND MAY ORDER ANY OTHER RELIEF THAT IS APPROPRIATE INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, REINSTATEMENT, REMOVAL OF THE OFFENDING PARTY FROM THE PLAINTIFF’S WORK ENVIRONMENT, REIMBURSEMENT FOR LOST WAGES, MEDICAL EXPENSES, COMPENSATION FOR EMOTIONAL DISTRESS, PUNITIVE DAMAGES AND ATTORNEY FEES. 2. WHERE AN EMPLOYER HAS BEEN FOUND TO HAVE CAUSED OR MAINTAINED AN ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT THAT DID NOT RESULT IN A NEGATIVE EMPLOYMENT DECISION, SUCH EMPLOYER’S LIABILITY FOR DAMAGES FOR EMOTIONAL DISTRESS SHALL NOT EXCEED TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS AND SHALL HAVE NO LIABIL ITY FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES. THE PROVISIONS OF THIS SUBDIVISION SHALL NOT APPLY TO ANY EMPLOYEE WHO ENGAGES IN ABUSIVE CONDUCT.

S 767. ENFORCEMENT. 1. THE PROVISIONS OF THIS ARTICLE ARE ENFORCEABLE BY MEANS OF A CIVIL CAUSE OF ACTION COMMENCED BY AN INJURED EMPLOYEE. 2. NOTWITHSTANDING THE PROVISIONS OF THE CIVIL PRACTICE LAW AND RULES, AN ACTION TO ENFORCE THE PROVISIONS OF THIS ARTICLE SHALL BE COMMENCED WITHIN ONE YEAR OF THE LAST ABUSIVE CONDUCT WHICH IS THE BASIS OF THE ALLEGATION OF ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT. S. 1823–B 4

S 768. EFFECT ON COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENTS. THIS ARTICLE SHALL NOT PREVENT, INTERFERE, EXEMPT OR SUPERSEDE ANY CURRENT PROVISIONS OF AN EMPLOYEE’S EXISTING COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT WHICH PROVIDES GREATER RIGHTS AND PROTECTIONS THAN PRESCRIBED IN THIS ARTICLE NOR SHALL THIS ARTICLE PREVENT ANY NEW PROVISIONS OF THE COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT WHICH PROVIDE GREATER RIGHTS AND PROTECTIONS FROM BEING IMPLE MENTED AND APPLICABLE TO SUCH EMPLOYEE WITHIN SUCH COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT. WHERE THE COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT PROVIDES GREATER RIGHTS AND PROTECTIONS THAN PRESCRIBED IN THIS ARTICLE, THE RECOGNIZED COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGENT MAY OPT TO ACCEPT OR REJECT TO BE COVERED BY THE PROVISIONS OF THIS ARTICLE.

S 769. EFFECT OF OTHER LAWS. 1. NO PROVISION OF THIS ARTICLE SHALL BE DEEMED TO EXEMPT ANY PERSON OR ENTITY FROM ANY LIABILITY, DUTY OR PENAL TY PROVIDED BY ANY OTHER STATE LAW, RULE OR REGULATION. 2. THE REMEDIES OF THIS ARTICLE SHALL BE GRANTED IN ADDITION TO ANY COMPENSATION AVAILABLE PURSUANT TO THE WORKERS’ COMPENSATION LAW; PROVIDED, HOWEVER, THAT NO PERSON WHO HAS COLLECTED WORKERS’ COMPEN SATION BENEFITS FOR CONDITIONS ARISING OUT OF AN ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRON MENT, SHALL BE AUTHORIZED TO COMMENCE A CAUSE OF ACTION PURSUANT TO THIS ARTICLE FOR THE SAME SUCH CONDITIONS.

S 2. This act shall take effect immediately, and shall apply to abusive conduct occurring on or after such date.

TOP 10 REASONS FOR BEING TARGETED

1. I remained independent, refused to be controlled. (70%)

2. My competence and reputation were threatening. (67%)

3. The Bully’s personality. (59%)

4. My being liked by co-workers and customers (47%)

5. In retaliation for my reporting unethical or illegal conduct, whistleblowing. (38%)

6. I was focused solely on work and ignored the politics. 36%)

7. Bully had personal problems. (35%)

8. I am nonconfrontative and easily overrun by others. (33%)

9. I was at a time of personal medical or life vulnerability or changes. (30%)

10. I could not afford to leave the job and the bully knew it. (30%)

* From Workplace Bullying Institute (2003)(non-scientific survey of 1,000 volunteer respondents who visited WBI’s web site).

TIME MAG: NEW LAWS TARGET WORKPLACE BULLYING

Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2010


TIME MAGAZINE

Case Study

New Laws Target Workplace Bullying

By Adam Cohen
There are some very important things they don’t tell you on career day. Chief among them is that there is a good chance that at some point during your working adult life you will have an abusive boss — the kind who uses his or her authority to torment subordinates. Bullying bosses scream, often with the goal of humiliating. They write up false evaluations to put good workers’ jobs at risk. Some are serial bullies, targeting one worker and, when he or she is gone, moving on to their next victim.

Bosses may abuse because they have impossibly high standards, are insecure or have not been properly socialized. But some simply enjoy it. Recent brain-scan research has shown that bullies are wired differently. When they see a victim in pain, it triggers parts of their brain associated with pleasure. (See 10 ways your job will change.)

Worker abuse is a widespread problem — in a 2007 Zogby poll, 37% of American adults said they had been bullied at work — and most of it is perfectly legal. Workers who are abused based on their membership in a protected class — race, nationality or religion, among others — can sue under civil rights laws. But the law generally does not protect against plain old viciousness.

That may be about to change. Workers’ rights advocates have been campaigning for years to get states to enact laws against workplace bullying, and in May they scored their biggest victory. The New York state senate passed a bill that would let workers sue for physical, psychological or economic harm due to abusive treatment on the job. If New York’s Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law, workers who can show that they were subjected to hostile conduct — including verbal abuse, threats or work sabotage — could be awarded lost wages, medical expenses, compensation for emotional distress and punitive damages.

Not surprisingly, many employers oppose the bill. They argue that it would lead to frivolous lawsuits and put them at risk for nothing more than running a tight ship and expecting a lot from their workers. But supporters of the law point out that it is crafted to cover only the most offensive and deliberate abuse. The bill requires that wrongful conduct be done with “malice,” and in most cases that it has to be repeated. It also provides affirmative defenses for companies that investigate promptly and address the problem in good faith. (See “When Bullying Goes Criminal.”)

The New York state assembly is expected to take up the bill next year. At least 16 other states are considering similar bills, and some employment-law experts think antibullying legislation may have real momentum now.

Legislatures are not the only ones standing up to bullies. In 2008, the Indiana supreme court struck a blow against workplace bullying when it upheld a $325,000 verdict against a cardiovascular surgeon. A medical technician who operated a heart and lung machine during surgery accused the surgeon of charging at him with clenched fists, screaming and swearing. The formal legal claims were intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault, but the plaintiff argued it as a bullying case, and had an expert on workplace bullying testify at trial.

Ideally, employers should rein in abusive bosses on their own, but that rarely happens. Many bullies are close to powerful people in the organization and carefully target less powerful ones. When John Bolton was nominated to be ambassador to the U.N. by President George W. Bush, a former subordinate told the Senate that Bolton was a “serial abuser” and — in a phrase that has since entered the bullying lexicon — a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.” (See “How Not to Raise a Bully.”)

There are reasons workplace bullying may be getting worse now, including the bad economy. In good times, abused workers can simply walk out on a job if they are being mistreated. But with unemployment at around 9.5%, and five job seekers for every available job, many employees feel they have no choice but to stay put.

Another factor is the decline of organized labor. Unions were once a worker’s front-line defense against an abusive boss. If a supervisor was out of line, the shop steward would talk to him — on behalf of all of the workers. But union membership has fallen from 35% of the workforce in the 1950s to under 13% today, and some unions are less aggressive than they once were. (See what to do if you have a bad boss.)

That leaves litigation. There seems to be a strong constituency for laws allowing workers to sue over workplace abuse. The vote on the Healthy Workplace Bill was bipartisan and not close: New York state senators favored it 45 to 16.

If states enact laws of this kind and lawsuits begin to be filed, juries are far more likely to sympathize with the bullied worker than the bullying boss — and damages awards could be large. There is one easy way for employers to head all of this off: get more serious about rooting out abusive bosses before serious damage is done.

Cohen, a lawyer, is a former TIME writer and a former member of the New York Times editorial board
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2005358,00.html#ixzz11RYkRH00