Still Far From a National Workplace Bullying Solution

It is an interesting phenomenon that workplace bullying advocates seem to have a hard time working together.

In fact, they don’t, which is one reason why after so many years there is no national solution on the horizon to the problem of workplace bullying.

The Workplace Bullying Institute, chaired by Gary Namie, has been touting a law written by Suffolk University Professor David Yamada since 2002. The so-called Healthy Workplace Bill  (HWB) has been considered by more than 20 states but it has only been passed, in small part, by Tennessee. Unfortunately, Tennessee’s version of the HWB was so unfortunate  that it was promptly disowned by Namie.

Even if the HWB was passed by some states in an unaltered form, it is almost inconceivable that it would be adopted by competitive, pro-business states where workers are the most vulnerable to abuse. And some say it is fortunate that the HWB has fared so poorly, because it offers scant real protection to targets of workplace bullying, especially when compared to anti-workplace bullying laws and legislation passed in other countries.

Nevertheless, the Workplace Bullying Institute has succeeded in bringing attention to the problem of workplace bullying through its state-by-state campaign.

I was part of the formation of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition (NWBC) a couple of years ago.  Some of the group’s members had been put off by Namie, a seemingly gruff and territorial man who has been called a bully himself by a competitor.  Despite this, the NWBC reached out to Namie and Yamada with no success.

From my perspective, it is unfortunate that the NWBC finally settled on a vague mission statement to “work with legislatures at the local, state and federal levels to refine the definition of workplace bullying and implement laws to protect workers’ rights to dignity at work.”  That’s a type of frustrating all things to all people approach that reminds me of the “I’d like to buy the world a coke” commercial for world peace.

Yet, the NWBC has made progress by encouraging the EEOC to study the issue of general workplace harassment. One of the NWBC board members, Professor Jerry Carbo, is a member of an EEOC Select Task Force recently formed by EEOC Commissioner Jenny Yang. The group is expected to issue a report that sheds insight into and offers suggestions to address workplace bullying.  This is an important step.

My area of focus is and always was to achieve a national solution to the problem of workplace bullying.  I believe the answer lies in a combination of health and safety regulations enforced by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and in a federal law that protects all workers from a hostile workplace environment. I advocated a national solution when I wrote my book, Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace and I still believe it is the only realistic way to protect American workers.

For years, I have received emails every week from good, hard-working Americans who are being viciously bullied on the job and who are suffering severe mental and physical distress. Workplace bullying is a widely acknowledged form of workplace violence. Other industrialized countries took steps years ago – in some cases decades –  to address the problem of workplace bullying. And yet workers in the United States, who have lost so much in recent years, still have virtually no protection, especially if they are poor or middle class.

Maybe it is naive to think we could be more effective if we worked together to demand a national solution? But workers need a real solution and they need it today, not in the distant future.

Hollow Victory of Anti-Bully Law

The recent controversy over the passage of an anti-bully law in Tennessee provides more evidence that a national solution is the only viable way to combat the epidemic of workplace bullying in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported upon the lack of enthusiasm for a new law passed by Tennessee’s legislature last May to protect public sector employees from workplace abuse. The upshot of the story was that the law actually provides little or no protection to public sector workers who are targets of bullying and workplace abuse.

Tennessee’s  “Healthy Workplace Act” calls for an advisory commission to create a model anti-bully policy for public sector workers by March 1, 2015.  The law states that if a public sector employer adopts the model policy or an equivalent anti-bully policy  “then the employer shall be immune from suit for any employee’s abusive conduct that results in negligent or intentional infliction of mental anguish.” Thus, if administrators  simply adopt a policy –  even if it is never enforced –  they will receive legal immunity from potential lawsuits.

Not only does the Tennessee law do little to protect workers, it potentially could make things worse by preventing targets of workplace abuse from seeking damages for emotional distress while removing what many consider to be the only real  incentive for employers to maintain a healthy workplace – the threat of a lawsuit.

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Workplace Bully Targets Suffer Without Law

New Jersey – Kevin M. Costello,  a New Jersey attorney, said he turns away more than 2,000 people a year who are seeking his help to combat workplace bullying.

“These are people who have panic attacks.  Their hair is falling out.  They are throwing up blood … They ask, ‘Why can’t you help me?’ ‘Why isn’t there a law?” said Costello, who spoke at the first conference of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition at Rutgers School of Law earlier this month. “I can’t stand saying ‘no’ to that many people,” said Costello.

Costello is assisting New Jersey State Sen. Linda Greenstein,  assistant majority leader of the NJ Senate,  in crafting a proposed state law to address workplace bullying.

Sen. Greenstein said the bill will help targets who are under “extreme stress. What we’re looking for here is not your everyday not-so-pleasant workplace … We’re looking for very serious situations.”

Costello, who specializes in employment rights, said there are no viable options at present for victims of workplace bullying, especially those who do not fall within a protected class under state or federal anti-discrimination laws (i.e., race, sex, religion, color, national origin).

Critics of workplace bullying legislation often argue that such legislation will add to the cost of doing business in New Jersey, make the state  less competitive and  ultimately would harm the state’s economy.  Costello said the same concerns were raised in the past and were unfounded.

“Why should we do something about child labor? The economy would suffer if we didn’t hire children … Why should we pay women the same amount as men? They have husbands … What do you mean Occupational Safety and Health Act?  I want to make sure the economy doesn’t suffer,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is a bill whose time has come.”

More than 100 attorneys, union officials, policy makers and targets of workplace bullying attended the April 4 conference of the NWBC,  the first national organization formed to address the problem of workplace bullying.

Meanwhile, 27 percent of U.S. workers are either experiencing abusive conduct at work or did so in the past, and 21 percent have witnessed it, according to a 2014 national survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute.  The survey also found that almost three-quarters of employers have done nothing to curb workplace bullying.  An estimated  93 percent of  respondents in a national survey said they support enactment of legislation to protect employees from abusive conduct at work.

* Disclaimer:  I am a co-founder and member of the NWBC.

Another Defeat for Healthy Workplace Bill

TIME FOR A NEW APPROACH

The decade-long strategy of adopting state-by-state legislation to deal with workplace bullying in the United States has suffered yet another defeat.

The Maine House of Representatives recently voted 87-56 to sustain Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill aimed at bullying in the workplace that had been adopted by Maine’s legislature.

 The bill, which was supported by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), directed the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board to study psychological and physical harm employees suffer due to abusive work environments. 

 In his veto message, the governor said the study was unnecessary because the Workers’ Compensation Board already provides benefits to employees who suffer physical and psychological injuries on the job.

 Maine was the 24th state to consider some version of the WBI’s proposed  Healthy Workplace Bill  but no state has yet to adopt it.

 This blog advocates a federal and national solution to the problem of workplace bullying, which affects one in every three or four workers in the United States. So far about 8,000 targets of workplace bullying have signed a petition demanding action from the Obama Administration.

 Ruth and Gary Namie, founders of the WBI, have led  a decade-long campaign to pass proposed legislation called The Healthy Workplace Bill.

 Drafted by Suffolk University Law Professor David Yamada, the bill was overhauled earlier this year after criticism by workplace anti-bully advocates that it offered far less protection to targets of workplace bullying than similar legislation in other countries.  

The Namies, who aggressively market consulting services and book sales on the WBI web site,  and Mr. Yamada, who formed an organization called The New Workplace Institute, have not cooperated with other workplace anti-bully advocates who formed a coalition last year (Protect US Workers) to  support a federal solution to workplace bullying.

America lags far behind Europe, Canada, Australia and many other industrialized countries in protecting workers from bullying, which is widely considered to be a health-harming form of workplace violence..