A court recently fined one company $325,000. Why? For having an extreme jerk in the office.
The so-called “workplace bullying” case passed through several courts before the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the jury award last month. Here’s what happened:
An employee claimed he was severely harassed by a supervisor. In the most extreme instance, the supervisor allegedly advanced toward him, yelling and swearing, “with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face and popping veins.”
He sued for assault and won $325k. (Cite: Raess v. Doescher).
Against the law?
In other cases where the bullying was less severe, companies have come out on top.
Why? Because bullying isn’t against the law, unless its related to someone’s race, sex, age or disability (or it’s threatening enough to be considered assault, like in the case above). As long as you treat everyone like crap, it’s perfectly legal — but maybe not for long.
So far, anti-bullying bills have been introduced into 13 state legislatures, and some groups are pushing for a federal law. None have passed yet, but it’s a scary possibility for employers.
For example, a bill in New Jersey was shot down last year but will likely be introduced again. With its broadly defined definition of bullying, it would allow companies to be sued for:
- “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 humiliating,” and
- “Gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.”
Policies and training
What should HR do? Even though companies can’t get sued for bullying at this point, it still causes damage in the form of turnover, lost productivity, absenteeism, etc.
That’s why a lot of companies are updating their policies on appropriate leadership and making sure supervisors are trained on the issue. Some things to look out for:
- insulting or offensive language
- making frequent jokes at someone’s expense, and
- behavior that humiliates or intimidates.
Most importantly, managers need to understand that the old hard-nosed style doesn’t cut it with today’s workforce. The possibility of getting sued is just an added reason to be careful.