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Strata Performance Solutions

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March 9th, 2014 by Robert Ringstrom

Are hostile workplaces illegal?  Should they be?    Court HouseIt depends; laws at the state and federal level don’t prohibit Workplace Bullying, as long as it does not constitute discrimination or certain types of harassment.  A few months ago, many of us were surprised that this could happen within the rugged, almost cult-world of the NFL between Richie Incognito and Jonathon Martin. Even more recently on Thursday February 6th, Tennessee became the 26th State to take action against workplace bullying with its introduction of HB 1981, the Healthy Workplace Bill.  And in Vermont, anti-bullying advocate Sherill Gilbert is keeping the pressure on her state legislature, stating; “I’d love to see Vermont become the first state with a law against Workplace Bullying.”  She chided further; “It’s the only legalized abuse in the United States!”

So should Workplace Bullying be addressed as a civil matter or as a crime?  Crimes of violence or property against someone is distinctly different than a civil violation.  At the federal level, the proposed U.S. Healthy Workplace Bill is a civil instrument to allow employees to sue their employers for allowing an “abusive workplace environment”.  The content of the bill is very similar to existing state civil laws.  The state bills have actually been quite effective by including Workplace Bullying behavior as elements of a “hostile work environment” with claims of discrimination and harassment.  In 2007, the top (8) discrimination and harrassement financial settlements to date were estimated at nearly $900M!

The civil process tends to be more amenable to addressing Workplace Bullys than the criminal route does.  A civil claim requires reasonable evidence to show that the defendant’s actions caused harm to the injured party. To prove a crime, the prosecution must prove that the actions have a direct result on the safety and peace of society as a whole.  While some may suggest that the Workplace Bully’s behavior adversely affects the culture of the entire organization. But it would be a challenge to say that all of the personalities would respond like the victim did.  Some individuals simply are not easily intimidated or bothered by bullies.

Criminal charges, even at the base level, can be difficult and time-consuming to prove.  The penalties are often negotiated or mitigated in an effort to allow the violator the opportunity to avoid punishment and to learn from his or her mistake.  Think of it this way; sentencing guidelines are in place to ensure that fair and equal punishment is afforded without a bias to the defendant; in essence so that he or she is not bullied!

An interesting survey of workers has 65% blaming leadership for workplace incivility, 59% say it’s the employees, and 46% point to the economy.  That may seem unfair then to leadership because when a civil suit assigns blame, that’s where it falls; on the leaders!  I would offer some possible explanations to the workers’ view of balancing the blame as they did in the survey:

A civil action may be the ultimate recourse, but Workplace Bullying must be addressed by organizational leadership; the first line of defense.  It must be intercepted by management at the first indication of a problem.  Very clearly articulated behavior policies and administrative actions must be in place and published to all staff members. Training and coaching must be a part of the organizational culture.  A corporate entity is responsible for its product and for its people.  The quality of each should be ideally bound together as an ideal success formula, in the determined pursuit of an emotionally stable workplace.

Conclusion of Three Part Series

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