Growing up, we learn early on that there is something about human nature that tends to result in the existence of bullies. The bullied, and those looking on who may quite easily slip into one of those two camps by some change in circumstances. However, most recognize that bullies tend to create an unwelcome and hostile environment in an organization and thus they endeavor to eliminate bully behavior. Schools frequently do this by engaging in anti-bullying campaigns, utilizing various strategies to try and create a culture of respect. But what about workplaces? And, while bullying can get you in trouble in school, does it get you in trouble in the workplace? Is it illegal? The answer, like any good lawyer would tell you, is that it depends.
Does it get you in trouble in the workplace?
It is important to understand that bullying, or allowing bullying-type behavior in the workplace, has a price. Studies have shown that employees who experience uncivil behavior at work have a great tendency to respond negatively. The responses range from an intentional decrease in work effort, to loss of commitment to the organization. Creativity tends to suffer, and performance and team spirit deteriorate. Moreover, customers who witness rude behavior between employees, or who experience rudeness from an employee, tend to generalize that behavior with the company as a whole. In short, disrespectful behavior makes people uncomfortable. Thus, when there is disrespectful, uncivil, bully behavior, customers are quick to walk out without making purchases. Employees are quick to retaliate in passive-aggressive ways, giving less effort, decreasing the quality of their work, and some even take out their frustration on customers.
With that understood, whether a supervisor, employer, or employee may “get in trouble” for bullying, or, in other words, may be held accountable for their bullying behaviors, all depends on the leaders of the business or organization. If nothing is done, any policies that an employer may have in place that prohibit bullying will be meaningless.
So, the answer of whether individuals should be held accountable is emphatically, yes. An employer should take action, and a person should “get in trouble” for bully-type, uncivil behavior in the workplace! By doing so, an employer takes steps to increase the productivity and well-being of their employees. The employer will also make important steps to ensure a positive customer experience, and will develop greater customer loyalty. Therefore, it is in an employer’s best interests to treat employees civilly. Ensure that there is a general policy and culture of professional and civil conduct within the business organization.
Is it illegal?
The law recognizes that it is not uncommon to have “run-of-the-mill boorish, juvenile, or annoying behavior” in the workplace, and that without more, this behavior does not rise to the level of illegal “discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” This recognizes the United States Supreme Court statement in 1998 that Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on protected classifications, does not create a “general civility code” for the work environment.
This is where the lawyer’s “it depends” answer really comes into play. Can bullying and incivility constitute illegal discrimination that creates a hostile environment? Absolutely. However, these actions must be connected to a protected class or protected conduct, and must be severe or pervasive.
Title VII requirements – Hostile Work Environment
For an employee to bring a discrimination claim under Title VII based on a hostile environment, alleging that someone is mistreating them in such a way that they should be liable for damages, they must show that,
(1) they are a member of a protected group,
(2) they experienced unwelcome harassment,
(3) the harassment was based on a protected classification under Title VII (race, sex, age, nationality, ethnicity), and that
(4) the harassment altered a term, condition, or privilege of their employment, because it was so severe or pervasive.
What this means is that, whether bullying and incivility rise to the level of illegal behavior depends on the circumstances, particularly with regard to the employee. Although not good business, bullying that is not based on a protected class or protected conduct (i.e., making a report of harassment) is entirely lawful.
Illegal or Uncivil?
A variety of behaviors are not illegal but can be considered boorish, juvenile, annoying, uncivil, or the like. Behaviors could include a supervisor who screams at subordinates, employees leaving out other employees, employees speaking condescendingly to each other, or conduct that is simply unpleasant, nasty, and unprofessional. For example, sometimes people will call an attorney and explain that they quit their job because their new boss was a jerk. Unfortunately, there’s no law that protects employees from working for somebody who is a jerk.
With that said, hopefully it is clear that, although there are instances wherein the circumstances were such that there was not a basis for the conduct being illegal under Title VII, the facts could very easily be different. If there is someone in your business that goes unchecked in their conduct towards others, and engages in bullying behavior towards their coworkers or subordinates, it is quite likely that they will eventually cross the line in doing so based on a protected classification in a way that is serious or pervasive enough to result in a legal claim against your business.
When treated poorly at work, employees file lawsuits against their employers. A lawsuit against your business amounts to time, money, stress, and potential embarrassment and bad press. A culture of bullying and unprofessionalism is a culture ripe for litigation.
Workplace violence is the result of bullying and incivility. This could result in liability for negligence and other tort claims against you, the employer.
What You Can Do
While you cannot control other people and what they do, you are in control of how you run your business. A school cannot guarantee that there will never be any bullying. However, its leaders can implement policies to enforce a culture of civility, and then hold students accountable who violate policies. Similarly, a business owner can implement a code of workplace conduct, and then hold people accountable to it. You want to create a safe work environment. And, while all bullying may not be illegal behavior, it should certainly be against your rules of workplace conduct.
A great next step would be to ensure that your employee handbook includes clear policies against bullying, and a code of conduct that encourages professionalism and civility in the workplace.