Why Workplace Bullying Should Be Legal

Last Updated Mar 23, 2011 9:09 AM EDT

Bullying at work is a real problem. Bosses bully, coworkers bully, and though I'd deny it unless under oath (or perhaps with the offer of a donut), even HR can and does bully employees. All of us (except the actual bullies) agree that this should stop. And the best way to eliminate bullying is to pass a law prohibiting it.

That's worked so well with sexual harassment, hasn't it?

Anti bullying legislation has been under consideration in several states since California first introduced a proposal in 2003. None has passed such legislation, but, the Los Angeles Times reports, New York is likely to make bullying illegal this year. Maryland is holding hearings and other states are considering proposals.

This is all noble and good and completely the wrong thing to do. Here are 5 reasons why.
  1. It will be even harder to find new jobs. Bullying is a big problem, but unemployment is an even bigger one. Anytime you give employees additional protections, you place restrictions on hiring. If companies have to jump through hoops and defend against charges of bullying in order to fire someone, that makes companies more hesitant to bring a new person on board. Since almost every person who has been fired for poor performance feels like their boss is being mean, i.e. bullying, that means companies will be less likely to hire if they can avoid doing so. Restrictions on firing=restriction on hiring. If you're being bullied, one of the best solutions is to get out. But, if there are no new jobs to go to, getting out can be close to impossible, making a bad situation worse. I want it to be easy to find new jobs, which means it has to be easy for companies to fire people who aren't working out, for whatever reason.
  2. Legislation will not solve the problem. Schools have, effectively, made bullying illegal, yet it continues. Bullies are masters at flying under the radar and doing things that leave no evidence. Companies already have policies prohibiting such behavior and yet it still goes on. A law won't make a bully stop and say, "Gee, I was going to torment my coworker, but since the new law is in place, I shan't!"
  3. Bullying is impossible to define clearly. We run into this problem already with sexual harassment. Bob says to me, "Hey, I really like your dress." I respond, "Thanks! Me too!" and go about my work. But, if Bob says the exact same thing to Heather, she might say, "You pervert! Why are you looking at my dress! You should value me for my brains not for my body!" Now let's say bullying is illegal. Bob says to me, "Hey, if you miss your deadline again, I'm going to have to write you up." Now, this is a reasonable thing to say if Bob is my boss. But Heather, who has no sense, gets told the same thing and she feels like Bob is bullying her. If bullying is illegal and Heather reports it, Human Resources must investigate. If Heather isn't satisfied by the outcome then she reports it to the relevant government agency and they'll investigate. All of this will cost money and, in the meantime Heather is still missing deadlines and Bob is powerless.
  4. Managers need to manage. Good managers set clearly defined goals with clearly defined consequences. Consequences aren't always pleasant. If they are afraid of being arrested or fined or fired for setting negative consequences and then following through, their management tool belt has just been weakened. Managers should not bully (and should be fired if they do), but they need to be able to manage without the government looking over their shoulders.
  5. Protection against bullying also protects the bully. I often tell people to document, document, document. I won't stop saying that. But couldn't the act of documenting someone else's behavior be seen as bullying as well? I mean, gee, I can't blow my nose without Bill writing it down! He's out to get me and is acting as a bully.
Bullying in the workplace should not be tolerated, but the companies should have the freedom to decide what that means. Employees should have the freedom to move from one workplace to another if they don't like how their boss, coworker or HR is behaving at their current company. We already have so much employment legislation on the books that HR people almost need to be lawyers in order to understand what they can and cannot do.

If you want a bully free workplace, legislatures should
  1. Focus on economic growth. If I can find a new job in a week and a half, then I don't have to put up with a bad boss or coworker. If a manager has significantly higher turnover than her peers, the company will note it and take care of the problem internally.
  2. Enforce the laws already on the books. Sexual harassment is already illegal, as is discrimination based on race, gender, age and national origin. Bullies tend to use those criteria in their bullying as well. (For instance, making fun of someone because of an accent.)
  3. Let companies make their own hiring/firing decisions. Things will never be perfectly fair. But, companies want to operate at a profit and they can do so by employing the best employees and terminating the worst. Bullies can bring temporary gains to the workplace, but can seldom produce long term profitability. (Productivity goes down if work is unpleasant.) Remember that an employee accused of bullying will turn around and say he is being bullied by the accuser. Don't turn this decision over to the courts. That's expensive for all of us.
And if your boss tells you to get back to work, that's managing, not bullying.

For further reading:
Photo by Jonny Goldstein, Flickr cc 2.0

Comments

Market Data

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Market News

Stock Watchlist