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Welcome to the 18th Century

Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace and United States Laws

Since my last blog post I have been to two recent conferences which were quite an eye-opener. The first conference was Workplace Bullying: Seeking Solutions, which was held at the Rutgers Law Center in Newark, New Jersey on April 4, 2014 and was sponsored by the National Workplace Bullying Coalition. The second conference was the 11th Annual Conference of the European Association of Occupational Health Psychology (EAOHP),which took place in London from April 14 to April 16th, where I presented a paper on differentiation and work stress and work satisfaction. This research was based on a study that Dr. Neil Lavender and I did (along with Callandra Peters and Nadya Hamdan) looking at how enmeshment with one’s job correlated with higher levels of stress and lower work satisfaction. There were several presentations on workplace bullying at the EAOHP conference.

What I learned at both conferences was how far behind the United States is when it comes to having effective workplace laws pertaining to bullying and harassment. Many European countries have had effective laws in place for decades and the results have been positive in terms of promoting civility in the workplace. I must say, I was shocked to hear that the United States lacks any laws in this area. Granted the U.S. does have what were referred to as LAD laws (Laws Against Discrimination) which provides legal recourse to those employees who are discriminated against (in hiring, promotions, pay etc) on the basis of gender, religion, race, ethnicity and age. In spite of these laws we know that abuses still occur as evidenced by the pay differential where men earn consistently more than women for the same work. Currently New Jersey State Senator Linda Greenstein has proposed anti-bullying legislation which would be the first of its kind in New Jersey and the first of its kind nationally. Although such a law is long overdue and would help to bring New Jersey into the 21st century and in line with European countries who have had such legislation in place for some time now there have been major roadblocks in getting this legislation passed. When asked who opposes such laws, Greenstein replied that the push back is coming from corporations who fear they will be open to litigation from employees who claim to have been bullied, harassed or victims of a hostile workplace environment. This may be true or the other impact of this law is that it may force corporations and organizations to watch how they treat their employees and to curb abuses of power at the hands of unscrupulous bosses and supervisors. One of the presentations at the EAOHP conference was from a researcher from Denmark who described a program in which corporations (regardless of size) are surveyed annually to ascertain how employees are being treated by their bosses or supervisors. If there are indications that this might be an “at risk” corporation or small company, a team is sent out to work with the staff and the administrators to come up with a more cooperative workplace environment. After attending the conference at the Rutgers Law Center, I couldn’t even imagine that such a program would ever be adopted here in the United States. Especially when we can’t even get anti-bullying legislation passed in the state legislatures.

I’m not saying that all corporations or organization are inherently evil. Consider those corporations and organizations that do right by their employees by treating workers fairly and even going out of their way to create a healthy workplace. However, I can’t help but remember Lord Acton’s warning that “absolute power, corrupts absolutely”. Traditionally, when we’ve seen abuses in the workplace it’s usually been in situations where supervisors have unbridled power over those that work under them and the culture of the organization is one of “put up and shut up…or else”. Along these lines, are we surprised that there have been so many cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military? The military is a good example whereby the power structures is such that subordinates are indoctrinated to respect authority and to respect the chain of command. This structure works in combat and in being able to complete missions, however it doesn’t work well when it comes to abuses such as sexual harassment which is why several military branches are trying to address these issues by way of having trained victim advocates.

In spite of the lack of effective anti-bullying legislation, there were some legal options that were mentioned at the Rutgers conference. Worker’s compensation courts and civil court were two measures that might be taken however, one of the attorneys who presented at the Rutgers conference remarked that even when a case seems very clear cut, his firm turns away many more cases than it takes on because of the financial costs to take a case to civil court (once again we learn that justice is the United States if fine for those who can afford it). It was implied that once legislation is passed such as Senator Greenstein’s law, it will make it easier and less costly to pursue a legal remedy to bullying and harassment. So until such legislation is forthcoming, welcome to the 18th century… seems like employees in the United States have about as much rights as Bob Cratchett and Oliver Twist.

Recommended Reading:

Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees and Psychopaths in the Workplace by Patricia G. Barnes, J.D. (2012)

To purchase the book and for other information on legal rights and remedies go to Patricia Barnes’ website at:

Toxic Coworkers by A. Cavaiola and N. Lavender (2000)

More from Alan A. Cavaiola Ph.D.
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