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Should Workplace Bullying Be Illegal?

Resources for combating workplace bullying.

I'm certainly not a lawyer, and I am not a recognized expert on bullying, but I do know about leadership and best organizational practices. As an I/O psychologist, I'm also aware of legal issues in the workplace and how they impact the practice of organizational psychology. So, it is often puzzling how legislation works, but it is clear that the development of laws and regulations is often a haphazard process.

Take workplace bullying. It constitutes a form of harassment, but bullying itself is not illegal. However, it is illegal to harass or discriminate against someone who is in a protected group (i.e., harassment based on sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin, or religion). The problem is that bullying behavior often "flies under the radar screen" and often does not get defined as "harassment."

Here are some differences between harassment and bullying. You will see that the bully is often able to keep the bullying from rising up to the harassment level - to keep from getting caught and punished.

• Harassment is often physical (e.g., unwanted touching, use of force) while bullying is psychological and verbal (often not using cursing or obscene language, which would then cross the threshold into harassment).

• Bullying targets anyone, so many victims are not members of protected groups, or the bully and victim are from the same group.

• Harassment is often obvious and focused on the victim's group membership. Bullying is typically more subtle and begins as mild criticism and then escalates or persists.

Bullying results from the inadequacies of the bully. Typically, bullies choose targets who threaten the bully's self-image, so targets are often highly competent, accomplished, popular employees. This actually makes it harder for the victim to get authorities to take notice ("You are a successful worker, I don't see what the problem is...").

There is some good news! To date, 20 states are exploring legislation that would put bullying on the legal radar screen. Much of this legislation is focused on creating healthier - both physically and psychologically - workplaces. In the meantime, it is important to educate people about workplace bullying and to fight back.

Here are some resources:…

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