NFL case opens window into widespread danger of workplace bullying

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Nevada, she noted, is the only U.S. state that has a law against workplace bullying — though only for schools. Nevada’s law states that neither adults nor students shall engage in bullying.

“The fact that they included adults in that piece is huge,” Ms. Mattice said.

In Massachusetts, 21,000 state employees had a collective bargaining agreement that addresses workplace bullying. Although the agreement has not been passed into law, the contract policy that government employees are protected from workplace bullying remains a step in the right direction.

Mr. Yamada said New York may prove a pioneer, with 79 state legislators signing on to a bill to curb workplace bullying.

Despite efforts to ban workplace bullying, the issue remains in a legal gray area. Although most states have enacted laws against employee harassment, the precise definition of a hostile work environment remains elusive.

Harassment, discrimination and hostile work environments are considered workplace bullying, but federal discrimination laws cover only “protected classes,” such as those based on race or gender.

“If your bully is an ‘equal-opportunity bully,’ then you have no legal recourse. Equal-opportunity bullying is legal,” Ms. Mattice said.

Likewise, workplace bullying can include nonviolent tactics such as taunting or social exclusion, which are not covered by the law.

Curbing lawsuits

For corporate managers and lawmakers alike, one problem has been how to curb bullying without encouraging lawsuits filed on frivolous or nebulous grounds. Critics fear that everyday workplace disputes and corporate power plays could explode into overblown lawsuits, thereby draining companies’ financial resources.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 37 percent of adult Americans say they have been bullied and 12 percent say they have witnessed instances of bullying, but codifying what they have experienced in an enforceable law or corporate policy is more difficult.

“But how do you define bullying?” Lori Armstrong Halber, a partner with Fisher & Phillips LLP, said in an interview posted on the Workplace Bullying Institute’s website. “In an effort to avoid litigation, employers would be mediating all sorts of employee interactions. They’d be hearing things like, ‘He was mean to me,’ and ‘She doesn’t like me.’”

Many victims of bullying in the workplace do not confront their abusers, much less report the abuse to their supervisors, for fear of being labeled “overly sensitive” or out of touch with workplace culture. A 2007 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that, out of 7,740 survey respondents, 40 percent never informed their employers about hostile work situations.

Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, said the tempest stirred up by the Miami Dolphins‘ hazing case could clear the way for more victims to come forward.

“It took extreme bravery for 6-foot 5-inch, 312-pound Jonathan Martin to file a complaint about an abusive work environment,” said Mr. Namie. “This encouraged all of the people outside of sports who are bullied in their workplace to know that being targeted has nothing to do with weakness. The Miami Dolphins did something that few employers ever do outside of sports. They suspended the alleged bully.”

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