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Workplace Bullying Protections Differ Globally

In the United States, workplace bullying has been found to be four times more prevalent than sexual harassment. Yet despite these findings, an employee can still be a target of bullying in the workplace in the United States and have no legal recourse as state and federal laws generally do not cover acts of bullying. Healthy workplace bills have been introduced to make repeated, severe and pervasive behavior directed toward a worker illegal, with 23 bills presently active in 15 states as of June 2014.

The costs of workplace bullying include time and lost production due to factors which include employees’ preoccupation with negative circumstances, and resulting costs to the company’s overhead, loss of skill and experience when a worker leaves due to being bullied, lowered employee morale, medical and insurance costs, and harm to a company’s reputation. For employees, the personal toll includes anger, feelings of frustration and helplessness, as well as numerous physical symptoms.

Lesser known, though, are the following discoveries:

  • Research has found that workplace bullying, an internal occurrence undertaken by managers and/or co-workers, leads to more workers leaving their job than violence, which is typically inflicted by sources external to a company.
  • Research has also found that workers who witness bullying can have a stronger urge to quit than those who experience it firsthand. In addition, findings from a July 2012 study of nurses in Canada showed that all who experienced bullying, either directly or indirectly, reported a greater desire to quit their jobs than those who did not.

Global Outlook on Workplace Bullying

The legal picture looks different in other parts of the world. Under workplace health and safety legislation, employers in most countries have a duty of care to provide a safe work environment for employees. This requirement is increasingly interpreted to require ensuring employees are both mentally and physically safe and that their health is not adversely affected, and has also been interpreted to require a workplace free from bullying.

Whether referred to as moral harassment, psychological violence or mobbing, many European countries have enacted laws prohibiting this conduct in the workplace, including Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia and Sweden. Finland’s Occupational Health and Safety Act covers physical and psychological violence, including threats of violence, harassment and bullying. Norway’s Working Environment Act states that efforts to combat bullying are to be part of the systematic health and safety program in the workplace. France’s Labour Code imposes an obligation on employers to prevent psychological harassment. Companies may be held liable for acts of moral harassment committed against their employees even if they are not the authors of the harassment and took proactive steps to prevent it. In 2012, France Telecom (now known as Orange) and its former CEO were placed under investigation over the company’s alleged role in moral harassment and a spate of worker suicides.

Canadian provinces such as Ontario have also imposed obligations on employers to protect workers from psychological harassment in the workplace. An employer must have a written workplace policy with respect to harassment and violence, and must provide a worker with information and instruction on the contents of the policy. An Ontario court awarded $1.46 million to a former Wal-Mart assistant manager in 2012 for mistreatment by a boss, the highest such award in Canadian history. A jury found that she suffered daily abuse from her manager, who berated her with profane and insulting language over six months, often in front of others.

With Australia’s introduction of the anti-bullying jurisdiction of the Fair Work Commission on Jan. 1, 2014, a worker in Australia who reasonably believes he or she has been bullied at work may apply to the Fair Work Commission and, if an investigation determines that workplace bullying has occurred, be entitled to a remedy.

Workers include individuals who perform work in any capacity, including as an employee, a contractor, a subcontractor, an outworker or an apprentice.

While the Fair Work Commission’s stop orders for bullying do not contemplate compensation, compensation may be awarded under common law. This happened in spring 2014 when the Supreme Court of Queensland found that an employer breached its duty of care to a former assistant manager and caused her injury, and awarded her just under $240,000. Here, having an anti-bullying policy was not enough.

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, J.D., is a senior regulatory and legal analyst at The Isosceles Group, based in Boston, Mass., and a founding fellow of the U.S. Academy on Workplace Bullying, Mobbing and Abuse. She is the author of Bullying, Violence, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress—Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Issues, a guide to laws and developments from around the world.

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