Mark Law Firm Blog

Does New Jersey need a law against bullying in the workplace?

Posted by Jamison Mark on May 9, 2014 10:09:00 AM
New Jersey Attorneys

Workplace bullying -- aggression that isn’t based on the victim’s race, gender or other protected status -- is four times more common than sexual or racial harassment, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, a research and advocacy organization. The group is leading a national campaign to get all 50 states to enact an anti-bullying law called the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Moreover, a professor at the New Workplace Institute at Boston’s Suffolk University Law School says that workplace bullying affects between a third and 60 percent of American workers at some point in their career. Some people are bullied so severely at work that it demonstrably affects their health. But because of the structure of state and federal employment law, employers are not legally required to do anything to stop workplace bullying.

This is because New Jersey and other U.S. jurisdictions consider employment relationships to be “at will,” meaning that either the employee or the employer can terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason -- even an unfair or irrational reason.

That is, unless the employee is protected by a specific law that specifically prohibits the employer from basing employment decisions on a certain attribute or action. In other words, unless there is a law specifically prohibiting discrimination, harassment or retaliation in the situation, employers are free to make whatever employment decisions they like.

Basing employment decisions on race, ethnicity, sex, religion, pregnancy, veteran status and some similar factors is illegal. Retaliation for blowing the whistle on illegal workplace behavior, for making a workers’ compensation claim, or taking family or medical leave is illegal. Non-specific bullying is not.

Ideally, supervisors or even co-workers would intervene, but research by the Workplace Bullying Institute shows that co-workers get involved less than 1 percent of the time -- and employers are often reluctant to get involved in what seem to be interpersonal disputes between employees. And, since they’re not required by law to do so, many employers simply won’t.

Wise employers realize that bullying is disruptive and negatively impacts employee morale across the board, which affects the company’s bottom line. To prevent that, they should track complaints of aggression by workers as they do complaints of discrimination and harassment. Then, they should act on the information when a pattern appears.

With no requiring them to do so, however, companies may decide that tracking workplace bullying is not worth the paperwork.

Source: MainStreet, "This Workplace Offense is More Common than Sexual Harassment," Susan Kreimer, Aug. 7, 2013

Topics: Employment Law