June 20th, 2014
Wall Street Journal: First State Workplace Bullying Law Has Few Fans
By Adam Rubenfire – The Wall Street Journal – June 20, 2014
Last month, after a decade of stalled progress in 26 states, advocates of workplace bullying legislation scored their first victory. But they’re not entirely pleased.
Tennessee approved the Healthy Workplace Act on May 22, a law designed to curb verbal abuse at work by making public-sector employers immune to bullying-related lawsuits if they adopt a policy that complies with the law.
Though federal laws outlaw workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and other protected statuses, advocates like Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, are lobbying for laws that recognize the verbal abuse of coworkers regardless of whether they fall under a protected class.
Dr. Namie, a social psychologist, said the Tennessee law doesn’t go far enough. The bill his staff drafted for the legislature would have allowed both public and private employers to be held liable in civil lawsuits regarding incidents of alleged workplace bullying if they failed to enforce policies that recognize and protect workers who claim physical or mental harm as a result of bullying.
However, the signed law applies only to public-sector employers, and administrators aren’t required to follow guidelines that the law ordered a state commission to draft by March 2015. Instead, they’re incentivized to do so in exchange for immunity from potential lawsuits.
Under the new law, individual employees may still be held personally liable for abusive conduct.
“I think it’s a misinterpretation of our bill in its full context,” Dr. Namie said of the Tennessee legislation, arguing that employers won’t be convinced to faithfully enforce policies if they’re not under threat of litigation.
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis), who introduced the bill in the state House, said it is a step in the right direction.
“While we would love for the private sector to adopt this policy, we needed a place to get it in the code first,” Parkinson said. “We needed to get something on the books that we could build upon.”
Across the country, Dr. Namie said, pro-business lobbyists have fought to make private employers exempt from similar bills.
Bradley Jackson, vice president for government relations and community affairs at the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said his organization is concerned about any bill that creates a new cause of legal action against employers. In its original form, the Healthy Workplace Act was unnecessary, Jackson said, because many businesses already have anti-bullying policies in place.
Craig Cowart, a labor attorney at Atlanta-based Fisher & Phillips LLP who has been tracking the legislation in Tennessee, said actions taken by state legislators suggest that many feel there are sufficient laws in place that protect employees. He said he helps his corporate clients understand the concept of workplace bullying, but he doesn’t think regulation is necessary.
“I would encourage employers to have policies, but I think it can be handled by the employers themselves,” Cowart said.
The Workplace Bullying Institute has been able to get its bill introduced in 26 states and two territories—Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands—but has had little success so far, according to a map on its website. On Monday, the governor of Puerto Rico vetoed a workplace bullying bill that was passed by both chambers of legislature there.
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