Currently, Massachusetts employees generally only have remedies for a hostile work environment or negative job treatment if that treatment was caused by discrimination against a protected class, or if it resulted in bodily harm. That means that if you are insulted or verbally abused at work, unless you can relate it to your religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, or some other protected class—you just have to deal with it. OSHA states that the employer has a general duty to maintain a “healthful” work environment, but violating this would likely only result in a slap on the wrist.
However, there has been a surge in anti-bullying legislation in the United States in the wake of recent school tragedies. Now some states, including Massachusetts, are attempting to pass anti-bullying legislation for the workplace. The Massachusetts bill is currently undergoing review, but is only a few steps away from possible enactment by the legislature, after which it would only need to be signed by the governor to become law.
This bill would enable employees to sue their employer for failing to properly deal with other employees’ “abusive conduct.” Abusive conduct is described as that which a reasonable person would find hostile. The bill explains that verbal abuse, insults and epithets, and other bullying behavior could be considered hostile—especially if the conduct continues over a long period of time, or if it is particularly egregious.
Importantly, the employer is not liable for the bullying behavior of an employee if the employer either took reasonable steps to take care of the problem, or was not really informed about the problem in the first place. However, if the employer is liable, the employee might be able to sue for reinstatement, removal of the offending party, back pay, front pay, medical bills, emotional damages, attorney’s fees, and even punitive damages.
The takeaway here for employers is that legislatures are starting to take bullying concerns seriously. Studies show that many employees feel that they are bullied either by coworkers or by their employers at some point in their employment.
Since a psychologically healthy work environment is generally good for business anyway, employers are hopefully already encouraged to strictly enforce anti-bullying guidelines with the aid of an active human resources department. Even though this legislation has not yet passed, employers would be wise to contact an employment law attorney to ensure that there are no flaws in their current system of protecting their employees from abusive conduct.