Urge your state legislators to co-sponsor the Dignity At Work Act, SD1741 and HD2074, in Massachusetts

Why workplace bullying is a problem

Workplace bullying is a severe and pervasive phenomenon in the US involving a violation of the basic human right to dignity. Bullying tactics include false accusations, exclusion, withholding necessary resources, sabotage, verbal abuse, put-downs, and unreasonable demands — resulting in a host of stress-related symptoms including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicide ideation.

Simply put, workplace bullying is killing people. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in September 2015 revealed that bullied targets are "twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who were never bullied" — and it can happen to any of us. We abandon hope over time when bullies ruin our image. Abandonment by coworkers who don't want to become the next target can lead to loneliness and despair. This response from abuse that won't let up is part of the natural human stress response. Luckily, stopping it can lead to recovery and healing of the brain.


Here's who workplace bullying impacts:

  • Anywhere from 30-90% of US workers as either targets or bystanders. Targets suffer mental, emotional, and physical health harm. There's also a ripple effect on witnesses and families. But here's what's worse: targets of workplace bullying are often women, Black workers, Latinx workers, workers over 40, workers in the LGBTQ community, and workers with disabilities. When discrimination law moved from a focus on impact to intent in the 1980s, the law became much less effective in dismantling the social hierarchies at work that keep white men in the vast majority of power positions in the US workforce, according to University of Chicago researchers in a 2017 study. Right now, we simply don't have adequate protections from bias that manifests itself in abuse of power that prevents women, Black workers, Latinx workers, workers over 40, workers in the LGBTQ community, and workers with disabilities from getting ahead. This bill would give more protections to all workers, especially those who suffer from legal discrimination (the kind they can't prove).
  • Organizations. Workplace bullying costs employers billions of dollars annually in lower productivity and morale, increased absenteeism and turnover, training costs, and higher employee benefits costs. To avoid liability, higher-ups most often ignore complaints or retaliate, including pushing targets out of their jobs. Yet managers who get rid of bullies benefit financially. One study shows that “companies who focus on effective internal functioning and communication enjoy a 57 percent higher total return, are more than 4.5 times more likely to have highly engaged employees, and are 20 percent more likely to report reduced turnover when compared to competitors who demonstrate ineffective communication practices” (Civility Partners LLC, 2009).
  • Society. When employers ignore employee well-being internally and push targets out, they externalize health care and basic needs costs onto taxpayers. Abused targets who leave unhealthy work environments are frequently uninsured. When they get sick, they turn to ERs for care, where delivering primary care is not cost efficient. By the time they get there, their health has already deteriorated to a point where treatment expenses are far greater than earlier intervention would have been. This bill would incentivize employers to address employee well-being internally and not make it a public problem.

It's not a target problem. Research shows there's ZERO evidence to support targets brought on the abuse through weakness. In fact, evidence shows the opposite. Targets are often high performing, highly ethical employees whose competence poses a threat to their low performing, low ethical bosses. The bully's motivation is to keep the upper hand — an ego-driven control move that's about abuse of power. Bullies are often deceptive managers who trick others into thinking the target is the problem, setting the stage for mobbing.

Prevention is both less expensive and more effective than remediation. Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says US employers causing workplace stress may be responsible for "120,000 excess deaths per year," which would make workplaces "the fifth leading cause of death," and account for about "$180 billion in additional healthcare costs." About "half of the deaths and 1/3 of the excess costs could be prevented," meaning they resulted from not tending to well-being.

We have environmental regulations to limit environmental risks, but we don’t mention the human impact of abuse. We don’t leave environmental pollution to the discretion of CEOs. So why do we leave employee health up to CEOs — when CEOs too often lead in ways that serve neither the employees nor the public nor themselves when you include the hidden costs of turnover and absenteeism?

How the Dignity At Work Act (DAWA) will solve the problem

The DAWA will protect the inherent human right to dignity at work by prohibiting all forms of bullying in the US workplace. It provides a comprehensive definition of workplace bullying, assuring all workers are protected against infringement against their inherent dignity, and incentive for employers to prevent, detect, remedy, and eliminate workplace bullying before targets suffer irreparable harm. It assures all targets access to a legal remedy to make targets as whole as possible.

DAWA is rooted in these principles:

  1. Workplace abuse isn’t covered by existing law. Harassment isn’t illegal unless targets are members of a protected class (sex, race, age, etc.) under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and can prove the abuse is from their protected class membership. Employers know there’s a loophole in the law for not addressing bullying. The bill will fill that gap in the law.
  2. Other potential avenues for relief for targets of workplace bullying are ineffective. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress claims require targets to prove the bully’s intent and to show severe emotional distress, setting too high of a bar for relief. Workers comp laws often fail to address workplace bullying and psychological harm, and when they do, they provide inadequate relief. DAWA will provide targets a clear avenue to be made whole and to continue their careers.
  3. Employers often don’t enforce their own policies and retaliate against those who report bullying. The target leaving or getting fired is generally what stops the bullying. Because employers aren’t required to follow their own policies, a law requiring employers to create anti-bullying policies and training doesn’t protect targets. Tennessee passed a bill incentivizing workplace bullying policies, and California passed a training-only bill. Neither have proven effective. DAWA does not give employers immunity simply for having a policy. Instead, DAWA creates an incentive for employers to actually prevent, detect, remedy, and eliminate workplace bullying.
  4. Employers need incentive to change. We know over the history of workplace harassment that the business case is not enough to convince employers to adequately address workplace bullying. Instead, the penalties for failing to do so much be enough to provide incentive. An effective bill must require employers to adopt all necessary steps to eliminate workplace bullying — steps well-established in bullying literature. Failure to do so must expose employers to meaningful penalties. Established defenses have not been effective in preventing, detecting, remedying, and eliminating workplace bullying. An effective anti-bullying bill must avoid adopting immunity defenses.
  5. We can’t prove intent. We’ve learned from US and international jurisprudence that it’s often impossible for targets to prove the bully’s intent, but the bullying still has negative impacts. Intent (general or specific) must not be one of the required elements for a claim of workplace bullying. Bullying scholars and legal practitioners both understand the difficulty of proving intent. As a result, intent is generally not included in the research definition of bullying and should not be included in the law. DAWA does not require targets of bullying to prove their bully’s intent.
  6. Psychological and physical harm is only one aspect of damage. We’ve learned through US harassment jurisprudence that targets should not have to suffer psychological or physical harm before they have a cognizable claim. As the EEOC has recently reiterated, we want to stop harassing behaviors as soon as possible. An effective bill must establish a standard of harm that mirrors the EEO laws that the hostile environment or the bullying itself is enough of a harm to have a cognizable claim. Just as the EEOC and the judicial system have recognized that a hostile environment caused by harassment based on a protected status is harmful to workers, DAWA recognizes the hostile environment created by bullying is also a harm that should have a legal remedy.
  7. Legal action must be affordable to everyone. The majority of US workers are unable to afford access to the pay-to-play legal system. An effective anti-bullying bill must account for this lack of access and provide access to remedies via a governmental agency. A governmental agency with enforcement and oversight of an anti-bullying bill will be able to not only provide access to targets, but also provide regulations, enforcement guidance, and model policies for employers. Conflict resolution via a governmental agency will be more expeditious than litigation, prevent tying up already overburdened courts with additional litigation, and provide paths for mutually agreeable resolutions that will allow employers and employees to continue a productive working relationship. DAWA would assure targets several paths to remedies including access to a state agency with enforcement power and private litigation should they choose that route.

We as workers have an inherent human right to dignity. This bill will provide much-needed incentive for employers to prevent, detect, remedy, and eliminate workplace bullying before targets suffer irreparable harm, organizations decline, and society pays the price.

Targets deserve to be made whole after abuse.

Read the full bill.

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