But Parella, the employment lawyer, thinks it’s only a matter of time before states begin passing these laws and bullying issues become a major factor in workplace litigation.
“Once it passes in a few states there will be a chain reaction,” she said, noting that other countries such as England, Ireland and Sweden already have laws addressing workplace harassment.
In Massachusetts, the National Association of Government Employees Local 282 has been one the first unions in the country to include an anti-bullying clause in collective bargaining agreements.
“From a labor perspective, we want there to be remedies in place for corrections to be made, not to yell, scream, threaten or treat the person basically like a slave,” said Greg Sorozan, president of NAGE, which represents about 12,000 public employees.
In 2008, Sorozan succeeded in placing “mutual respect” provisions in labor contracts with the state that say harassment, abusive language and bullying behavior will not be tolerated in the workplace. It allows workers to raise concerns with managers and file a grievance if not satisfied.
Sorozan said the provision recently helped workers in a state office who complained about a manager who acted bizarrely, leering at employees over cubicles and randomly punishing those who questioned him by reassigning them or refusing to let them take vacations. After the union complained, the manager was eventually forced out.
The management association survey found that 56 percent of companies have some kind of anti-bullying policy, usually contained in an employee handbook or code of conduct. Most said their response to bullying allegations depends on the circumstances but could include suspension, termination, reassignment or mandatory anger management training.
Employers say the vast majority of bullying incidents are verbal abuse, such as shouting, swearing and name-calling, along with malicious gossip, rumors and lies. Bullying through technology, such as Facebook or other social media, accounted for about 1 in 5 incidents, the survey found.
At St. Anthony North Hospital outside of Denver, human resources director Robert Archibold says most of the bullying incidents he sees are peer to peer. In a recent case, one worker got offended by a co-worker’s remark and suggested they “take it out to the parking lot.” The offending worker was suspended under the hospital’s anti-bullying policy, which has been in place more than a decade.
“Hostile work environments, threats, bullying can come from anywhere,” he said. “You can’t tell by looking at someone who it will be.”
If the bully is a senior manager or CEO, resolving a complaint can be tricky for a low-level human resources employee.
“It might be a little bit difficult to discipline the CEO,” said Fiester, the human resources adviser. “You are really walking a tightrope.”
She suggests approaching someone else in senior management who might be in a better position to approach the boss.