Know the Law: Don't ignore a bully in the workplace
Q: I am a human resources manager for a New Hampshire company. I received an anonymous note last week from an employee stating that one of our managers has been bullying his staff and threatening to give people poor evaluations if they complain to anyone in HR. I do not know who made the complaint, but I have a suspicion about the identity of the "bully."
A. The term "bullying" is an emotionally charged one, reminiscent of the schoolyard bully who waited at the bus stop to terrorize younger and smaller children by stealing their milk money. The issue has garnered a lot of publicity recently, probably because the statistics show that large numbers of workers believe they have been "targets" and because the perception is that the response on the part of businesses has been inadequate.
When allegations arise, the company must investigate and respond. Since you have a suspicion about who the alleged bully might be, you can start by interviewing employees in that department. As a practice, you should define, identify and respond to any persistent behavior in which one person in the workplace provokes, pressures, frightens, intimidates or otherwise discomforts another person.
Some bullying behavior may be obvious: yelling, swearing, childish pranks and jokes at the expense of the target. Some is harder to identify: giving false information about employees or subordinates, scapegoating, threatening to give poor evaluations, stealing credit, giving arbitrary or misleading instructions, withholding important information.
All bullying behavior warrants an immediate response to maintain credibility and to minimize the risk of low morale, high turnover, difficulty recruiting and retaining talented staff and, of course, litigation.
Although New Hampshire does not currently have specific anti-bullying legislation, employers can still get into legal trouble by ignoring the signs. Courts will find ways to punish outrageous behavior. Legal action can be brought on theories of discrimination, negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress or defamation. Physical bullying could lead to claims of false imprisonment or assault and battery.
Companies are well-advised to be proactive about managing bullying in the workplace. Include a discussion about harassment, bullying and inappropriate behavior in all workplace trainings. Make sure your policies address not only illegal harassment but all harassment. Encourage workers to come forward to report offending behavior, and deal with the offenders before the problems escalate and become a serious liability for your company.
Charla Stevens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @charlastevens.
Know the Law is a bi-weekly column sponsored by The McLane Law Firm.
We invite your questions of business law. Questions and ideas for future columns should be addressed to: Know the Law, The McLane Law Firm, P.O. Box 888, Manchester, NH 03101 or emailed to email@example.com. Know the Law provides general legal information, not legal advice. We recommend that you consult a lawyer for guidance specific to your particular situation.