Legislation has been introduced in 13 states, including Washington, to allow employee lawsuits against employers for bullying or offensive behavior even when the conduct is not illegal harassment under discrimination laws. For an interesting article on these bills see "No Putting Up With Putdowns". No state has enacted one of these so-called workplace bullying laws. Employers for good reason are concerned with the “flood gates” being opened to employment lawsuits based on petty snubs or routine workplace disagreements.
Here in Washington, two workplace bullying bills have been introduced in the Washington Legislature. In the bills as they were originally introduced, the public policy of Washington would have been declared as follows:
Surveys and studies have documented that between sixteen 9 percent and twenty-one percent of employees directly experience health-endangering workplace bullying, abuse, and harassment, and that this behavior is four times more prevalent than sexual harassment alone;
Surveys and studies have documented that abusive work environments can have serious effects on targeted employees, including feelings of shame and humiliation, stress, loss of sleep, severe anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, reduced immunity to infection, stress-related gastrointestinal disorders, hypertension, and pathophysiologic changes that increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases;
Surveys and studies have documented that abusive work environments can have serious consequences for employers, including reduced employee productivity and morale, higher turnover and absenteeism rates, and significant increases in medical and workers’ compensation claim;
Unless mistreated employees have been subjected to abusive treatment at work for unlawful discriminatory reasons, they are unlikely to have legal recourse to redress such treatment;
Legal protection from abusive work environments should not be limited to behavior grounded in protected class status such as is provided under employment discrimination statutes; and
Existing workers’ compensation plans and common law tort actions are inadequate to discourage this behavior or provide adequate redress to employees who have been harmed by abusive work environments.
For these reasons, the legislature intends: (a) To provide legal redress for employees who have been harmed, psychologically, physically, or economically, by being deliberately subjected to abusive work environments; and (b) To provide legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to mistreatment of employees at work.
The bills introduced in Washington would have applied to all employers. However, a recent amendment would limit their application to state employees. The House Bill passed through a committee and has been referred to an appropriations committee for study. The legislation and bill reports can be found here and here. No doubt we will be hearing more about workplace bullying laws in the years to come.