September 18th, 2012

Healthy Workplace bill before Massachusetts legislature takes aim at bullying at work, supporters say

Boston Business Journal

Massachusetts workers will be able to take legal action against a bullying co-worker or boss, if supporters of the proposed Healthy Workplace bill get their way.

The legislation’s goal is to provide legal relief for employees who have been hurt psychologically, physically or financially because they’ve been subjected to an abusive work environment. The proposed legislation is meant to be an incentive for employers to prevent and deal with workplace bullying.

Supporters of the bill say workers who are not part of a protected class need legal protection from workplace bullying, which they say has been on the upswing in the struggling economy.

The bill also has plenty of detractors, who say that it’s the job of an employer’s human resources department to put a stop to workplace bullying – not the courts. Further, they say regulation around the issue could mean that workplace staples such as performance critiques become hot-button issues, that could lead to a deluge of frivolous lawsuits.

About 35 percent of U.S. workers say they’ve felt bullied at the office, up from 27 percent last year, according to the report from Chicago-based CareerBuilder.

“We’re getting indications that (the bill) is being taken more seriously,” said David Yamada, a professor of labor and employment law at Suffolk University Law School and director of the New Workplace Institute at the school.

Yamada has championed the Healthy Workplace bill for the past decade. He says that because of the push for the legislation in Massachusetts and 12 other states, employment lawyers have started to counsel clients about the need to create anti-bullying policies in the workplace. He said the bill was supported by two legislative committees but wasn’t taken up for a floor vote before the Legislature’s July 31 adjournment.

“Our goal is to get a lot more supporters in the House and the Senate,” Yamada said. “It’s a matter of building credibility for our cause within Beacon Hill so that the legislature knows it’s a problem.”

Timothy Van Dyck, an employment lawyer with Boston-based Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP, says that while he does advise clients to include anti-bullying language in their code of
conduct policies, he doesn’t agree with the proposed legislation.

“It’s going to lead to the opening of the floodgates with respect to litigation,” Van Dyck said. “Any company worth its salt wants to take steps to make sure its employees are treated with fairness and respect. (But bullying) is not the type of conduct that should be taken to the courts. … My concern is that if the bullying legislation is passed, it’s going to inhibit an employer from offering constructive criticism.”

The legislation was first introduced in the 2009-2010 legislative session. The bill’s supporters are preparing to submit it for the January session, the third time the bill has been submitted.

Officials at Associated Industries of Massachusetts say that the Healthy Workplace bill – if passed – will not be good for business because it will add another layer of regulation that companies need to worry about.

“AIM believes that this type of issue” is something companies should deal with internally, said Bradley MacDougall, vice president for government affairs at AIM.

Kip Hollister, founder and CEO of Boston recruiting firm Hollister Inc., says that she’s a supporter of the proposed legislation – with a caveat.

“We do not want to give this bill the (power) where it will allow an employee to not be accountable,” Hollister said. “That is my biggest concern. But what I do think it allows for, is for those leaders who are very negative in how they lead and how they manage their staff… it’s a wakeup call.”

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