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Is Workplace Intimidation or Bullying Considered Harassment?

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Workplace intimidation or bullying is dangerous and creates emotional, financial, and physical harm to those who are targeted, affects overall morale, and is often financially burdensome for employers. Forbes estimates that up to 75 percent of workers in the United States have been affected by bullying during their careers. A CareerBuilder study found that approximately 20 percent of the workforce resigned from jobs due to workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying consists of verbal abuse, violence, physical threats, extortion, and pervasive rumors directed at an employee to manipulate or gain professional benefits. Considered a form of harassment in New Jersey, supervisors, coworkers, or subordinates cannot use this type of abusive behavior.

How Does Bullying Affect Employees?

Intimidation or bullying in the workplace can have severe consequences that affect employees’ work performance, health, and general mental wellbeing. Employees facing intimidation or bullying at work may suffer from extreme stress, insomnia, anxiety, severe stress, depression, low self-esteem, and high blood pressure, which become increasingly worse as the abuse continues.

It is also common for the aggressor to initiate and spread rumors. In some environments, this behavior can draw in other coworkers who cause additional harm by spreading the words and lowering overall employee morale. Those who do not participate and may want to help the targeted coworker often do nothing for fear of retaliation.

To further complicate matters, employees enduring bullying at work are often at risk of losing their job due to their lack of productivity or inability to perform their duties due to side effects. In addition to the loss of income, if the employee is terminated, they will likely have difficulty acquiring a new job. This can have catastrophic consequences for those subjected to workplace intimidation or bullying.

What Are Examples of Workplace Intimidation or Bullying?

Workplace intimidation has many forms and varies depending on the type of business and the workplace environment. The Workplace Bullying Institute identifies bullying as abusive behavior that threatens or intimidates another person, verbal abuse, and prevents or interferes with the person’s ability to complete their work. Intimidation or bullying may also include:

  • Threats or acts of physical violence and harm.
  • Screaming, yelling, and hostile posturing.
  • Demeaning, ridiculing, or insulting a coworker in front of others, including clients.
  • Requiring duties the employee has no experience with or cannot perform.
  • Sabotaging, taking credit, or interfering in another’s work.
  • Singling out and forcing different standards on the target employee than others or purposely excluding them from projects and meetings.
  • Falsely accusing an employee of making mistakes at work.
  • Sending cruel, belittling, or threatening emails.
  • Harassment for personal appearance, race, sex, religion, and other characteristics.

Workplace intimidation is typically a pattern of behavior, not a one-time incident, and usually escalates over time, causing significant physical and mental stress for the target. One of the most critical concerns employees often have is whether legal action can be taken against the aggressor.

There are few laws and regulations protecting employees from workplace bullying, mainly because the term is broadly used and encompasses many different forms of abusive behaviors. In addition, the courts consider the entirety of the harassment, which must meet the standard of being so severe or pervasive that reasonable people would conclude that the workplace environment is hostile and affects the conditions of employment.

Are Any Forms of Bullying or Intimidation Illegal?

There are a few instances where bullying or intimidation in the workplace is illegal.

Physical Assault

Physically assaulting someone is a crime. If the workplace intimidator causes bodily harm to another, such as hitting, kicking, or knocking the person down, the target may be able to press charges for the assault, and the police should be notified. Menacing and inflicting bodily harm are criminal offenses.

Sexual Harassment

The most common and well-known workplace intimidation is sexual harassment, illegal under both state and federal law. Sexual harassment is generally not a one-time incident and usually escalates each time, mainly if the employee is not reporting the behavior.

Ongoing, frequent, or severe sexual harassment can result in discrimination charges. All employees have rights against sexual harassment, and such occurrences should be reported.

Whistleblowers

Federal and state laws protect whistleblowers against employer retaliation for reporting situations, such as illegal conduct, unlawful intimidation, or safety hazards.

Discrimination

Employers are afforded protection from discrimination for specific classes under federal and state laws. Protected classes include:

  • Race
  • Sex
  • Color
  • Ancestry
  • Age
  • Mental, physical, or perceived disability
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Pregnancy status
  • AIDS and HIV status

New Jersey law includes further protections related to gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, and military service under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

Employers who base employment decisions on protected characteristics or knowingly permit employees to be hostile are subject to discrimination charges. A work environment that threatens or intimidates employees and interferes with their ability to work through abusive behavior is considered hostile.

Should the employer ignore the discrimination, not attempt to resolve the problem, or retaliate, the employee should consult a lawyer. If the employer has anti-bullying policies in place, there may be grounds to file a lawsuit against the employer for breach of contract.

What Are the Employer’s Responsibilities Regarding Intimidation?

The U.S. Department of Labor encourages employers to establish anti-bullying policies to provide a positive, respectful, and safe work environment. Generally, employers often have policies regarding discrimination in the workplace that may require internal reporting first. This allows the employer to try and rectify any violations before the employee reports to governing agencies.

Employers should be proactive in preventing, discouraging, and addressing intimidation and bullying in the workplace, including policies and employee education on the types of bullying. There should be clearly defined steps the company will take with offenders in the employee handbook. Employers should also inform staff of the laws about specific types of bullying and the potential consequences.

If you are experiencing harassment or bullying at work, report it to Human Resources (HR) and your supervisor. You should try to maintain communication with the aggressor through email to establish a written record. Additionally, keep a written record documenting each incident, as it can be beneficial should you need to go to court.

Cherry Hill Employment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Fight for Clients Who Have Experienced Illegal Harassment

Workplace intimidation or bullying is dangerous and destructive and results in physical, mental, and financial distress in those targeted. Hostile work environments affect the morale of all employees and can be costly to employers. Our experienced Cherry Hill employment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. can help. Call us at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, we serve clients in South Jersey, including Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Marlton, Moorestown, and Mount Laurel.

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