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Workplace bullying is a big problem, but it is not always illegal

Bullying has been a hot topic in the media recently, not only with regard to children at school, but also as it pertains to adults in the workplace. Unfortunately, although workplace bullying can be extremely stressful and disruptive to those who are targeted, it is not always against the law. In other cases, however, bullying in the workplace it can rise to the level of illegal harassment or discrimination. In those cases, legal action may be an appropriate response.

What does workplace bullying look like?

As in the schoolyard, bullying at work can take many different forms and may be subtle or overt. In general terms, workplace bullying involves singling out a worker for verbal, physical, emotional or social mistreatment. Common examples include:

  • Frequent put-downs or degradation
  • Removal of responsibilities or assignment of menial tasks
  • Humiliation or verbal abuse, whether in private or in front of others
  • Constant criticism regardless of actual job performance
  • Exclusion or isolation from others in the workplace
  • Being set up for failure, for instance by withholding key information or making unreasonable demands

Workplace bullying is not limited to interactions between supervisors and their subordinates; it can also occur between coworkers, or in some cases even between employees and non-employees.

How big is the problem?

Estimates on the prevalence of workplace bullying vary widely, but most research suggests that the problem is far from uncommon. A survey cited by Forbes in a 2014 report on workplace bullying showed that a startling 96 percent of respondents had experienced bullying at work, while the USA Today reported that half of all workers say they are treated rudely at least once a week at work. Meanwhile, statistics referenced by the Workplace Bullying Institute indicate that about one in every three workers has experienced bullying on the job, and that about one-fifth of those cases cross the line into illegal harassment or discrimination.

When does bullying become illegal?

However cruel or unpleasant it may be, bullying in the workplace is not necessarily illegal. Determining whether bullying breaks the law depends on who is targeted and why. Both Florida law and federal statute provide protections for workers against being treated differently from on another based on certain protected characteristics, such as:

  • Sex
  • Race
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Disability status

When a worker is targeted because of these characteristics – whether or not the bullying specifically focuses on that characteristic – it may be illegal, and the targeted employee may a legal claim against the instigator as well as the employer or supervisor. If you have been targeted at work and have questions about your legal rights and options, contact the Law Office of William M. Julien, P.A., to discuss the details of your situation.