5 Ways Your Workplace Bully May Be Breaking The Law

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This reader faces a problem many employees encounter at work – the workplace bully. In this instance things are complicated by the small staff's distance from any HR assistance.

Hi Donna,
What action would you suggest staff take when the Executive Director of a tax funded nonprofit organization, which is overseen by a board, is abusive to staff? Staff does not have access to HR; they report to the ED who reports to the board. Some incidents have been "investigated" by one or two board members and the HR of the employer of a board member. Nothing has improved. Incidents have been the ED slapping the hand, kicking, and yelling at an employee to "go do your f****** job," commenting on how an employee is dressed, yelling at staff, "forgetting" they did or said something, not following policies and procedures consistently and speaking harshly as to show their superiority. We are at a loss as to what to do. We are not permitted to speak to any member of the board without the ED's consent. We are a small staff, under 15 employees. Suggestions would be most welcome.
Thank you.
Used and abused



Hi "Used and abused," It sounds like you're dealing with a bully, which is all too common these days. A career counselor or health care professional might view things differently, but I'll give my perspective as an employee-side employment lawyer.

I've written before about how workplace bullying is not illegal in any state. Although 23 states have tried to pass anti-bullying laws, none have succeeded. Eleven states currently have anti-bullying laws pending, but I'm not optimistic. Still, there's hope for the bullied. Bullies frequently cross the line into illegal behavior at work.

Here are five ways your workplace bully might be doing something illegal:
  1. Targeting the weak: Just like playground bullies, workplace bullies target the weakest employees, or those the bully perceives as weak. While that's not necessarily illegal, who does a bully consider weak? Disabled, pregnant and older employees are easy bullying targets because the bully knows you can't lose your job. If you're a caregiver for a disabled child, parent or spouse, you may be a target. Targeting these protected categories crosses the line into illegal discrimination.
  2. Targeting the different: Bullies hate people who are different from them. Who might be different to a bully at work? If you notice that you're being targeted along with others of the same race, sex, religion, national origin, or color, then the bully is engaging in illegal discrimination.
  3. Sudden change: If you weren't the bully's target and suddenly are, maybe something changed for you. Did you recently turn 50? Take Family and Medical Leave? Return from military service? Make a worker's compensation claim? Find out about a genetic condition? If so, the bully might be breaking discrimination, retaliation or other laws.
  4. Stalking: Your state may have anti-stalking laws that prohibit the bully's behavior. For instance, Florida's anti-stalking statute provides, "A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person commits the offense of stalking, a misdemeanor of the first degree." There are also specific cyberstalking laws in some states.
  5. Assault/battery: If your bully makes you fear you're about to be hit, that's assault. If they actually engage in offensive or harmful touching or hitting, they've engaged in battery. Both assault and battery are against the law in every state.
So, now that you've figured out that your workplace bully is breaking the law, what can you do? I'll be writing next Tuesday about some things you can do to protect yourself against your workplace bully.

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs. While I can't answer every question here, your question might be featured in one of my columns, or in our upcoming live video chat.
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