Bullying in the workplace: a “hostile workplace”?

Bullying in the workplace: a “hostile workplace”?

Employees often complain about a verbally and sometimes physically aggressive co-worker. Workplace bullying can be pervasive and leave victims relatively helpless if management is unwilling to put a stop to it, and sometimes the screaming boss is the culprit. However, failing to put a stop to bullying and aggressive behavior in the workplace does not generally result in a claim against the employer unless it can be shown the bully is doing it with an illegal discriminatory motive. For example, it needs to be shown that part of the bully’s motivation to pick on the victim is because of a characteristic of the victim, and that characteristic is a “protected status” under federal or the applicable state’s law. Gender, disability, religion, and national origin are examples of “protected statuses”. Height and weight are also protected statuses under Michigan law.

Therefore, the term “hostile work environment” or “hostile workplace” are terms more appropriately used when the bully is also engaging in illegal discrimination. If the aggressor picks on just one or a handful of people it is more likely a personality conflict unless that handful of people all have a common characteristic that is a protected status. There may be a claim for “battery” against the co-worker (and possibly the employer) if there is physical contact, but often it is not worth getting into a lawsuit since the damages are so minimal. OSHA or MIOSHA, governmental agencies involved in workplace safety, might also take action since those agencies deal with workplace violence.

It is best to obtain witnesses to the bullying and immediately report these issues to management. Quitting is an option, but employers will try to use the fact that the employee resigned as a defense to an unemployment claim. Sometimes an employee can still get benefits if they can show the workplace was unsafe or otherwise intolerable.


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