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Healthy Workplace Proposals Would Expand Definition of Prohibited Harassment

    Client Alerts
  • January 11, 2024

One of the most frequent questions we receive involves employees who claim that they have been subjected to a "hostile work environment." Under federal civil rights laws, the term hostile work environment has a specific meaning: employees who are harassed by a supervisor or co-worker due to their membership in a protected class such as race, gender, disability, etc.

Most of the complaints our clients receive, however, do not tie the alleged uncivil behavior to a protected class. Instead, the employee basically claims that someone at work is bullying or otherwise being mean to them or that they are sometimes being asked to perform work tasks against their better judgment. Outside of a few municipalities, no U.S. state provides a remedy for employees who believe that they have been subjected to uncivil behavior at work. Most states recognize an emotional infliction tort, but courts have only held employers liable in situations that involve egregious and typically criminal action.

Faced with the lack of a clear remedy for general meanness at work, a number of organizations have proposed introduction of new legislation at state legislatures that would create a civil cause of action for employees who believe that they have been exposed to abusive workplace environments. These anti-bullying or healthy workplace bills would allow employees to sue their employees for emotional distress damages.

To date, none of these measures have been enacted into law. Employers view these laws as an open invitation for lawsuits from disgruntled workers unhappy with their careers or progression at work, or those who engage in personal disputes with co-workers. State legislatures may hesitate converting ordinary disagreements or immature behavior among employees into grounds for monetary recovery. Plaintiffs’ attorneys could threaten lawsuits for the primary purpose of coercing settlements from companies that want to avoid the expense and disruption of even a successful defense of such claims.

While no employer should tolerate bullying or abusive behavior in the workplace, creation of a broad legal cause of action is likely to result in a cottage industry for lawyers. It would also force employers to attempt to regulate daily interactions between employees who may simply not be able to get along with one another.

For more information, please contact me or your regular Parker Poe contact. You can also subscribe to our latest alerts and insights here.