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by Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D.
Should Workplace Bullying Be Illegal?
Resources for combating workplace bullying.
Published on March 10, 2011
I'm certainly not a lawyer, and I am not a recognized expert on
bullying, but I do know about leadership and best organizational
practices. As an I/O psychologist, I'm also aware of legal issues in
the workplace and how they impact the practice of organizational
psychology. So, it is often puzzling how legislation works, but it is
clear that the development of laws and regulations is often a
Take workplace bullying. It constitutes a form of harassment, but
bullying itself is not illegal. However, it is illegal to harass or
discriminate against someone who is in a protected group (i.e.,
harassment based on sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national
origin, or religion). The problem is that bullying behavior often
"flies under the radar screen" and often does not get defined as
Here are some differences between harassment and bullying. You will
see that the bully is often able to keep the bullying from rising up
to the harassment level - to keep from getting caught and punished.
• Harassment is often physical (e.g., unwanted touching, use of force)
while bullying is psychological and verbal (often not using cursing or
obscene language, which would then cross the threshold into
• Bullying targets anyone, so many victims are not members of
protected groups, or the bully and victim are from the same group.
• Harassment is often obvious and focused on the victim's group
membership. Bullying is typically more subtle and begins as mild
criticism and then escalates or persists.
Bullying results from the inadequacies of the bully. Typically,
bullies choose targets who threaten the bully's self-image, so targets
are often highly competent, accomplished, popular employees. This
actually makes it harder for the victim to get authorities to take
notice ("You are a successful worker, I don't see what the problem
There is some good news! To date, 20 states are exploring legislation
that would put bullying on the legal radar screen. Much of this
legislation is focused on creating healthier - both physically and
psychologically - workplaces. In the meantime, it is important to
educate people about workplace bullying and to fight back.
Here are some resources:
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