Friday, March 11, 2011

Should Workplace Bullying Be Illegal?

Cutting-Edge Leadership 

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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 
haphazard process. 

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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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D.

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology and former Director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College. Professor Riggio is the author of over 100 books, book chapters, and research articles in the areas of leadership, assessment centers, organizational psychology and social psychology. His most recent books are The Art of Followership and The Practice of Leadership(Jossey-Bass, 2008, 2007), Applications of Nonverbal Behavior (co-edited with Robert S. Feldman; Erlbaum, 2005), and Transformational Leadership (2nd ed.), coauthored with Bernard M. Bass (Erlbaum, 2006). Professor Riggio is an Associate Editor of The Leadership Quarterly, and is on the Editorial Boards of Leadership,Leadership Review, Group Dynamics, and the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, and he was the originator of the Shoptalk column at the Los Angeles Times, a Q&A column dealing with workplace problems/issues.

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