Workplace bullying has become generally acknowledged as a global issue, affecting all countries, professions, and workers. Although there is presently no law against workplace bullying in the United States, a business with offices and employers abroad would do well to take note of the growth of legislation prohibiting this conduct and imposing liability abroad.

A 2011 Monster Global Poll surveyed workers worldwide, asking “Have you ever been bullied at work?” The 16,517 responses received indicated the following:

64% answered that they had been bullied, either physically hurt, driven to tears, or had their work performance affected;

16% answered that they had seen it happen to others.

83% of European respondents reported that they had been physically or emotionally bullied; percentages were 65% in the Americas, and 55% in Asia.

Under workplace health and safety legislation, employers in most countries have a duty of care to provide a safe work environment for employees. This requirement is increasingly interpreted to require ensuring persons in the workplace are both mentally and physically safe at work and that their health is not adversely affected by work, and has been also interpreted to require a workplace free from bullying.

See also: Being mean doesn't constitute harassment

Different terms are used by different countries for the hostile behavior often referred to as bullying. Terms include moral harassment or harassment, psychological violence, and mobbing. Mobbing is a term of European origin corresponding to the terms workplace incivility or harassment. According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work no single definition of bullying/mobbing has been agreed upon internationally.

European countries which have enacted laws prohibiting workplace bullying (also known as mobbing or moral harassment) include Sweden and France, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Serbia. France Telecom (now known as Orange) and its former CEO was placed under investigation over the company’s alleged role in moral harassment and a spate of workers suicides in 2012.

Canadian provinces such as Ontario have imposed obligations on employers to protect workers from psychological harassment in the workplace. An employer must have a written workplace policy with respect to harassment and violence, and must provide a worker with information and instruction on the contents of the policy.

An Ontario court awarded $1.46-million to a former Walmart assistant manager in 2012 for mistreatment by a boss, the highest such award in Canadian history. The assistant manager filed suit after feeling forced out of the company, where she had worked for 10 years, claiming intentional infliction of mental suffering, sexual harassment and discrimination, and assault.

The jury found that she suffered daily abuse from her manager, who would berate her with profane and insulting language over six months, often in front of others. It gave her nothing for sexual harassment and discrimination but awarded the following: from Walmart, $200,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering, $1 million for punitive damages, and $10,000 for assault; and from her former supervisor, $100,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering, and $150,000 for punitive damages.

With Australia’s introduction of the anti-bullying jurisdiction of the Fair Work Commission on January 1, 2014, a worker in Australia who reasonably believes he/she has been bullied at work may apply to the Fair Work Commission and, if an investigation determines that workplace bullying has occurred, have a remedy. Worker includes an individual who performs work in any capacity, including as an employee, a contractor, a subcontractor, an outworker, and an apprentice.

While the Fair Work Commission's stop orders for bullying do not contemplate compensation, compensation may be awarded for personal injury, breach of contract and breach of statutory duty at common law. This happened in spring 2014 when the Supreme Court of Queensland found that an employer breached its duty of care to a former assistant manager and caused her injury, and awarded her just under $240,000. Here, having an anti bullying policy was not enough. 

Want to know more?

"Bullying, Violence, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress - Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Issues" provides a global overview of laws and developments in over 50 countries in Europe, the Asia Pacific Region, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa, and the US. Available on Amazon.

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, J.D., a senior regulatory and legal analyst at The Isosceles Group in Boston, Mass. has a background in employment discrimination and has spent the past few years focusing on psychosocial workplace issues.

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