Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Anti-bullying policies are unnecessary

April's decision by the Indiana Supreme Court that upheld a $250,000 verdict in a so-called "workplace bullying" case is causing some employment lawyers to call for businesses to adopt anti-bullying policies. Please do not include me in that group.

From the Wall Street Journal's CareerJournal column:

Experts define workplace bullying as subtle, persistent and often nondiscriminatory harassment of co-workers. Unlike sexual or racial harassment, workplace bullying isn't necessarily illegal. But bullying can contribute to absenteeism and turnover and escalate into illegal behavior if left unchecked, experts say. ...

The Indiana decision came amid growing concern about workplace bullying. Garry Mathiason, a senior partner at Littler Mendelson, a leading employment-law firm, says more corporate clients are raising the issue, motivated by legal questions, as well as concerns about the impact on productivity. Littler Mendelson featured bullying among its "breaking trends" in labor law at a conference for U.S. employers this year.

Angela Cornell, an associate professor at Cornell Law School who specializes in employment law, says workplace bullying is common enough that employers should "nip it in the bud before it becomes a problem."

Graniterock, a Watsonville, Calif., construction-materials distributor, is trying to do just that. In June, Graniterock added nondiscriminatory bullying to its list of prohibited conduct in the workplace, which already included harassment based on gender, ethnicity and other protected statuses. ...

Some business groups and lawmakers say workplace bullying is too difficult to define, and a poorly worded law would expose businesses to unnecessary lawsuits.

Mr. Woolpert says Graniterock executives reworked their antibullying policy several times to clarify its message. The company now forbids "unnecessary and rude behavior intended to be offensive and cause emotional distress, including 'workplace bullying.' "

Let's take a step back and focus for a second on the most important sentence from that article: "Unlike sexual or racial harassment, workplace bullying isn't necessarily illegal." In fact, it's only illegal if its because of some protected class, such as sex, race, religion, national origin, age, or disability. All companies should have an anti-harassment policy that covers these types of illegal harassment. Why do companies need a policy that regulates conduct that is not illegal? Do we really need a policy that tells employees we want them to be nice? If such a policy existed, would it really have any effect whatsoever on the goons in the workplace. My whole problem with the anti-bullying movement is that I don't know how to train people to be nice.

I am against anything that gives this movement any credibility whatsoever. Implementing anti-bullying policies does just that. Bullying should be addressed just like any other performance problem, in a performance review. Otherwise, I stand by my earlier comments on this issue - the market corrects itself. Companies that foster bullies will have a revolving-door workforce, which will ultimately hurt productivity and the bottom line. So there is no confusion, I am not in favor of bullying. However, I'm also not in favor of legislation or policies that attempt to address it as a workplace evil.