Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bullying and at-will employment

David Yamada is a law professor and the director of the New Workplace Institute at Boston’s Suffolk University Law School. He is also the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill, draft model legislation that, if ever passed, would impose liability on employers for employees who are bullied in the workplace, regardless of any protected status.

Yesterday, on his blog (Minding the Workplace), Professor Yamada made the following argument in favor of generalized anti-bullying legislation:

In the U.S., the combination of at-will employment and the lack of protections against workplace bullying make for a brutal combo punch that often leaves mistreated workers legally powerless…. In America—in contrast to many other nations—at-will is the presumptive employment relationship. This leaves workers especially vulnerable when they are subjected to severe workplace bullying by a supervisor, enabled by the employer. Because most bullying falls outside the protections of current employment law, workers have scant legal recourse, and employers have little incentive (at least from a liability standpoint) to act preventively and responsively.

In other words, Professor Yamada argues that states need to pass the Healthy Workplace Bill because at-will employees can be fired for any (not otherwise unlawful) reason. This argument validates a point I made all the way back in May 2007: the passage of anti-bullying laws will destroy employment at-will.

To quote another point I made just last year:

Employers who turn a blind eye to bullying … are doing their businesses and their employees a disservice. But, the issue is not whether bullying impacts its victims. We can all agree that it does. The issue is whether we need legislation that has the probability of turning every petty slight and annoyance in the workplace into a lawsuit…. Indeterminate bullying … should be self-regulating, and not a tort that has the likelihood of obliterating at-will employment by hamstringing supervisors and managers from supervising and managing.

Businesses need to have the discretion to manage their workforces. Anti-bullying laws will eviscerate that discretion. Just because generalized bullying is not illegal does not mean that employers lack “incentive to act preventively and responsively,” as Professor Yamada argues. To the contrary, the marketplace creates the incentive to treat employees well. Bad bosses beget revolving-door workforces, doomed to failure. Good bosses create loyalty and retain good employees, which breeds success. Imposing liability merely for being subjected to a bad boss sets a dangerous precedent that will eliminate the “at will” from all employment relationships.