Alex Brandon, AP
WASHINGTON — Margaret Fiester is no shrinking violet, but she says working for her former boss was a nightmare.
"One day I didn't do something right and she actually laid her hands on me and got up in my face and started yelling, 'Why did you do that?'" said Fiester, who worked as a legal assistant for an attorney.
Fiester doesn't have to worry about those tirades anymore, but she hears lots of similar stories in her current role as operations manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, where she often fields questions about the growing issue of workplace bullying.
On-the-job bullying can take many forms, from a supervisor's verbal abuse and threats to cruel comments or relentless teasing by a co-worker. And it could become the next major battleground in employment law as a growing number of states consider legislation that would let workers sue for harassment that causes physical or emotional harm.
"I believe this is the new claim that employers will deal with. This will replace sexual harassment," said Sharon Parella, a management-side employment lawyer in New York. "People who oppose it say these laws will force people to be polite at work. But you can no longer go to work and act like a beast and get away with it."
Many companies already recognize workplace bullying as a problem that can sap morale, lead to increased employee turnover and even affect the bottom line. Half the employers in a 2011 survey by the management association reported incidents of bullying in their workplace, and about a fourth of human resource professionals themselves said they had been bullied.
At St. Anthony North Hospital outside of Denver, human resources director Robert Archibold says most of the bullying incidents he sees are peer-to-peer. In a recent case, one worker got offended by a co-worker's remark and suggested they "take it out to the parking lot." The offending worker was suspended under the hospital's anti-bullying policy, which has been in place for more than a decade.
"Hostile work environments, threats, bullying can come from anywhere," he said. "You can't tell by looking at someone who it will be."
One reason the issue has attracted more attention in recent years is that parents who deal with school bullying realize it can happen in the workplace, too.
Some employers have put into place anti-bullying policies, but advocacy groups want to go even further. They have been urging states to give legal rights to workers who do not already fit into a protected class based on race, gender or national origin.
More than a dozen states — including New York and Massachusetts — have considered anti-bullying laws in the past year that would allow litigants to pursue lost wages, benefits and medical expenses and compel employers to prevent an "abusive work environment."
Gary Namie, a social psychologist who co-founded the Bellingham, Wash.-based Workplace Bullying Institute in 1997, is among those leading the charge, along with labor unions and civil rights groups. He says the economic downturn has made bullying even worse and argues that passage of the laws would give employers more incentive to crack down on bad behavior in the workplace.
"People are trapped; they don't have the same alternative jobs to jump to," Namie said. "They are staying longer in these pressured, stress-filled, toxic work environments."
Business groups have strongly opposed the measures, arguing they would open the floodgates to frivolous lawsuits.
"We would look at a bill like this as overreaching," said Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said the bill would punish an employer for acts of its employees that it may not be able to anticipate.
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