Many people contact me after having been fired for complaining about their hostile work environment. They write a long email to HR or their boss explaining, in excruciating detail, all the ways their boss or a colleague is harassing them at work. They are shocked when they are fired for complaining. The sad truth is that there is no law against general harassment, bullying or hostile work environment, and thus no law protecting you against retaliation if you report it.
There is only one state in the union, Tennessee, that has passed a law against workplace bullying, and that only applies to government employees. Twenty-nine states and two territories have attempted to pass the Healthy Workplace Bill, but only one has succeeded.
So how do you complain about your hostile work environment in a way that is legally protected against retaliation? Workplace bullies are like playground bullies: they tend to pick on the weak and the different. Many times, they choose you because of a legally protected category. When you report them, make sure you identify the hostile environment in a way that protects you against retaliation. Report it in writing so HR can't deny you took legally protected action. Here are some examples:
- Discrimination because you're different: Discrimination against you because the bully doesn't like you isn't illegal. But discrimination because of race, age, sex, religion, sexual orientation or national origin is illegal. If you realize that the bully is targeting only people of a certain race, as an example, call your complaint a Formal Complaint of Racial Harassment and give details about how those of a different race are being treated better, and how people of your race are being singled out for negative comments or bad treatment.
- Discrimination because you're weak: Maybe you're being targeted because of a disability, age, having taken Family and Medical Leave, association with a person with a disability or making a worker's compensation claim. If so, call your complaint, for example, Formal Complaint of FMLA retaliation and detail how things changed for you after you went on FMLA leave.
- Retaliation for protected activity: You could be targeted because you blew the whistle on illegal company activity, trying to form a union or because of something your state law protects (examples that may be true in your state are jury service, voting or political activity and legal outside activities). If you're fired for whistleblowing, call your complaint Formal Complaint of Whistleblower Retaliation.
- Safety in numbers: If the bully isn't targeting you for any illegal reason, then there's one other possible way to report them in a protected way, and that's to report them along with or on behalf of coworkers. If you aren't a supervisor and work in the private sector, then you are likely protected by the National Labor Relations Act if you are fired for collaborating with coworkers to try to change your workplace. You might want to prepare a letter detailing the bully's behavior and how it is disrupting the workplace and having a negative impact on morale and employee retention. Have your coworkers sign it. Present it to HR or someone in management, and maybe have another coworker with you for moral support. If you're fired for working with coworkers to improve working conditions, you are (probably) legally protected against retaliation.
But let me ask this: why the heck are our legislators so resistant to protecting employees against workplace bullying? If your constituents think hostile work environment is illegal, why not make it so? We've made school bullying illegal. We now have a generation entering the workplace that has no survival skills against workplace bullying. They've been taught that bullying won't be tolerated. They're going to be helpless in the brutal reality of the American workplace.
Workplace bullying is a waste of corporate resources. It takes time away from actual productive work. It makes good employees want to leave. It can cause increased absenteeism, use of sick time and even worker's compensation claims. Science now tells us that workplace bullying cause dangerous levels of stress, which can cause weight gain and illness. A recent study at Harvard Business School found that toxic workers can cost companies an average of $12,489 in employee turnover, not including potential costs like litigation, regulatory penalty, and reduced employee morale.
If you think hostile work environment, harassment or workplace bullying should be illegal, tell your legislators. Only when working people stand up for themselves will your lawmakers listen.
If you need legal advice about your workplace, contact an employee-side employment lawyer in your state. For more information about employment law issues, check out Donna Ballman's award-winning employee-side employment law blog, Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home and her employment law articles at AOL Jobs.